Climate justice, community grief and power building

Photo by William Gibson on Unsplash

As November 2022 neared, it felt like a ghost was stalking the streets of Glasgow. One year before, tens of thousands of people arrived in suits as part of the COP26, the UN climate apparatus, which ultimately decides who lives and who dies. 

2022 was a year of broken climate promises and devastating extreme weather. At the same time, focus had shifted from climate action to the soaring economic injustice. Communities were at threat, angry and exhausted. And the climate movement remained burned out and depleted.

For the anniversary of the COP26, it was clear we needed to meet in a way that recognised where we are and that provided a balm for the movement. With community groups and activists, including GalGael and Lindsey McGhie from Kinning Park Complex, we imagined how we could create an accessible collective grief space for those who needed it the most. 

This would be a lament for climate justice. A lament is an active vigil, a mourning of our losses. A place where we could lay down our battle axes and create a space for sharing and healing, rooted in the communities most feeling the impacts of the various crises.

On Sunday 30th October we gathered in Glasgow Green. In lashing November rain, 40 people from housing associations, migrant justice groups and climate activists gathered around a fire. Here we created a container to hold each other’s stories of struggles and sorrow.

Stories were shared from racist police attacks, suicide of young men in schemes, dictatorships in Sudan to climate anxiety. Our struggles were witnessed and held by a group of strangers, who are all part of a movement fighting for justice. Storyteller and grief holder Tawona Sithole held the sharing circle, weaving fables and music throughout. We then collectively burned our sorrows in a fire and tied ribbons of hope and resistance to the railings. To end, we piled into a space in the Barras where we connected and laughed together over food and music.

You can watch the 5 minute film of the lament here:

As organisers and activists, our work is carried out against a backdrop of community grief. For those that aren’t sold on why the vulnerability of grief is important to the movement: “The process of being seen, understood, and accepted by an attuned, empathic other engenders a sense of genuine self-acceptance, a feeling that we are profoundly okay”, writes psychotherapist Linda Graham in Bouncing Back. This extends to all that fall under the cloak of inequality, isolation, oppression, stress and other material and societal crises – that often tell us that we are not OK. This day of openly listening to each other’s pains provided a clear foundation for holding and healing in our movement. It felt like a vital missing component of our work and our resistance.

Loss and collective grief

We live in an era of loss. The violence of capitalism defines this era. Capitalism takes ancient forests and blows up mountains, steals cultures and gods and gives back individualism, iphones and isolation.

This era of loss spans back centuries: from colonialism and the culling of communities and ancient ways of life to the obliteration of the natural world across the globe.

Glasgow itself is a city built on communities displaced from their own lands, from the highlands to Ireland to Pakistan. A city of football and fallen industry, slums and resistance. And one where today’s rising cost of living and poverty and exhausted community workers is not a new tale.

Intergenerational trauma ripples through our streets, from the impacts of white supremacy – passed from grandmother to mother to grandchild (which Resmaa Menakem talks so eloquently about in My Grandmother’s Hands). Fathers unconsciously show sons the ways of toxic masculinity and working class bodies are told for generations that they cannot express emotions or vulnerability. 

Brunswick St Mural for COP26


I worked as Mobilisation Officer for the COP26 Coalition. Organising resistance against the UN’s climate apparatus saw disorientation, anxiety and grief on a scale I’ve not seen before. This included navigating some of the world’s most racist border systems (the UK’s) meaning people facing climate impacts today were denied the chance to get near the decision-makers; a housing crisis and the covid apartheid; all in a city with the highest poverty rates in Scotland where communities will see devastating climate impacts. Read Quan Nguyen’s (Scottish COP26 Coalition Coordinator) article here, which talks more deeply about the challenges of organising during the COP26 and what the lessons learned were.

Climate anxiety is growing, though I would argue it is not a new thing. Communities on the frontlines around the world have felt this for decades, from pacific islanders who have felt the wild winds of increasingly powerful storms; to communities who have watched their forests be ripped out by corporations; to communities riddled with cancer due to fossil fuel and chemical infrastructure planted around them – all of which are inevitably poorer communities and often communities of colour. And climate anxiety is spreading, like wildfire, across peoples who are currently cushioned from impacts but know of the terror coming due to climate breakdown.

For me, one year on from the COP26, my mind and body still felt totally broken. The residual burnout was real but so was the huge pain of the loss and defeat. Instability and threats are soaring but our resistance takes place within movements that provide no space for the huge amounts of pain to be seen or held, without shame or fear. The lack of space to be held and grieve all we love and fight for has huge implications on communities, organisers and activists, on both an individual and collective psyche level.

Activism by its nature looks to fight lack and loss. Loss of safety and an emancipated life. Lack of decent pay, food or affordable homes. Loss of the natural world. This loss will be here to stay for a good while. How do we not just fight for the things we have lost, but also learn to tend to this loss within our organising and movements?  How do we integrate loss so that it doesn’t burn us out further, and defeat us?

Losing our grieving mechanisms

During the COP26  I was invited into a gathering of indigenous women from Latin America at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA). This was the first meeting of this group of indigenous tribes women that spanned from Mexico to the southern Amazon. They held a two hour introduction where each member named all that they fought for – from the waterways to the trees to their ancestors and their children, with rivers of tears streaming down their faces. 

The depths of struggle and pain were laid bare. The vulnerability and empathy was palpable in the room. This meeting was clearly a pledge to their solidarity and collective commitment to fight together. A gathering where these rivers of pain – as well as joy and anger – were allowed in, seemed deeply effective in alliance building. 

The foundations they laid on that day were taproots that ran deep into the earth.

Almost every indigenous community had rituals of healing and grief to support their community.  It is the same systems of greed and power that raped the forests and stole people from their lands, that also ripped out community mechanisms to gather and process, grieve and heal. Alexandra Derwen, grief worker with many years of working with communities writes in Lost Rites: Community Grief, that the loss of collective grieving is perhaps the first thing we should mourn.

Here in Scotland, we had old mechanisms to allow in the grief and to have it held safely by our communities. One of these was the tradition of keeners. 

If you are fortunate enough to cross paths with one of Scotland’s only keeners Madge Bray, she might recount a story from her young days as a student social worker in Lewis. Each week one of the women she supported would get on the floor and beat her fists on the ground, wailing and howling rhythmically. The Lewis island community had experienced huge amounts of grief, including the Iolaire disaster where over 200 island men drowned in the harbour on New Year’s day on their way back from WW1. This woman was naturally keening, wailing her grief for the world to hear. When Madge keens, she makes a timeless sound that sounds half guttural and half like the wind and it sounds as old as the hills. You can see some of her keening work here

Keening was traditionally the social role of certain women who would loudly wail for the dead and evoke active grief in the mourners, so our tears and pains didn’t become stuck or stifled, but could be purged and processed. This tradition was suppressed as part of imperialism and the quashing of Scottish culture, like many other people’s cultures of healing around the world. Keening is a pan cultural tradition, practised all over the world by people who knew how essential it has always been to collectively as well as personally process the emotion of grief.

Grieving as an act of resistance

The power of holding grief collectively means there is a container. It is held by all those around you. The container means it has a clear end point so you don’t lie in languish. Francis Weller, one of the world’s most famous thinkers on grief, believes that grief and healing spaces produce strong bonds within communities that allow connectedness, belonging and mental wellbeing to grow. He states that grief is a powerful offering of mature adults back to a suffering world. Does our movement need to think about what it means to weave mature and wise ways of being into our work, beyond campaign tactics and burnout workshops? I believe so. Can remove this paragraph if article is too long

Climate justice is about climate action, financial reparations and workers rights. It is also about recreating a world that doesn’t repeat harm. However, currently our movements often repeat the same patriarchal, capitalist and white supremist systems that are indeed harming us.

Derwen talks of how to grieve is a thing of shame and how the same systems that oppress us demand we seek permission to show our grief. In our daily struggles and activism, we can only show two emotions – anger and joy. To be vulnerable in the face of such destruction and loss, is seen as weak. Resistance that looks to transform, not just tweak, means looking at all the systems that harm us and overturning them. This includes the aching lack of healing and grieving spaces.

Grieving spaces don’t only heal us, they rejuvenate us and forge deeper relationships and foundations for our communities and our resistance efforts. If we heal and hold our communities more deeply, we can build stronger and wiser movements to both fight back and weather the coming rising storms. 

I am no expert on grief and grief spaces. But in the absence of common ways to hold grief rooted in those most impacted by the crises, we need to explore healing spaces as best we can. Especially with the escalating crises and loss we will see in the coming decades. This is where the courage lies: reshaping our movements against the oppressive tides of the systems that maim us.

This will be clumsy and awkward at times, which we must allow forgiveness and grace for. I would love to talk with anyone interested about how we took into account the risk of opening up trauma during the lament and being clear about what we can hold and cannot hold. There are also many great teachers that we can draw on the wisdom of, some of whom I have mentioned above. Importantly we must make sure we are not inappropriately taking from other people’s lineage, cultures and sacred spaces.

In a time of escalating loss, learning again how to hold each other will bond our communities back together. We must break away from the system that is destroying us, not only the physical, but also the emotional constructions and constraints. Through this, we will be better equipped to navigate paths to fight, survive and re-grow in the upcoming storms.


Comments (2)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I think these are appropriately high priorities, although maybe this form of expression is not for everyone.

    In contrast, someone recently raised their criticisms of the ‘wellness’ industry with me, which seemed to be along the lines of cultivating a fake and consumerist sense of wellbeing and righteousness which would require ignoring all of these damages and wrongs. In extreme form, personal happiness may be claimed as a right, which seems a little sociopathic. Far more healthy to feel grief in these circumstances.

    I don’t agree that modern information-technology-underpinned society is necessarily isolating; mobile phones create more connections between people than have ever existed, individuals may find niches online unavailable amongst neighbours, and indeed mobile phones can keep families and friends in touch through the climate-influenced migrations, disruptions and emergencies, allowing people to carry digital treasure in the form of photos of, and messages from, loved ones wherever they go. COP26 was facilitated by modern commercial transport; the publishing of this article, by the idea-communism of the Internet.

    I would have thought keening (and grieving) was shared more widely than just human culture, certainly amongst non-human mammals. Of course, it is largely due to modern technology and global science that we have so much insight into the living world.

    By all means, draw on the varied cultures of the world, which are not static nor homogeneous even at village or family scale, but nobody has had all the answers nor all the solutions we need to live as a human world culture. We will need to create new systems, develop new ideologies, ask new questions, if we wish that planetary culture to survive.

  2. Graham says:

    Thanks for the article Tess.
    I was at the lament in November and found it to be very moving.
    Interestingly enough (in relation to the last comment) as we began our walk across the river Clyde a seal popped up and swam around in the water beneath us, I was at the back of the group and excitedly shouted forward as I thought and felt this was potentially an auspicious moment for us all to be winessed/to witness a non human other/fellow mammal before we lamented our own human doings/undoings.
    The gathering itself was offered in a sensitive way. I enjoyed the elements of poetry story song sharing reflection and silence that you had woven into your lament offering.
    I hear your questions around the trauma inducing nature of such offerings held for and within a space of public engagement and what that may mean for both those that hold and organise these ceremonies and those who participate.
    Part of me would like to say each person takes full individual responsibility for their own personal traumas and decides for themselves what part or how much or when to step in and out of such a process. Yet due to the profound nature of the grieving process and the depth of wounding being lamented, what individual would know what emotion and behaviour might surface at any point and what the consequential reactions may be. I do think that one or two experienced guides in holding ceremony, with all the potential trauma involved, would be beneficial for both in the moment of the feelings and trauma arising and for processing after the event if needed.
    Maybe having a few words at the beginning would offer reassurance and security that each persons well being is being held by the organisers as well as within each individual as well as within the collective group.
    This last point is probably the most important of all because I feel personally that this is maybe the overall aim of the beginning of these offerings of collective grief for our communities.
    Grief by its very nature is messy and heavy and complex and profound with bodies howling shaking shivering quaking collapsing and rolling in snot and tears of hopelessness anger and sometimes even laughter. We do have to find ways of sharing these pains in community beyond the ‘wellbeing’ market and the therapists couch (they are still needed and important). It will be clunky and awkward and weird and for sure it wont be for everyone. We surely owe it to the earth and her inhabitants that we find ways of holding life and loss in our humble celebratory human lamenting in all of its myriad messiness and uneasy entanglements.
    Thanks again Tess and others for being brave enough in beginning to explore our reconnection with grief processes and rituals in these times.
    Much love.

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