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From grief to purpose
October 11, 2021

From grief to purpose

Lessons from human illness for the climate crisis

Written by Sarah Russell, Early-stage project lead at X

As a doctor, I have the privilege of being with the fullness of the human experience: joy and celebration, suffering and loss, birth and growth. Perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve been able to learn from people who have looked rage, sadness, and fear in the face — and then marched forward. Along with being a practicing physician, I also lead an early-stage project at X that’s exploring ways to tackle the climate crisis. Our team is focused, in part, on mapping and simulating the changing natural world and building tools to forecast how these changes will affect communities.

People often react to the impact of the climate crisis with the same sadness or helplessness that my patients experience. It’s painful to bear witness to the destruction of homes and communities, the loss of forests, reefs and animal habitats, the displacement of peoples. I believe we need to make room for these feelings, and that they should be painful, but spinning out in our own sense of loss tends to leave us exhausted, too tired for change.  We must acknowledge and be present for the full range of feelings, and use this depth of emotion to inspire us to move forward. Here are two ways I learned as a doctor to move from helplessness to purpose, both for people and our planet.

First, find your focus

In my work as a doctor, sharing bad news with a patient tends to elicit a jumble of emotions: shock, fear, sadness. And patients are overwhelmed: there’s so much to do, but where to even start? I immediately focus on what is most important on the medical side of things. For example, with diabetes, I’ll home in on controlling blood pressure and cholesterol. But if we’re the patient in this scenario — grappling with what’s happening, feeling grief for the warming planet — how can we find where to focus?

Like those facing illness, we are often overwhelmed by the information and worried about the future, and like those facing illness, our job is to make a plan, be confident in the path, and find the courage to try it. For my team at X, we started with a focus on the severe weather aspects of climate change because these seemed most immediate and understandable for communities and businesses. And when we asked which kinds of events were the least well-understood (and where we could make an impact), we learned that wildfire was an urgent and growing problem not only in California, but across the world.

For my team, however, the decision to stick with fires hasn’t always been easy. Many times, people ask, “You’re just about fires?” Our answer is, “Learning about fires has helped us take on so many other problems where data and machine learning can drive better climate intelligence. Even better, we’re helping a lot of people, so this is why we are here.” And it’s not like this is a blind focus. It’s important to bring focus as well as curiosity to this work — a real sense of exploration and hypothesis-testing. This keeps our focus soft and receptive, not rigid and closed off.

"The Doctor”, an 1891 painting by Luke Fildes. The doctor is utterly powerless, and yet he stays. This painting is one of the most personally powerful pieces of art I have known. It shows the side of medicine that is bearing witness to the experience of life in its fullness.

Second, shift your perspective from “me” to “we”

Our wildfire work wouldn’t have been possible without the experts who helped us understand the changing ecology, and the wisdom and support of those whose relationship to the land is different from ours. We’ve learned a great deal about “healthy fire” and the ways in which first peoples and Native American communities across California have managed the healthy cycle of fire and regrowth over centuries. Working with experts doesn’t just help us develop our tools — we’re also joining a community of people who are bringing their all to the climate crisis, united by their work to get to a better future.

These connections are transformative, and remind me of my first encounters with patients. I was struck by how often two people confront illness together, down to their language: “We’ve had such a hard time with chemo,” the partner will say, even when only one of them carries the diagnosis. There is great poignancy and power in the word “we,” fighting and surviving together through grief. We should remember that, as Dr. Lucy Kalanithi says, ”Grief is the flipside of love.” All of these feelings are connected to the deep experience of loving each other, our planet, our lands, our parks, our clean air.

For all time, humans have become “we” when those we love are at risk. We can do the same when the planet we love faces similar peril. What if we allowed the climate crisis to help us move from “me” to “we”? What if we could make the “we” feel this intimate on a global scale, finding our “tribe” who share our commitment and from whom we can draw strength? Coming together could lead us to unexpected combinations of people that might show us new ways to heal the planet. Bringing together our shared knowledge could illuminate radically new possibilities we haven’t yet imagined. Feeling helpless and alone will keep you locked in place and unable to change anything. A community can show you new ways of thinking — and opportunities to take action.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn from folks facing illness is this: they keep living. They get up every morning and go to work and pay bills and take care of others. And while they keep living, they also manage to excavate and bring to the surface what is most important. This is a special kind of transformation: the realization that your life has all kinds of meaning, to all kinds of people. It can power you to do things you never thought possible. Crisis can be an opportunity to find what is most important to us, if we let it in.

I believe we’ll all be better off if we make space for tough feelings when we talk about climate. The odds against us are high, and we need to acknowledge the hard feelings that come when tackling a challenge of this magnitude. Yet as humans we are also resilient, and we can take inspiration from the people who have faced fear and grief in illness to keep us going in the fight for a better future, together. My final point is this: there is no more time for foolishness, because there is no more time to waste. To tackle the climate crisis, we will need to act with courage and take on hard fights. All alternative options are exhausted. It’s time to get started.

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