Goal 13: Climate Action

Outrage, Guilt, Frustration And Grief  Are The Logical Responses To The World As It Stands

Activist and author Bel Jacobs on the climate emergency

By Bel Jacobs
25 June 2024

Since 2018, when I joined Extinction Rebellion and helped set up XR Fashion Action, I have been asked to take part in panels and discussions around the role of fashion in a climate emergency. I have sat on those panels, delivered difficult facts about ecological breakdown - did you know, for example, that we are on course to a devastating 3.2 degrees of warming, if not more - and then sat back and watched fellow panellists talk about tech responses and 2030 deadlines, as if there was time to implement any of these. Often, I have been asked to stay upbeat, that “there is no point in frightening people or they’ll just freeze up.” So, for some time, I adopted a ‘softly, softly’ approach and have watched in distress as things have only got worse, more and more ecosystems have collapsed and governments appear hell bent on driving humanity over the edge. It has, inevitably, made me question whether ‘softly, softly’ is the tone we need to take right now.

To make it clear, it is not. In the climate movement, we often say that all the solutions to climate and ecological breakdown - all the nature restoration projects, all the indigenous knowledge and skills, all the clean tech, all the alternative democratic systems - are already out there; there’s just not the will to scale them. And what drives will is knowledge of the extent of the emergency and empathy, for those already struggling on its frontlines I now see that, if anything, caution has slowed progress and delayed action, as people have walked away, thinking, either, “it’s not that bad” - or, more likely, that “someone else will handle this. Because if it was really, really bad, they would have said.” My take now is that we have to be honest and anything less than honest is greenwashing. We have to tell the truth.

Two years, I was invited to contribute to The Slow Grind: Practising Hope and Imagination. Compiled and edited by the phenomenal activist and thinker Georgina Johnson, more than 20 activists and futurists spanning the globe offered contributions on the theme of holding hope for our ecology. I wrote: “I have watched indigenous peoples in Brazil striving to put out the fires consuming their homes with sheafs of dried leaves. I have seen motherless young pigs and cows and dogs, eyes wide with shock and distress, slaughtered for their bodies to be used as food, as fashion, as sites of experimentation. I have seen children as young as 8, working in driving rain to mine cobalt in the DRC for smartphones in the West. Why are we refusing to see this?”

“This makes me dizzy with rage and grief; I often veer between both states. The rage can be disorientating: I still want to grab people’s shoulders and say: “Stop. Talking. About. Shit. Stop. Believing. Shit.” And the grief? It is to exist across time; to see the future in the present. When I watch a herd of elephants crossing a savannah in a documentary, I see not only their beauty, but also their annihilation - at the hands of humans or the weather events we have caused (if you think that African elephants will survive beyond the end of this century, think again). It is strange to feel so much distress for what is happening and even more for what is yet to come. And yet, I believe, it is also the only human, the only humane response to the world as it is today. Everything else is wilful denial. Grief is the inflection point between inaction and a call-to-arms; it is, as Adrienne Maree Brown writes, “the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life. The only cure for grief is to grieve. And then to act. Because to know and to do nothing is the kind of madness that brought us here in the first place.”

I still hold to this and, although it’s not easy, I am still grateful to be able to understand a part of what is happening right now. Outrage, guilt, frustration - and that grief - are the logical responses to the world as it stands; anything else feels out-of-sync, out-of-touch. But take this as encouragement: they are also gateways to the complex, systems-busting thought we need to see right now. It was through knowing what was happening to farmed animals, for example, and empathising with their deep suffering that made my transition to veganism so easy, and to understand viscerally that, to hold barbarism at bay, we need to protect society’s most vulnerable beings, both human and more-than-human. Necessity truly is the mother of invention and the most formidable advocates I know use their knowledge and those big emotions as fuel for targeted, effective action - and for the most astonishingly beautiful philosophies for existence on a damaged planet. 

I want to pay tribute to a few of them. Paul Powlesland, is founder of Lawyers for Nature, a collective of lawyers, researchers, and campaigners that have come together to work on behalf of nature. Speaking at the North London COP last year, Paul described his life as a constant transition between ‘between the micro and the macro’. For Paul, the micro is his role as a steward of River Roding, tending its banks, planting trees, clearing up rubbish; the macro is his work to get legal recognition of the rights of nature. Another advocate is the indigenous activist Nemonte Nenquimo, an indigenous Waorani woman who, seeing the loss of lands to the oil industry, committed herself to defending her ancestral territory, ecosystem. Her campaign and legal action resulted in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest and Waorani territory from oil extraction. Or, of course, Greta Thunberg herself, arguably still the most effective climate activist ever. 

Before you say, but I’m not like them, realise this: that we all have parts to play in the restoration of this planet. Climate leader Ayana Elizabeth Johnson - another figure fully cognisant of the polycrises - delivered an invigorating Ted Talk titled: “How to Find Joy in Climate Action” in which she says: “This is about transformation and the stakes for humanity are greater than my heart and mind can fully fathom. To cope with this, I avoid dwelling on the terrifying scientific projects and instead pivot quickly to solutions.” She continues: “Too often, the climate movement and media ask each of us to do the same things: vote, protest, donate, spread the word, lower our footprint. It is good to do those things but all too rarely are we asked to offer our special talents, our super powers to the climate solution and what a failing, because that would enable the radical changes we need.” Johnson suggests blending what you’re good at with what work needs doing and what brings you joy to find your perfect and most effective response to breakdown. This, she says is the “work of our lifetimes.”

I am blessed, often, to work within those parameters. I am blessed also, through the work, to have found such deep joy in the natural world and her animals, which, until now, had always existed on the periphery as a backdrop, or as something to visit occasionally. Right here, in our Mother, lie all the answers. As Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “Many of us are barely awake. To wake up first of all is to wake up to the beauty of the Earth. You wake up to the fact that the sky is beautiful and that our planet is a jewel of the cosmos. Second, to wake up means to wake up to the suffering in the world. You wake up to the fact that the Earth is in danger and living species are in danger. You want to find ways to bring relief, healing and transformation. If you have that source of strength in you, if you have that mind of love, you are what can be called a buddha in action. If you see the suffering in the world but you haven’t changed your way of living yet, it means that the awakening isn’t strong enough. You haven’t really woken up. It’s my conviction that we cannot change the world if we’re not able to change our way of thinking, our consciousness. Collective change in our way of thinking and seeing things is crucial. Without it, we cannot expect the world to change.”

100% of profits from the sales of #TOGETHER products go to charities that advance the Sustainable Development Goals. Find out more here.