There’s no two ways about it. We’re living in a time of social and environmental collapse. We’re seeing a global unravelling of social cohesion, state-sanctioned violence, and increasingly devastating climate-fuelled storms. In Aotearoa, despite our best efforts our government has launched a full-on attack on workers rights, Te Tiriti, and nature – even rolling out the red carpet inviting fossil fuel companies to mine on public conservation land. Sometimes, it feels like our very humanity is being stripped away.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I live with this nagging sense of ashamed hopelessness that we’re not going to do it, our efforts are going to fail, and the world is going to go down the drain. While we have every right to feel this, it’s egotistic for us to pretend we know how this ends: in failure. Julian Aguon, an Indigenous climate activist from Guam, has more cause for despair than most. But Julian refuses to engage in that all-consuming sense of despair – instead maintaining a tradition that his ancestors have passed onto him. A tradition providing “a unique capacity to resist despair through connection to collective memory and who just might be our best hope to build a new world rooted in reciprocity and mutual respect – for the Earth and for each other.”

Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes that “memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” When we struggle to believe a better future is possible, returning to our collective memory of the big changes of the past can help us imagine how transformational change can again occur in the future.

And so we shouldn’t mourn those who aren’t dead. Doing so stuffs the living into coffins, at least in our imaginations. Here in Aotearoa, Māori and Moriori have been told – through history books and signage in Te Papa and national parks – that their cultural or literal demise was inevitable. Some non-Indigenous people widely believed this. While working at Te Ao O Rongomarae with the Hokotehi Moriori Trust, I met elders who had been told to their faces they were extinct. Those who said and wrote such things often did so with the intent of sympathy for history’s ‘victims’ – but in doing so only strengthened a narrative of inevitable loss. 

Progressive Pākehā often center Indigenous trauma in our narratives, but we often miss celebrating Indigenous leadership, teeming with ancient wisdom and valuable solutions to these social and environmental crises. It’s not a coincidence that 80% of the world’s biodiversity can be found on Indigenous lands, despite Indigenous people only making up 5% of the global population.

The same harmful story is told of communities on the frontlines of climate change when it is suggested they cannot win and have no future; but are themselves fiercely hopeful. As the 350 Pacific Climate Warriors say, “We are not drowning. We are fighting!” 

Prophecies are always partly self-fulfilling; by promoting whatever outcome they describe, they make it more likely. Prophecies are different to warnings, which assume the outcome is yet undecided and thus other futures are possible. “You could be annihilated” is a very different statement from “You will be annihilated”. One includes room to change; whereas the other puts the final nail in the coffin. While to some giving up can make life clearer and simpler – for the most impacted, giving up means surrendering to devastation. When suffering adversity, it is little comfort to know that someone far away is sad and pitiful on your behalf.

As Aboriginal leader Lilla Watson puts it; ‘“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’’

For many people, the climate emergency is terrifying, and many of us often sink into despair – or at least futility. But the thing about being in emergencies is that by very definition, we can alter the outcome by acting urgently and deliberately. The word ‘emergency’ comes from ‘emerge’ – to rise out or up. Whatever we do now, we will emerge one way or the other. As Rebecca Solnit says, hope is not a lottery ticket that we can clutch on the couch, feeling lucky. It’s an axe we can break down doors with in an emergency. If we continue burning fossil fuels and dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their land then we will emerge into a chaotic world, full of pain and suffering and loss. We see this in the warnings of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which outline a possible future of endless storms, droughts, sea level rise, water shortages and desertification.

But there’s another option not married to sorrow – if we act deliberately and swiftly on the emergency, we can emerge into not climate chaos, but an age of community, caring and collaboration. Not just a ‘less shit’ world – but an actively better one, with clean air and communities of care. In front of us is an opportunity to get out of the cycle of grief by being authentically alive in Aotearoa in a time of collapse. We can allow grief to provide a grounding for our action – but not our sole analysis. There is life in doing something, in organising together in love and rage, failures and successes, silly jokes and human connections. Taking action doesn’t stop the despair, but it does stop it from consuming everything. By walking towards the despair, we can work to heal the wound, and – from the scar – choose to organise, choose to build community, and choose to stand in radical solidarity for the long haul.

We don’t know how this ends. And yet, we continue to do the mahi because we firmly refuse to accept that the world has to be this way. While we can only see a little halo around our candles, we can still travel all night by that light.

As we strive towards this future together, here are some ways to look after ourselves, and each other. Not self-care; community care.

  • Make a conscious decision about when and where you’ll get news — and what you’ll do afterwards. 
  • Get together with people face-to-face to support each other and make sure we stay in motion.
  • Pray, meditate, or reflect on those you know who are being impacted by oppressive policies and extend your love for them to all who may be suffering.
  • Read, listen to, or share a story about how others have resisted injustice.
  • Be aware of yourself as one who creates to counteract hopelessness.
  • Take a conscious break from social media.
  • Commit to sharing with others what’s helping you [find hope, counteract despair, take action etc].

By Adam Currie