If you hit up any social media platform in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, you’d have seen that the global outpouring of grief has been accompanied by an outpouring of outrage that this event, this destruction, has garnered so much more attention than (insert pet cause, from apocalyptic climate change to biodiversity loss) . Even as I grieve over the loss of one of humankind’s great constructions, this jealous husbanding of grief baffles me, especially when it comes to environmental issues.
Because climate fear and eco-grief are the big banana complaints of the moment, people demand to know what makes Notre Dame’s desolation more grief-worthy than, say, the clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest. Or the imminent extinction of the squishily adorable vaquita porpoise. How can the Notre Dame reconstruction fund have amassed a billion dollars from wealthy and poor alike in under a day, while we allow the natural cathedrals of the world to be felled, while we fail to protect glaciers from melting, or the oceans from filling with plastic? Oh, and by the way, the big bananas we all know and love, Cavendish bananas, are also in danger of extinction due to the rampaging and as yet incurable Panama fungus. As the Extinction Rebellion is demanding to know, where is the financial and political will to rebuild those epochal ruins or halt their destruction?
It’s as if grief is a zero-sum emotion. As if when we are horrified and saddened by the loss of a great historical building, we might not have enough grief left over for a lost rainforest or the decline of the monarch butterfly. There’s resentment that a 20-million-year-old cetacean species is less worthy of attention than a human-built pile of stones erected in the last thousand years.
Well, obviously. Limited focus is in our nature. We aren’t very good at seeing beyond the horizon of our own immediate interests. Committed environmentalists and activists have their areas of expertise and action, be it on specific birds or bananas; it is only from outside those laser-focused studies and undertakings that it looks like everyone is worried about everything all the time. At the same time, from outside those bubbles, there’s no denying that while the fall of one beloved building is a tragedy, the demise of untold glaciers is a statistic.
Allowing yourself to grieve at everything threatens to become overwhelming, a rising tide of despair upon which you either need to learn to body surf, or it will consume you more quickly than Florida’s coastline. How much safer to splash in grief at one particular event, the magnificent fire-gutting of a church, than to take in the systemic collapse of current political and economic systems that might be required for the planet to survive the inferno of humanity’s touch.
The cause of the Notre Dame cathedral fire looks like an electrical short, because of course it would be something simple. Like the carpenter’s faulty spotlight, as was the case with the burning of Windsor Castle. Or the spontaneous combustion of linseed oil rags, the current theory behind what destroyed Glasgow’s iconic School of Art. What each fire had in common was an old building in need of, or undergoing, renovation. And then an avoidable but not unlikely spark. A bit of slow motion entropy that erupted into disaster.
For someone like me who has adapted to expand my grief at environmental destruction so it can also absorb the loss of a human habitat like Notre Dame (not to mention the entire medieval forest that burned within it), the process of watching ecological damage is similar to what happened when these buildings went up in smoke. Small beginnings, unwarranted nonchalance, and calamitous results.
Fossil fuel use. Resource extraction. Plastic pollution. Overfarming, overfishing, overpopulation. The slow greedy embers that cause climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution have been burning in their hidden pockets for decades, but the conflagration is only getting truly under way now. For anyone waiting for the fire department to arrive, each lost species, each lost forest, each ruined waterway, is like watching the cathedral spire tip to one side and then collapse, over and over again. How much can the environment take before its structural integrity is so compromised that we collapse along with it?
Oops. There we go again, heads underwater in the grief tsunami. Hope you took a good deep breath beforehand.
In any case, the heroic efforts of the Paris fire department saved the main structure of Notre Dame. It will be rebuilt. Considering the level of worldwide passion and financial donations, the reconstruction could even be dazzling in its speed and ability to draw people together. Not to mention the creation of hundreds of jobs. Paris, and France, have reinvented themselves more than once. The country welcomed me as a citizen. I am forever grateful for its ability to absorb ruination and re-emerge anew.
So, up on top and body-surfing the grief wave again, we can look to the rebuilding of an ancient cathedral as an inspiration to what we can do when we decide to rebuild on a vast scale. Picture the passion swirling around Notre Dame, and imagine that applied to reforestation, or ocean clean-up. Imagine the sense of achievement. Imagine the jobs. Most of all, imagine this cathedral of a planet surviving and us along with it. There are thousands of children out on the street every Friday, doing just this.
Inclusive grief, active grief, all-embracing grief is the first step towards not waiting for someone else to do the work. When it comes to the cathedral of the world in which flames bursting forth and fire is visible through the windows, we are the people raising the alarm. Grieve, and then be the heroic fire fighters. Grieve, and then be the intrepid investigators, the innovative architects. Grieve, and then take action as the determined carpenters and workers.
Let us be all that, instead of being helpless mourners, choking on grief and angry that others aren’t grieving enough.
Image credit: Notre Dame/Roger Hall