On Sacrifice

Today we continue a (somewhat irregular) series of posts where CEM Core Group members consider what various “big emotions” mean to them in the context of the Climate and Ecological emergency.

We welcome any responses to these posts, be they published here or elsewhere.


Activism and sacrifice seem to be certainly linked and I don’t think you can have activism without it, but as with many things in life it’s on a spectrum. Being more environmentally and socially conscious, learning to confront and understand emotions that surface, and then trying to do something about ‘improving’ the situation probably starts to put you on that sacrifice spectrum. How far you’re willing to go on that spectrum is quite another thing. When does sacrifice, which can be defined in many ways, turn into harm or violence? Where is that harm directed towards as well? Is it towards yourself or are others involved? Do you feel it’s just that they deserve it if they’re not also sacrificing as much? I’m not much of a philosopher so haven’t really explored those boundaries of potential sacrifice turning into harm.

Who are these sacrifices for? Again, is this for yourself so you can cope emotionally with historic decisions you’ve made, are making or will make in the future? Or are these sacrifices for others – humans, non-humans, the planet? How will you know whether those sacrifices were worth it considering activism very rarely if ever is a total success and at best leads to compromise with those who hold most power and privilege.

My main sacrifice from being part of CEM has been time – something that we all have, but also is finite and non-returnable. Could I have sacrificed more? Of course, there’s always more, but then again, this issue and fight isn’t going away. So I find myself always having to balance these questions in my head as I need to be able to keep on going for what I presume will be some time to come.


Humans, as a species, have sacrificed so much in our brief span on the planet.

Huge amounts of biodiversity, countless billions of lives (human and non-human), the stability of the climate we arose in, and so much more have been consumed, food for the insatiable economic maw of capitalist “civilisation”. And whilst humans have walked on the earth for scarcely an eyeblink in the context of deep time, so much of the damage we’ve done has happened incredibly recently, and continues to accelerate, even now.

As the grim consequences of all this consumption become ever more stark, I have been lucky to find in CEM a way to channel some of the anger, frustration and yes, fear, into something that tries to make at least a small difference to the way we respond to the crisis locally. In doing so, I’ve spent many hours working with a group of committed, caring, and determined people, from whom I’ve learnt a great deal; from specific skills to different ways of thinking, ways to think about and cope with the stress of living with the knowledge of what our continued failure to respond meaningfully as a society will mean, and to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude.

So while CEM has cost me some time, it has given me back much more.

As has been written, climate change (and more broadly, all the other impacts that excessive human consumption have wrought) is an era, one that we all live in whether we know it or not. The knowledge we all carry from the past does not fully equip us to live here – we are marooned on a partially alien world, yet one that lulls us with a partial sense of familiarity. We have unwittingly sacrificed the bond with our planetary home, the predicament we find ourselves in is learning how we live in this new uncertainty, that will define all our lives to come.


Yes, let’s talk about sacrifice. Not because it’s the most helpful way for thinking about the mess we’re in – at least not in the way it’s most commonly used. But sacrifice is rarely considered head-on and examining a fresh emotion (or ritual!) might make us reflect in a different way, the point of these blogs, at a time when there is so much writing about how and what we should feel.

Sacrifice has also snuck in via deniers and sceptics, and needs to be called out. This is the loose use of sacrifice to mean giving up something or going without. In the context of the climate crisis, this becomes a message that we (individuals in the Global North) must forgo all manner of items that make up daily life, from cars to holidays. This is climate change as killjoy – a branding that ignores how recent or superfluous the goods may be, or why they were sold to us in the first place. Quitting patio heaters is not a sacrifice.

But even those who don’t paint environmentalists as trying to ‘return to the stone age’ might slip into the language of sacrifice. How far are some proclamations that we ‘each need to do our bit’ from sacrifice? When an individual brags about what they have cut out of their diet or no longer buy – with no sense of how this is connected to wider systems – we’re approaching sacrifice, or martyrdom (an allied concept in the Christian tradition). In some faiths and cultures, sacrifice is an offering to absolve guilt.

Pretending that everything can stay the same is of course as great a danger. We now see just as many corporate visions of a greener cleaner future as we do evocations as action on climate change as a primitive, a turning back of the clock. In these techno-optimist fantasies, not only do we not have to sacrifice anything to act on climate change but we can make everything better. How about that! Rare is the politician who treads the line between these two extremes to explain clearly that we will have to make some changes, and not all of them will be easy. Rarer still is the public figure who proposes that some people can and need to give up more than others. Why has the language of ‘sacrifice’ flattened out social inequalities?

If we are going to talk about sacrifice, let’s use it to shed light on who and what has been sacrificed in pursuit of a higher god (capital, empire, industry). Who are the people and species across the planet who have been offered up, against their will? Who has it been judged ‘OK’ to sacrifice? Who is collateral? According to the UN, a ‘sacrifice zone’ is any region or community where extreme pollution is causing human rights abuses. Strokes, cancers, respiratory diseases, heart failure. The term was first coined in  the US in the 1970s America and is often used to refer to ‘Cancer Alley’ and the American South. But it’s widened since and can widen further still. No need to be a special rapporteur: next time you go for a walk, or make any kind of trip, think: how much of what I pass could be, in some way, a sacrifice zone?


Rapid, dangerous climate change shows us the world that we knew is getting chewed up, sacrificed on the treadmill of production, converted into the stuff of modernity, as its waste greenhouse gases cause havoc for life on Earth. There is some colossal damage. That’s troubling and sad enough as it is. But it’s worse when I reflect on my own complicity in the destruction. Collusion generates guilt. Guilt might be resolved – or at least, held at bay for a while – with sacrifice. 

Knowledge of breakdown triggers guilt; guilt is resolved via denial of knowledge, forgetting, and ignoring; or via action which may come at some personal cost, i.e. sacrifice. Many sacrifices are just small things: like recycling. Only slightly inconvenient, but enough for many people to say ‘I’ve done my bit.’ But it’s not really enough, is it? 

How much is enough of a sacrifice? Can it ever be big enough? However much I might do, the smallness of my act will still feel insignificant when I remember the scale of the problem and the depths of its foundations. So I return to my complicity as I live, with relative privilege and some decent amount of enjoyment, in the systems we are trying to change. The return to guilt can drive further sacrifice. 

Moralist me says I should always sacrifice more. But selfish me does not want to sacrifice anything. Neither of these voices offers a great way to look at things. On the one hand, lack of care. On the other hand, a heroic fantasy where it’s as if the weight of the world falls on my shoulders. The way out of the cycle of selfish and moralist voices, I suspect, is to act. And in those acts, recreate yourself. 

Our views are not individually or collectively our “last word” – our thoughts on these emotions are a momentary snapshot in time and always open to revision, reflection.

Some of the reading here may be of help in dealing with “big feelings”.

If you’re really struggling, and we’ve opened a can of apocalyptic worms, please get help – preferably from a professional. There’s zero shame in that at all. We’re living in a challenging time. 

And if you do wish to write to us in response, it’s  contact@climateemergencymanchester.net


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