Every day, I scroll through my morning news feed knowing that I will be overwhelmed by nightmarish images. I swipe past photos of islands so devastated by Hurricane Dorian that they resemble Roman ruins and videos of wild flames engulfing the Amazon. I am bombarded by scenes of catastrophe, even as the coverage of climate disaster remains insufficient in comparison to the scale of the crisis.
Like a growing number of people, the distinct kind of sorrow and despondency I feel when I see these images—when I hear about the loss of ecosystems, communities, and species—is a unique and sustained one. The images may disappear when I shut off my phone, but the sense of despair that I experience does not. Rather, it metastasizes like a malignant tumor. It colors my perception of my own purpose—really, of my own purposelessness—and of my capacity to live a meaningful life. It makes focusing, let alone organizing, difficult. It makes me question whether it is ethical to have children of my own one day, knowing they would inherit a less habitable planet depleted of so many of its natural wonders.
And I’m only 19.
As an organizer of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and a climate activist, I spend the time I’m not studying or working organizing. I spend it in constant conversation about climate change. Yet it’s not in activist spaces where I am struck most by the gravity of the crisis. It’s while I’m living my day-to-day life.
This sorrow for the loss of our environment and the life it supports has an official name: “ecological grief.” It is as real and palpable as the grief we experience when we lose a loved one. And in a time of unprecedented climate emergency, it is spreading.
For Nuri Bhuiyan, a 19-year-old, ecological grief comes in an “ebb and flow.” She said she feels it most palpably when she visits her parents’ home country of Bangladesh, a country heavily burdened by environmental injustice. Yet even in the United States—where such grief is not at the forefront of her consciousness and she feels most able to forget—it remains a looming presence.
James Coleman, a 20-year-old, said he finds himself plagued by images of a climate-burdened homeland. For him, thinking about the smoke-filled skies and forced power outages of his native California, now ravaged by wildfires, foments not only grief but also guilt; as a college student in Massachusetts, he can escape the devastation that now characterizes his friends’ and family’s daily lives back in California.
Such despair can spiral quickly into existential anguish. It can undermine our view of climate action as worthwhile—making our lives seem limited by a potentially grim future where many of our communities no longer exist in their current form. At times, it seems that human society has doomed itself to its own destruction. For many of us, including our most elite institutions, the effects of the climate crisis may seem less imminent. But ultimately, no one will escape the effects of the climate emergency; already, it is fundamentally transforming our world and what future generations will inherit.
Yet I think that there is reason for hope. For me, the reason for this hope is captured by psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in his reflection on human nature in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
Like Frankl, I recognize the dual potential of humankind to destroy and to transcend. To the extent that we have created a society predicated on the extraction and exploitation of our planet’s natural resources and most vulnerable communities, we are capable of creating one predicated on sustainability, justice, liberation, equality, and inclusion. The Holocaust revealed people’s willingness to turn a blind eye to injustice; now, as then, we are at a critical point where too many people choose to remain blind.
In an emergency situation, we cannot be complacent. This is not only because complacency is complicity, but also because it is through action that we build resiliency. Action is how we work through the sense of hopelessness that the existential threat of climate change fuels.
When I say this, I don’t mean we should suppress our ecological grief. I mean that we must channel it. We must find ways to express what often feels inexpressible. We must express the connection we feel to our planet and to all of the life it supports through music, art, poetry and more—drawing people into the movement and building communities where we can share grief and find the strength to move forward together. Here, we can foster a regenerative culture and reenvision how the world works. We can turn our grief into hope and in doing so, find renewed purpose in our own existence.
While working in a conservation lab in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, 18-year-old Ava Salzman saw the value of channeling ecological grief into action firsthand. For her, the greatest remedy for this grief “ to find a cause you believe in and “put your energy into it like hell.”
That is what Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the broader youth-led movement for climate justice around the world are doing. And that is why Nuri, James, Ava, and I are spending our college years organizing, writing, and activating. As emotionally draining as it is to do so, it is also reinvigorating.
And we have no other choice. Our movement is not just about deconstructing unsustainable systems of power; it is about fundamentally transforming them. It is about reimagining the way that our institutions use their money and influence, about calling on them to invest in the better future that we are building. And it is about reimagining our role as individuals, about how we can unite our voices to sound the alarm and come into a new kind of community, one rooted in a radical love for one another and for our planet.
We have the capacity to achieve a more just and stable future. As hurricanes rage and forests burn, what we must find in ourselves and in our institutions now more than ever is the will to do so.