“Grieving Well”: on Mourning, Extinction, and White Privilege

The Anthropocene, where human activity affects all parts and levels of the biosphere, has been accompanied by the so-called Sixth Extinction. Unlike the planet’s previous five mass extinction events, the biodiversity loss of the Sixth Extinction can be directly attributed to human action. I spend a lot of time thinking about extinction: what it means, how we understand it, what affects it generates.

Since I began working on my dissertation project on the multiple ways the relationship between humans and nature is understood and enacted under climate change, one of the most important shifts in my thinking has been to see extinction not only as a scientific concept, but a social, cultural, and political phenomenon.[1] Like many aspects of climate change, conversations about extinction come with all kinds of negative feelings: grief, loss, mourning, dread, guilt, fear. These are part of a broader emotional experience of “eco-anxiety,” one becoming increasingly common in the Global North. Organizations like the Good Grief Network and writers like Britt Wray, who publishes a newsletter called Gen Dread, work to equip people with the tools to manage their mental health during the climate crisis.

The use of mourning, grief, or remembrance by environmental groups or institutions is a complicated one. What, exactly, are we mourning for, when we profess grief for a vanishing ecosystem with which we have no direct experience? What are we mourning for when we devise a ritual honoring an animal we have never seen? These questions are imperative for those of us in the Global North to consider if we aim to work toward just ecological futures. The “white tears” of environmental grief mask the structural causes of environmental violence, making the grieving itself appear to be “a form of action.”

An example of this kind of mourning was visible in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s memorial to the Great Barrier Reef in its recent exhibit We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. The exhibit includesa painted mural which proclaimed, “RIP Great Barrier Reef, 25 million BC–2050,” alongside a photo of a vibrantly colored marine ecosystem with a funereal black cloth draped over it. On a nearby table a guestbook lay open, inviting visitors to express their grief in writing. As a particularly spectacular part of the planet, the Great Barrier Reef is a popular choice for environmental grief; an obituary for the ecosystem went viral at the end of 2016. 

On the one hand, a focus on sites like the Great Barrier Reef and charismatic species like the polar bear directs cultural attention and conservation resources to a limited portion of the planet. Comparably, there’s been little focus on the loss of fifteen percent of the earth’s mite species in 2020. On the other hand, the kind of grief on display for the loss of the Great Barrier Reef reifies the ecosystem a site of aesthetic and tourist pleasure, a place for humans to enjoy. A focus on this kind of grief in the face of an uncertain future overlooks or erases the grief of Indigenous peoples, who have long faced the destruction of their lifeways which have closer connections to environments being devastated.[2]

Despite their complicated political repercussions, negative feelings surrounding climate change persist for many people in many parts of the planet. Artists and activists also offer ways to manifest and work through such feelings. As part of my dissertation research, I’ve been exploring the work of Remembrance Day for Lost Species (RDLS), a volunteer-led collective which has been memorializing extinct species annually on November 30. RDLS began in 2011, founded by UK-based performance collective Feral Theatre and artist group The Life Cairn. Since its founding, a number of organizations, museums, and artists have joined. These include ONCA (a UK-based organization facilitating environmental interaction), the Extinction Symbol (an anti-capitalist graffiti movement), Extinction Witness, and several scientific foundations dedicated to preventing species loss.

RDLS works to give participants the knowledge and tools to create extinction memorials in their own backyards. Though each year the group selects a thematic focus, anyone from anywhere can participate in any way of their choosing. RDLS maintains a virtual map chronicling events from 2013 to the present. 

2020 represented a challenge for RDLS organizers. First, COVID-19, which has resulted in the closure of arts organizations and public places around the world, makes any live performance difficult at best. Beyond the difficulties of the pandemic, 2020 also saw RDLS reckon with the racial implications of mourning extinction. In the wake of mass protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in May, the effects of structural racism are on the forefront of all kinds of political conversations, and environmentalism should not be an exception. For 2020, RDLS invited participants to consider the links between environmental and racial violence, asking “How can remembrance practices for extinct species address systemic injustice?”[3]

How, then, can remembrance be a part of a movement for a future marked by practices of care?[4] The diverse work of RDLS provides one path, first steps to creating more ethical and equitable ecological relationships. The movement’s welcoming of observances from all positionalities and of any kind is an important step to help folks from all walks of life work through their Anthropocene feelings. In 2019, for example, RDLS selected “Original Names” as the year’s focus. Original Names foregrounded the history of Indigenous people and the ways contemporary Indigenous activists should be leading the environmental movement. By encouraging participants to research and learn the history of species and places in their own environments, RDLS worked to change their relationships with the natural world around them in a way that also took into account colonial violence.

RDLS organizers’ willingness to examine and combat the role of white privilege in spaces of environmental activism is an urgent corrective to a history of the continued marginalization of people of color within environmental conversations. I hope that these conversations will continue, enabling ways of coping with ecological grief that also work toward environmental justice.[5]

[1] See e.g. Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Kathryn Yusoff, “Biopolitical Economies and the Political Aesthetics of Climate Change,” Theory, Culture and Society 27, no. 2 (2010): 73-99.

[2] Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 16, no. 4 (May 2018): 1-18.

[3]Lost Species Day 2020 Online Gathering” (November 27, 2020).

[4] Miriam Ticktin, “From the Human to the Planetary: Speculative Futures of Care,” Medicine Anthropology Theory 6, no. 3 (2019): 133-160.

[5] A recording of a 2020 RDLS event discussing the history of racism and extinction can be found here.

*Cover image: A memorial for the Great Barrier Reef at Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s exhibit We Are Nature. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: A wall painted with an image of the Great Barrier Reef, with the phrase “RIP Great Barrier Reef, 25 million BC – 2050” written across it. A picture of corals draped in black velvet stands in the right corner, and a stand with an open guest book on the right.]

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