When well known science reporter, Dr Jonica Newby, was suddenly overwhelmed by climate grief three years ago, she was surprised by how far she plummeted, to the point of seeking antidepressants. Struggling to find a way through, crying constantly over what’s ahead for her beloved snow country, she wondered how others were coping. That life changing moment became the starting point for her new book, Beyond Climate Grief: a journey of love, snow, fire and an enchanted beer can.
This intensely personal memoir follows her quest to answer the fundamental question: how do we live a good and happy life under the weight of this knowledge? Here is an extract from Beyond Climate Grief where Dr Newby speaks with artist Missy Higgins, about her journey with climate grief and how it influenced her new album Solastalgia.
Late November 2019, I pull up in front of singer Missy Higgin’s pretty little home in one of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs and walk down the path. With her delicate features and warm eyes, Missy in person is every bit as exquisite and graciously down to earth as she appears on our screens. She leads me into an airy white front room that obviously doubles as her studio and excuses herself to check her sleeping toddler while I set up my equipment.
‘Oh Missy, you made me cry,’ I say when she returns.
‘Oh, sorry!’ she laughs.
‘I even had to fight it back on the way here,’ I confess, ‘because I hadn’t listened to Solastalgia for a couple of weeks and I wanted to remind myself of the songs and I was going, “Oh, I’m feeling a bit raw after my other interview, and now …”’
‘Oh, god! Don’t listen to my music if you’re feeling raw, that’s a bad idea!’
We both laugh at that.
It’s true, Missy is known for the pure emotion of her songs, seeming to tap straight into the river of our collective joys and suffering.
‘Sometimes it’s good to have an outlet for it,’ she goes on. ‘That’s what songs are great for sometimes, I think. They pull at your emotions, you know, like a string and they just keep on pulling and pulling until they’re all out in the open. And sometimes someone else can find the words that you can’t. And I think that’s what good music has done for me over the years. It gives a name to your grief or to your emotion.’
Missy’s music before this new album comprised the personal heartbreak, love, regrets, pain. But obviously something profound shifted for her. The first song on Solastalgia is about the dilemma of not wanting to have a child for fear of the kind of world they will inherit. Another simply gives a list of the ordinary things we humans do to make a living for our families, and then segues into a haunting refrain about the consequences… which could be the end of everything.
Other songs are apocalyptic, including ‘Don’t Look Down’, the song I cannot listen to without holding back tears. So the first thing I want to know from Missy is what the emotional tipping point was for her to start writing about climate.
‘I think it was sometime after my first child was born,’ she says.
‘Because, same as you, I’d always intellectually known about the importance of caring for the environment and climate change ever since I was a kid. I’ve always felt slight anxiety about it. Back then it was CFCs.’
‘Seems so easy now!’ I laugh, remembering how we all stopped using aerosol cans.
‘Exactly,’ agrees Missy wryly. ‘I don’t know how old Sammy was, but we were thinking about having another child and I was feeling really heavily the responsibility of bringing another human into the world because they are going to inherit this really unpredictable world we are creating for them. I think I’d just read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and that terrified me. Even just the introduction was all about how these things we are doing are going to be irreversible and how the changes we have to make have to happen at a mass government scale. And it made me feel really helpless and angry at our leaders because we are relying on them for our children’s survival, but they’re being so money driven and selfish. It was just a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. And then I fell pregnant and had a miscarriage. And the sadness of that really propelled me into a deep depression. Coupled with the climate anxiety, I think that was just two things that reached peak capacity inside me.’
When her crisis hit, Missy stopped watching the news. Her nerve endings were too sensitised, too raw; she retreated. As I listen, I am struck by how similar her peak climate grief experience was to mine. It was Missy’s husband, Dan, who encouraged her to find her way through these emotions the way she always had by writing the feelings into songs.
‘At first I thought, I’m going to write songs about rallying us all to tackle this together,’ she says. ‘But then I realised that would not be genuine, because what I’m really feeling is grief and anxiety. And I need to deal with this before I can be any sort of influence on anybody. Because at the moment I feel like I have no answers and that’s part of the reason I’m feeling so stuck and so in need of my art. Dan encouraged me too and said don’t try and provide any answers, just be honest. And that is what people respond to anyway when you’re just telling your own story and not trying to preach anything. So a lot of those songs, especially the apocalyptic ones, came from my desire to go straight into the worst possible scenario. So that I could feel as though I’d been there. I’d been to the end and I’d survived it.’
She pauses. ‘It was kind of terrifying,’ she admits. ‘And I turned it into something beautiful. And that was cathartic in itself. I guess that’s what music is, it’s turning the ugly things and the noise in your head into something beautiful, something simplified and something that you can share with others. And in sharing it you feel not so alone.’
‘How are you now, though, after you hit the skids?’ I ask. ‘Did you find your balance?’
She pauses. ‘I think that album was pretty cathartic for me. But also playing those songs in my shows, talking a little bit each night about the importance of climate change awareness, did make me feel I was making a tiny difference. And we had information stands in the foyers. So every time you do something that makes you feel a little active, it feels like you’re not a standing target. You’re not giving up. And that in itself can be enough. But I think where I got really stuck is feeling it was my responsibility to single-handedly reverse climate change.’ We both laugh in recognition of that little trick of the ego. ‘So when you go through a period of grieving your powerlessness and you realise really all you can do is your little bit, then you come to terms with that and it feels OK. Anything bigger than that, it feels like a losing battle every time.’
‘The psychologists I’ve been talking to have come up with an algorithm for this,’ I offer. ‘They all say these emotions need action for us to process them. And that boils down to two possible actions: change what you can, and accept what you can’t.’
‘There’s also something to be said for taking some time out for yourself and tending to your own garden,’ Missy says. ‘We’re moving out to the bush to be among nature to have our feet in the dirt more often. So I feel like part of my goal next year is to be as much in the moment with my kids and out in nature as possible. You have to make sure you don’t spend so much time worrying about the future you miss the beauty of now.’
Finally I ask the question I’m asking everyone: ‘What advice would you give me for my climate grief?’
‘Keep doing what you are doing. Keep talking about it. As you know, sharing stories, it’s so powerful, it’s so cathartic. I think it’s so important for people to know that they are not alone in this journey. I think you’re doing the right thing taking long breaks from news and you really have to look after your own mental health, I think first and foremost. It’s a hard balance between wanting to live your own life and not feel riddled with anxiety every day but also not sticking your head in the sand. So I think nobody can tell you how to do that. You’ve got to find out that balance yourself.’
About Dr Jonica Newby
Dr Jonica Newby is a TV producer, writer, director and presenter with 20 years of experience making quality factual television in the specialist science genre. She has twice won Australia’s most prestigious science journalism prize, the Eureka Award, and is the recipient of a World TV Award.
Best known as a presenter / reporter on the popular long running flagship Australian TV science program Catalyst, what’s less well known is that behind the camera, Dr Newby has produced, written and directed all her own programs for the past 15 years.
Jonica is currently on a book tour, you can find out more details on her website.
And if Jonica’s extract has inspired you to take action about climate change, then check out the charity Protect Our Winters and read her interview with the founder in her book.