Tissera on Barnett, 'Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence'

Joshua Barnett
Thakshala Tissera

Joshua Barnett. Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2022. xxxiv + 238 pp. $35.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61186-434-2

Reviewed by Thakshala Tissera (University of Massachusetts Amherst) Published on H-Environment (March, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58296

The environmental transformations and species extinctions that characterize the Anthropocene have given rise to a range of affective responses and an expanding lexicon of concomitant terms. “Ecological grief” denotes one such response. In their seminal 2018 article, Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville R. Ellis define “ecological grief” as “the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”[1] Joshua Trey Barnett’s Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence adds to an emergent body of work that examines the expressions, functions, and ethical and political potentiality of grief and mourning as responses to such more-than-human losses. Barnett’s monograph shares many theoretical positions with Cunsolo and Karen Landman’s edited collection, Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief (2017). Both works position ecological grief as a catalyst for environmental action and more ethical ways of living. Similarly to Cunsolo and Landman, Barnett draws on the work of Jacques Derrida on intimacy and mourning and Judith Butler’s work on precarity and grievability to frame grief as not only a private response but also an ethical and political one that requires recognizing that humans form an intimately connected community with more-than-human entities whose loss entails a diminishment of our own relational existence.[2] As a result, grief becomes a source of hope because it compels one to work toward alternative futures. In addition, although the naming of the experience as “ecological grief” is relatively new, Barnett's Mourning in the Anthropocene and Cunsolo and Landman's Mourning Nature acknowledge and engage with its longer history and continuities in relation to the loss of land and cultures that indigenous communities have experienced, particularly in the United States.

In a significant departure from Cunsolo and Ellis’s account of ecological grief as a “natural response to ecological losses,” Barnett does not consider ecological grief and mourning as intuitive responses.[3] As he expresses it rather forcefully, “just because we should grieve for extinct species, imperiled land communities, or disrupted earth systems does not mean that we can or will” (p. 28). Instead, drawing on Ann Cvetkovich’s theorizing of “public feelings” (Depression: A Public Feeling [2012]), which are fostered and sustained by sociopolitical, economic, and rhetorical conditions, Barnett frames ecological grief and mourning (understood as the public expression of the inner experience of grief) as “emotional, ethical and political capacities that must be cultivated” (p. 5).

What are the conditions or practices that can lead to the development of ecological grief? Barnett focuses on three such rhetorical practices: naming, archiving, and making visible. Barnett recognizes the ambivalence of naming, particularly its association with dominance and settler colonialism in the erasure of indigenous toponyms. Nevertheless, engaging with the ascription of proper names to endlings and Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s participatory artwork, Seeing Red ... Overdrawn (2016), the chapter makes a compelling argument that naming enables one to anticipate species extinction and to ensure that the “loss of matter is not accompanied by the loss of memory” (p. 42). The chapter ends by engaging with the debate surrounding the naming of the present geological epoch as the “Anthropocene.” Barnett posits that despite its limitations, the term recognizes a change in our understanding of what it means to be human and invites one to mourn the loss of holocene stability and a different relationship with the earth. It also gestures toward a future beyond the Anthropocene and possibly the anthropos. Barnett engages with the second rhetorical practice, archiving, as a means of revealing ecological loss through an analysis of phenology, which entails the observation, recording, and archiving of selected seasonal phenomena. He posits that the rhetorical power of the practice lies in its ability to imply that change, loss, and uncertainty are to be expected in lieu of stable, cyclical patterns and ecological continuities. The chapter on the third practice, making loss visible, purposefully employs a wide range of rhetorical contexts including protest actions, memorializations of nonhuman animals and plants, and artworks to demonstrate the multiple ways past, present, and prospective losses can be made visible to engender grief and remedial action. The epilogue presents instances of how this theorizing of grief and mourning can be put into practice in the classroom and in the wider community to generate caring for more-than-human entities. Barnett highlights the political significance of caring, understood as both a disposition and an act, in a world where ongoing wide-scale losses are often ignored by governments and corporations.

On the one hand, the central argument of the book that certain rhetorical practices can give rise to ecological grief and mourning and result in corrective action is a hopeful one, and Barnett makes a strong argument for its political significance given the tendency for governments and corporations to pursue business as usual. Moreover, by centering loss, grief, and mourning, the work avoids promoting a false sense of hopefulness that fails to adequately account for ongoing ecological devastation. On the other hand, the line of argument developed by Barnett also acknowledges the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of grieving that which is unknown, distant, and/or unnamed, unless it is made familiar. While he draws from a wide range of rhetorical practices and examples of artwork, activism, and memorials, all of them are located in the Global North. Any corpus will have its limitations. Nevertheless, the transnational nature of anthropogenic climate change and the uneven global distribution of the impacts of ecological losses cause this geographical limitation to have a larger impact on the work as a whole. The lack of a global transnational approach prevents the work from fully combining its argument for a more-than-human ethics of care with a recognition of the political and material inequalities that characterize the Anthropocene and exacerbate the impacts of ecological losses. For example, in his analysis of Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones’s artwork, Postcards from the Future (2010), Barnett acknowledges and recounts criticism made against the work that its portrayal of London being overrun by climate refugees may stoke xenophobia and racism but contends that he wishes to emphasize “how the images gesture towards a different kind of ecological loss,” namely, the postcards’ capacity to “disturb viewers’ ability to take the continuity of the past, present, and future for granted” (pp. 132, 133). Significantly though, the future that is being imagined for London and juxtaposed visually alongside the city’s more recognizable markers is, at times, the devastating conditions that have already occurred at the frontlines of climate change, such as floods and climate refugees or metonymic references to the Global South, for example, paddy fields ploughed by buffaloes. Therefore, the seemingly universal first-person plural subject invoked in Barnett's claim that "Graves and Murdoc Jones's images, however hyperbolic, insensitive, or misguided some of them may be, engender our responsibility by refusing to see our shared future as an inevitability" is ineluctably an exclusionary one.

Overall, Mourning in the Anthropocene will appeal to a wide audience due to both its content and easy readability. Each chapter on the three rhetorical practices discussed begins with an anecdote that illustrates the theoretical argument that follows. The epilogue also includes examples of how rhetorical practices of mourning ecological losses can be employed in both the classroom and general community groups to cultivate ecological grief and to foster care for more-than-human entities. The accessibility of the book is of considerable importance because the work of developing practices of care cannot be limited to an academic community.


[1]. Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville R. Ellis, "Ecological Grief as a Mental Health Response to Climate Change-Related Loss," Nature Climate Change 8 (April 2018): 275.

[2]. Jacques Derrida, "By Force of Mourning," in The Work of Mourning, trans. Pascale-Ann Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 139; Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 1997), 14; Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 28; and Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009), 15.

[3]. Cunsolo and Ellis, "Ecological Grief," 275.

Citation: Thakshala Tissera. Review of Barnett, Joshua, Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58296

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