Going to ground: navigating a way out of climate grief and finding hopefulness

Apr 5, 2024 | Natural Selections by Don Pinnock

As scientists and politicians argued and bargained about the future of Earth’s life-support systems at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, Don Pinnock went to ground to mourn what is being lost. In a quiet cottage, he found a path back to hope.

I’ve come to this cottage on the mountainside to try to deal with the grief I feel over the damage we’re inflicting on Earth’s living systems. These are such difficult times and there’s a strong probability that climate conditions may become even worse.

We environmental journalists are a bit like the canaries that used to be taken down mines to warn of carbon monoxide gas. When they dropped off their perches, the miners had to leave the shaft as quickly as possible. I have dropped off mine.

To change the metaphor, the climate ship seems too big to turn, the captain’s half asleep and we have to come to terms with our awareness of impending collision. It’s a problem that’s both planetary and personal. So I’m pausing to take a deep breath. I want to see if wilderness remembers me, and maybe find some solace and some answers.

There’s great silence here. The swallows are flying low, which means it may rain. But, for now, it’s hot and the birds are quiet – though, from time to time, the baboons in the cliffs are not. I’m here to find some kind of personal equilibrium because I have a sense that, as a species, we are losing it.

We are fortunate that gravity exactly counters centrifugal force on our spinning planet, creating space for life to flourish as it has for millions of years. Asking why is unanswerable, it simply is – an ancient stability with which we cannot tamper. But there are other balances we can tip – and are – because life is a new experiment in the universe that’s still very fragile.

As I sit here watching clouds disassemble and reassemble and leaves ripple in the breeze, I cannot feel anger at my species for the damage we’re doing. Oddly, what I feel is compassion. With our instinctive will to survive, we seem to have failed to understand the dangerous path down which our actions are leading us. It could kill us all and much else besides.

Our brains, inherited from aeons of improvement to ensure that natural selection favours us, are also justifying our cruelty to each other and all of life. There are many who see, but many more who do not seem to care.

COP26 notwithstanding, we appear incapable of collectively realising that to survive we have to act together as and with all species. Life is a connected fabric; to tear it is to suffer equally. Whether we like it or not, we humans are all implicated in the troubled state of the Earth through the harm in what we choose to consume. Recalibration is urgent. But how?

Sitting in a comfortable chair on the stoep of a cottage with a notebook, a pen and a pair of binoculars is a good place to begin. Time alone with no cellphone, email, doorbell or distractions is a treasure not hard to attain but so seldom taken, seen as itself a distraction from life’s pressing demands. It should not be. It can offer insights we urgently require. I certainly need them.

I’m listening to the music of Ludovico Einaudi, tears streaming down my cheeks at its beauty. In his garden of sound, my grief is slowly being transmuted into compassion for myself. Music is so healing. What is it that we, dolphins, whales and birds love about it? Surely if we seek grace in the world, it is there?

Music invites us to move in a way that makes dance inevitable. It’s what we can do to find out where we are in space and time. It is how we can learn to love our physical selves again. Here, I can dance alone, uninhibited, releasing the constrictions and knots that have accumulated.

Before dawn the next morning, I lace on my boots to climb the Paardeberg. From the peak, I watch the sun illuminate the valleys below that are filled with mist and remember a quixotic comment by the Tibetan monk Chögyam Trungpa. He said that when you can join your sadness with the sight of the rising sun, then you can make a proper cup of tea. Back at the hut I don’t test the tea, but a cup of steaming home-ground coffee has never tasted better.

So as scientists and politicians met to work out how to deal with the unfolding tragedy of our runaway experiment in climate modification, what guidelines did I find in my personal Glasgow in this quiet, beautiful place? Really very simple things:

What we choose to do matters in a much wider frame than we imagine. The personal is political; we need to know that and use it. It’s a lesson we can learn from Greta Thunberg. She realised that the pain and the grief of the world was indistinguishable from her own – and look what happened next. We need to learn to live in the world as we find it and change what we can – but with more humour and less stress.

I remember some advice given to Carlos Castaneda in a 1960s book The Teachings of Don Juan: “Do everything as if it were the only thing in the world that matters, while all the time knowing that it doesn’t matter at all.”

It’s a bit like a Zen kōan where the only solution to the paradox is laughter. But having that attitude leads to more appreciation and less burnout. Treat missteps not with frustration, but with amusement. It helps to keep our minds and hearts open and reduces stress. Nobody’s perfect.

In the task of engaging with this complex world, ego is not our best friend. It’s not necessary to be the performing monkey; who we are is sufficient. Be quiet, be inquisitive, be your true self. Watch life unfolding with gentleness. Use only that which, in using, you seldom need to discard. Be thoughtful of the cost to the planet of every object in your hand. If you’re mindful, you can be change. Stay mindful! Breathe in fear and anger (and the world’s), then breathe out boundless emptiness into which it dissolves. Don’t be embarrassed to be kind.

Life is an incredible adventure. Live it with care and compassion for all the forms in which you encounter it. It’s really the only path we can take to a better, more balanced world. “Make of yourself a light,” the Buddha said just before he died. Lead by example.

And when we see actions that endanger our planet’s precious life systems, call it out. Always, every time.

But we must make space to heal and recalibrate. It’s critically important. And dance, alone, without inhibition. Often.

As I drove out of the valley, I realised that four days had returned to me what had been lost – hopefulness. Maybe it was the mountains, the cottage, the music or the silence. But whatever was being decided or delivered in Glasgow, we’re a resourceful, adaptive species. We can make it through.

We just have to wake up from the dream that climate change and biodiversity decline is somebody else’s problem in which we have no agency. It isn’t and we do.