2023 Research Impact Canada Engaged Scholarship Award Honourable Mention (Master’s category): Sarah Law

Sarah Law’s project, Resistance and Resilience in the Era of Ecological Grief, has earned her an honourable mention for the 2023 Research Impact Canada Engaged Scholarship Award.

About project

Climate justice is a movement that fights for futures where no one is disposable or left behind. We fight for the equitable redistribution of wealth, the return of Indigenous lands, and the abolition of oppressive systems of extraction and incarceration for all species to thrive. Working with climate justice activists in this project and having been an organizer for nearly seven years has brought me the opportunity to conduct meaningful and engaged research from a position of compassion rooted in my communities.

After speaking with climate justice activists about their experiences with ecological grief and how emotions influence their organizing work, the importance to highlight the political and social nature of their climate emotions became clear. The reason for their anxieties, anger, and fear was not out of lack of individual effort, or dedication to the cause, or a simple case of burnout and exhaustion – these emotions were the result of the same systems of capitalism and white supremacy which have created and sustained the climate crisis. Their fear, anger, and panic were not only about the harms threatening our ecosystems like ocean pollution, CO2 emissions, wildfire smoke, or oil spills – it encompassed the cyclical nature of coming to terms with the disappointing and frustrating failures to implement structural climate action on political, social, individual, and collective levels.

Their stories shaped how I present ecological grief through six stages; 1. fear and urgency; 2. denial and overwhelm; 3. frustration and bargaining; 4. despair and depression; 5. anger and rage; and 6. acceptance and mourning. Each stage informs how we feel about the various systems that have created and sustained the climate crisis, which informs how we view the climate crisis as a systemic problem that requires radical social changes. I look to the sociality of emotions through feminist theories of affect to offer ecological grief as an embodied and affective response – a continuous practice of grief that shapes how we understand the climate crisis as a systemic problem that mourns environmental losses, hopes for the future, and deeply held beliefs about our social and political realities. When we look toward the sociality of grief, our emotions come alive – they move us, we are moved by them, and they can pull us towards each other.

Through theories of affect, I expand ecological grief away from a mourning of only environmental losses. It becomes inclusive of mourning the idea that our social realities and systems are fair, equal, and just which evokes feelings of despair and depression, and anger and rage. Each stage informs how we feel not only about how we feel about the object of the climate crisis, but the encounters we have with policies, police, governments, banks, and corporations. The climate crisis is the symptom of systems of white supremacy: capitalism, patriarchy, settler colonialism, and imperialism. Affect allows me to theorize with feelings, to frame emotional responses to the climate crisis as a structural and political problem. It alleviates the risks of theorizing emotion as an individual’s responsibility to heal or as a personal moral failure.

I use a desire-based framework and the radical imagination, which are tools found in both grassroots organizing strategy and radical environmental literature. Each activist expressed gratitude for the rare opportunities to discuss their grief without fear of being ridiculed and for being asked to share their dreams and visions of a just climate future. The opportunity to share their hopes for the future, their motivations to continue fighting, and their love for community building was a reminder that often the toughest politics come from the softest parts of ourselves.

About recipient of honourable mention

Sarah Law is MA student in sociology with a focus on political economy at Simon Fraser University. She is a climate justice organizer and facilitator, which grounded her undergraduate honours thesis on eco grief, climate action, and the politics of mourning. She is interested in moral and affective economies, neoliberalism, knowledge production/mobilization, eco grief, world making, care practices, and late capitalist affects. 

Her current projects include her master’s thesis; a fellowship with DoingSTS; eco grief workshops; and organizing Holding Climate Emotions ­– a climate justice conference exploring stories of eco grief, the imagination as political protest, and collective liberation through a series of youth activist led workshops, research presentations, and reflective dialogue.