Braving the Elements

PHOTOGRAPH BY INGO ARNDT

 

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

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“Earth, water, fire, and wind. Where there is energy there is life.”

Suzy Kassem

The heatwave that hit the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada last week was record-breaking. Seattle reached 108 degrees, Portland 116 degrees, and parts of Canada got up to a sweltering 121 degrees—all historic firsts. Meanwhile, 30 million people are under a tropical storm warning as Elsa makes its way up the East Coast with high rains and heavy winds—the latest in what scientists are already predicting will be an above-normal storm season. The elements, it might seem, are against us.

 

Earth, air, water, fire—from Ancient Greece to Egypt to India, for thousands of years, cultures have seen the world through the lens of the four classical elements. Whether symbols for the four states of matter (solid, gas, liquid, plasma) or modes of perceiving existence (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually), the classic elements form the building blocks of belief systems, medicinal traditions, and philosophical frameworks alike. Today, we’re looking at how they can be applied to the climate crisis.

 

The first element is earth, our physical experience of the world and the most obvious way that the climate crisis is felt—especially these past few weeks. Extreme weather events can be deadly, and more importantly: they don’t impact everyone equally, as Atmos’s Climate Editor Yessenia Funes reported for The Frontline this week. Our access to housing, where we live, the resources we have access to, the color of our skin—all of these physical aspects of our existence determine how severely climate change impacts us, and thus must be the first lens through which it is viewed.

 

Changing how we view an issue requires a shift in thought, which brings us to our next element: air, our mentality. This element represents what has been our greatest obstacle in facing the climate crisis, from the psychologically manipulative tactics of the fossil fuel industry and the mindset of consumption that has been ingrained in many of us to the eco-anxiety that still causes many to look away and the false perception that we can afford to. According to a new analysis from the World Weather Attribution group, extreme weather events like the ones we have seen recently are up to 150 times more likely due to climate change. In other words, we have to wrap our heads around the fact that the climate crisis is already here.

 

If you have been a long-time reader of this newsletter, you already know how I feel about the importance of accepting our climate grief—a reflection of the water element, our emotional life. When grief goes unacknowledged, it drowns us. Doing the work of regularly processing the ecological trauma we are holding is paramount to being effective activists. Furthermore, it’s a privilege that not all can afford, especially those whose lives are in jeopardy. Our emotional health must be seen as being equally important to our physical and mental health when it comes to processing and problem-solving a crisis such as this one.

 

While some traditions refer to a fifth element (ether) as spirit, four-element systems ascribe it to fire. According to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus stole this element from the gods and gave it to humankind so that it could create civilization. We have been given the gift of creation, and the powers that be (read: industry titans and oil executives of the Global North) have used it for destruction. After all, global heating is the primary way in which climate change manifests and the burning of fossil fuels is what caused it. But fire has another power: to transform. What will save us, if not a collective transformation at the deepest possible level?

 

While different cultures have had varying interpretations and beliefs around the elements themselves, a common theme emerges among them: they must be in harmony in order for there to be health. And right now, every act of nature is shouting that they are not. Not in the world, and not in ourselves (is there a difference?). So it should be clear by now that our approach to environmentalism must be intersectional, including in our understanding of how it impacts us. In this context, braving the elements means being both bold enough to face where the ecological crisis lives in us and devoting ourselves to it fully: body, mind, heart, and soul.

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