One of the most powerful books I’ve read recently is Allison Stine’s novel Trashlands, which takes place in the near future, after climate catastrophe. Many of the characters we meet work as “pluckers,” pulling plastic from the trash-choked rivers and woods. The creation of new plastic has been banned, and plastic now functions as currency, because it lasts forever.
Most poignantly, everyone we meet in Trashlands is named after a thing or a place that is gone – like the Ashkenazi Jewish custom of naming our children after our dead. Characters have names like Miami, and Shanghai, and New Orleans, and Coral. Imagine a world in which coral is a distant memory.
We may not need to imagine it for long. Earlier this summer the oceans off the southern coast of Florida clocked in at 101 degrees. Scientists were literally racing to save samples of different species of coral by removing them from the sea and sequestering them in tanks on land.
As I read in the New York Times, “The world’s oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the additional heat unleashed by people burning fossil fuels and razing forests. [As of this summer] about 44 percent of the global ocean [was] in a heat wave.” In water that hot, coral can’t survive.
Serge Schmemann, a member of the New York Times editorial board, argued recently in an op-ed that It Is No Longer Possible To Escape What We’ve Done To Ourselves. His essay begins by describing Canadian wildfire smoke – remember when the sun looked red and air quality was so bad we were told to stay indoors?
“This has been the summer from climate hell all across Earth, when it ceased being possible to escape or deny what we have done to our planet and ourselves,” he writes.
That same week, that same newspaper covered the first Presidential debate in which most of the candidates refused to give a straight answer on whether they “believe in” the climate crisis. One argued that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.” The Times was quick to note that there is no scientific disagreement: the climate crisis is real and it is worsening. But what do we do when so many deny the existence of (much less responsibility for) the most significant existential crisis we have ever faced?
One answer is, we grieve. We grieve the rising seas, the countless species that will vanish, the beauty our world is going to lose – from majestic polar bears to grand reefs of spectacular coral. (And the less “charismatic” ones, too, the plants and insects and creatures that don’t fit our definition of beautiful but are still part of the web of life.)
We grieve the reality that a significant subset of society doesn’t believe that our collective actions over the last few hundred years have radically changed our planet. And we grieve the human beings who already suffer climate change: the unthinkably vast wildfires, unprecedented heat domes breaking record after record, rising seas everyplace in the world where there are seas. Those impacts are felt most by those who are poorest: who can’t afford to move, or to access air-conditioning, or to buy clean drinking water.
Climate grief is the ache brought on by awareness of the losses that come with our warming planet: from the extinction of countless species across the globe, to places becoming inhospitable to what used to be their native flora and fauna (including us), to the large-scale displacement and death of living beings (including us).
And I suspect I am preaching to the proverbial choir this morning, because I know how many of you in this room have come to me to talk about climate grief and how to live with it.
For me the first step in any kind of grief is naming it and being honest about how much it hurts. Grief is not linear. It ebbs and flows according to its own mysterious tides. Sometimes it ties us in knots. Sometimes it threatens to wash us away. Sometimes it leaves us spent and gasping on the shore.
Judaism has good tools for certain kinds of grief. I think our tradition is really good at death, actually. Is that a funny thing to say? It’s true, though. I am in awe of our traditions around death and mourning. They’re incredible spiritual technologies.
The deathbed vidui, the words of release we speak at the end of life – akin to the vidui prayers we say today. Our biodegradable caskets and shrouds, because we all return to earth’s embrace. The palpable finality of shoveling earth onto the casket with our own hands. Sitting shiva, taking a week to live with our grief and let it wash over us while others bring food and community and prayer to our door. Ritually emerging after the week is over, walking around the block, and coming back in through a different door – because the week of shiva has changed us. Reciting the memorial prayers of Yizkor four times a year, when we go beneath our tallitot and remember our dead. I love that our traditions don’t pretend away loss, or the reality that our lives are finite.
I don’t know what tools to bring to bear on the ongoing losses of climate grief. It’s one thing to mourn a person, or even a lot of people. But to mourn countless plants and insects and animals, to mourn the loss of human lives, to mourn the burning taiga or the boiling seas? I don’t think we have good tools for that. We may need to create them.
Here’s what I do know: loss is a fundamental part of human life, and our work is to feel it fully even as we refuse to let it wholly define us. The fact that our lives are finite is part of what gives them meaning. And the sacred task of remembrance is part of our inheritance as a people. The word Yizkor means “[God] Remembers.” In the Yizkor prayers we say four times a year we ask God to remember each of our beloved dead. And we pledge acts of tzedakah, acts of justice and righteousness, in their memory.
This year in addition to our loved ones we might ask God to remember the ivory-billed woodpecker. The splendid poison frog of western Panama. The freshwater fish of Lake Lanao in the Phillipines. The bramble cay melomys from Australia. The western black rhinoceros in central and west Africa. We name them and we remember them, and we pledge acts of justice and righteousness in their memory.
And this year in addition to our loved ones we might ask God to remember the victims of the Lahaina wildfires this summer, and the victims of deadly flooding in Pakistan last year, and the two million deaths that the United Nations says were caused by extreme weather over the last half-century. We can’t possibly name them all, but we can remember them in the aggregate, and we can pledge acts of justice and righteousness in their memory.
Maybe we pledge acts of environmental tzedakah, like installing solar panels, or buying things secondhand, or supporting the creation of the Zero Carbon Renovation Fund to help make buildings in our state more energy-efficient. (There’s a half-sheet handout at the back of the room from Western Mass Dayenu full of climate teshuvah ideas. Take one with you later today.)
Earlier this summer, my son and I visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Most crushing for me was the Hall of Children, a tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children slaughtered by the Nazis. Sparks of light shine like distant stars. A constant litany of childrens’ names is read, and images appear and disappear like ghosts.
Maybe we need a place like that for grieving and remembering the victims of climate-change-fueled wildfires and floods, extreme heat and rising seas. The climate crisis isn’t a function of hatred or bigotry the way the Shoah was, but like the Shoah, its losses are already so vast I can’t process them. And we know that more is coming.
When I think about those who ignore the scientific realities of the climate crisis, I feel despair. But then I remind myself that Ruth Messenger, when she spoke here last month, said, “Despair is not an action plan.” She was talking about saving democracy, but it’s equally true of our response to the climate crisis.
And I remind myself of Mariame Kaba’s dictum that “hope is a discipline.” It’s something we have to cultivate. And the way to counter despair is to do something: to act with empathy, to make ethical choices, to care for our planet and all its inhabitants. We don’t know what impact our actions will have, but we know that inaction can’t be the answer.
Yom Kippur comes each year to remind us that though we inevitably wander off course, we can course-correct. We can aspire to make teshuvah and be better tomorrow than we were today. Honestly I can’t think of much that’s more hopeful than that. No matter who we’ve been, we can be better than we were, if we do the work. That’s the powerful core of hope at Yom Kippur’s heart. I think that hope is central to our whole religious tradition.
Here in New England Yom Kippur comes as the season is turning. This year we’re just a few days past the autumn equinox. It’s officially fall. The light is changing. This half of our planet is beginning its long slow turn away from the life-giving warmth of the sun. Soon we’ll reach the year’s first killing frost. I don’t know if the plants can tell that their end is coming. But we can. These days, along with the inevitable poignancy of autumn, I also feel the poignancy of uncertainty: what will fall be like here as our climate shifts? I take comfort in knowing that the annual cycle of fall and spring will continue… although I know that many species will not survive the transition to a warmer planet.
But I also know that living things, given any opportunity, will try to thrive. One day last month I noticed a squash plant flowering in wild abundance, growing out of a crack of pavement outside the laundromat. Living beings want to live and grow. We yearn to flourish so that when we reach our natural end we’ve flowered and borne fruit in all the ways we can. At Yizkor we remember each life’s harvest of wisdom and presence. Saying Yizkor for our whole world means remembering and honoring the inherent value of every life on this earth… including the species that will not return.
I’ve talked before about different Jewish views on the afterlife. In my own theology, at the end of our lives our souls return to the Source from which we came. I imagine God lovingly gathering us in. I imagine perfect clarity and deep understanding and absolutely no pain. Maybe God also gathers in the souls of every species we lose. Maybe in the World to Come our souls reconnect surrounded by passenger pigeons and Tasmanian tigers and St. Helena Olive and Sigillaria trees.
Death strips away everything that’s extraneous. And it turns out that an awful lot is extraneous. Our to-do lists, our possessions, our frustrations – all of that falls away, in the end. Death returns us to our deepest selves: we are beings who love, who yearn, who ache for meaning. When the time comes to die, that’s who we are. And when the time comes to live – are we brave enough to live that way?
Let us love and yearn and ache for our fragile planet. Let us live not despite climate grief, but with it: feeling the poignancy it brings to every moment, and resolving in every way we can to make teshuvah in our relationship with the earth. I said on Rosh Hashanah that whatever we do won’t feel like “enough” when the world is as broken as it is. But compared with doing nothing, it’s everything.
Let us grieve as we say Yizkor for every species we’ve lost and every species we will still lose, for every human being lost to the catastrophic floods and hurricanes and unprecedented wildfires that are all rapidly becoming our planet’s new normal… even as we cultivate our moral agency and our capacity for change.
And let our prayers of remembrance today remind us how lucky we are to be alive and even to lose. Because it would be so much worse not to love anything or anyone enough to feel loss when they go. The degree of grief we can experience is a sign of how deeply and wholly we can love.
Our lives are finite, but when we try to do right by each other and by our world we align ourselves with the flow of spirit and love. And our tradition teaches: that flow of spirit and love is eternal. More eternal even than plastic. When we transmit memory to the generations that will follow, we become part of something that is forever. And when we commit to deeds of justice and righteousness in memory of those who are gone, we uplift the best of who we can be.
This is the d'var Torah I gave before Yizkor at Yom Kippur morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)