There is mounting evidence that the sixth mass extinction is underway, ecosystems are in steep decline, and our planet is becoming increasingly damaged by human actions. Experts warn us about rising sea levels, coastal land erosion, and rising temperatures. If we continue down our current path experts predict that soon there will be areas of our planet that will become uninhabitable for humans, or any forms of life as we know it.
This ecological crisis creates climate-related weather events and environmental changes that have been linked to a wide variety of acute and chronic mental health experiences. This includes emotional responses such as sadness, distress, despair, anger, fear, helplessness, hopelessness and stress- all of which encompass the experience of grief. We have a connection to the natural world – it is our home after all – so it’s not surprising that losing our environment would elicit a similar response to the death of a loved one.
We live in the Anthropocene – a time of ecological crisis and loss. This is the era of ecological grief.
Ecological Grief: Mourning the Loss of Our Planet
While the common understanding of grief stems from the experience of losing a loved one, grief can be a response to any form of loss: the loss of a home, a job, or even a routine. We have this response because we have a connection and attachment to what has been “lost.”
Ecological grief is defined as the grief felt in response to climate-related losses of valued species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to climate change. This includes:
- Physical ecological losses: physical disappearance, degradation and/or death of species, ecosystems and landscapes
- Loss of environmental knowledge: identity, community and culture that are connected directly to the environment being destroyed
- Anticipated future losses: grief for future loss and destruction
Ecological grief is a valid response to environmental losses, particularly for people whose life, work, and cultural relationships are closest to these endangered natural environments; such as Indigenous people, scientists, and farmers.
Who is Affected by Ecological Grief?
“When we talk about ecological grief, we’re talking about a complete severing of that attachment to the land, and the long-term implications of that are similar to mourning.”
Scientists have been tackling this grief for decades. They are constantly wrestling with their own grief responses to climate change, while trying to focus their work on continuing public education, and meaningful change. But it is Indigenous people along with other communities who are closely connected to the land that experience a direct impact on their mental health due to environmental change and disaster. This is especially true for Indigenous peoples who live in rural and remote regions, such as Nunavut, Canada, where time spent on the land is drastically shortening due to variations in thickness of ice, or seasonal break up.
“The land becomes inaccessible for people and they can’t get out and harvest,” Arlana Bennett explains, “which has a number of implications for economic stability—especially if you supplement your food from the land, and of course mental and physical health.” Bennett is Anishinaabe and a member of the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation in Northwestern Ontario who is currently working on her PhD in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, and spoke with us at length about ecological grief and its impact on Indigenous communities.
Bennett explains that land is central to Indigenous culture and identity. “When we talk about ecological grief, we’re talking about a complete severing of that attachment to the land, and the long-term implications of that are similar to mourning.”
Indigenous communities are not only mourning the loss of land from climate change, they are also mourning the lack of access to their lands due to the continuing effects of colonialism: “Since we don’t have complete access to our territories, and the ability to exercise our tenure and stewardship practices as fully and completely as many of us would like, there is a deep sense of loss there.”
There is also the anxiety around future losses, or anticipatory grief, that can affect any of us as we look towards our future, and the future of our families. A 2019 poll by Business Insider reported that almost 38% of Americans aged 18 to 29 believe that couples should consider climate change when deciding to have children. In 2018, the New York Times reported that a third of American men and women aged 20 to 45 cited climate change as a factor in their decision to have fewer children.
So how do we move towards active, positive change?
How to Support and Cope With Ecological Grief
Embracing the fact that you are not who you used to be, and that your world has changed, is an important part of the bereavement process. Does ecological Grief operate in the same way? Yes, your identity has changed, but it is not just your personal world that has changed; it is the physical world we share with everyone on the planet. Our world has physically changed, and will continue to do so.
Jennifer Atkinson, a Senior Lecturer in environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, teaches seminars on Ecological Grief and explains that “many of us are familiar with the stages of mourning following the loss of human life — denial, guilt, anger, depression and, ultimately, acceptance — but we don’t really have a vocabulary for the loss of our natural world. Only recently have climate activists and mental health professionals started using terms like climate depression, eco-grief and pre-traumatic stress.”
We need to create tools that can help us support one another. Creating a vocabulary to explain our emotions and the type of grief we are feeling is one way to help us cope. When we give names to our grief, we can talk about it and work together to heal and to progress forward into positive action, or post-traumatic growth. It can even be something as simple as “Reef Grief” to help explain the feelings grief over the loss of reef ecosystems due to rising ocean temperatures and pollution.
We can also create new rituals, like the funeral service and memorial that was erected in Iceland for a melting glacier. Iceland’s culture and economy rely on its glaciers, all of which will be gone in 200 years at our current pace. These types of rituals can help bring communities together to figure out how to move towards action and change.
“Wouldn’t it be a devastating blow for our ‘intelligent’ species if we died off due almost entirely to ego and greed?”
As Atkinson mentioned above, this is all new, but there are mental health practitioners leading the way, such as the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. This group of Psychiatrists was created to raise awareness on the mental health effects of climate change. It is a national network of psychiatrists that are dedicated to helping climate scientists, and others, affected by the “defining threat of our time.”
Education is Key
Cass Romyn, the President of the Green Party in Alberta is a strong advocate for climate education. “Knowledge is power,” she tells us. “Wouldn’t it be a devastating blow for our ‘intelligent’ species if we died off due almost entirely to ego and greed?”
One place to start is with Atkinson’s online workshop that tackles this grief head on. The workshop “explores the mental health dimensions of climate disruption among different communities and shares practical strategies for building the emotional resilience to cope with loss over the long haul.” This workshop introduces different methods of coping with grief through short writing exercises, personal reflection, discussion, and hands-on group activities. The workshop is also designed to lead you to action by teaching you how to take your own unique skills, connections, interests and experiences and utilize them towards climate justice.
“When we’re talking about ecological grief in Indigenous communities, we’re almost always dealing with natural resource exploitation, infrastructure development projects, or some kind of economic expropriation of land.”
A key part of our education should be rooted in Indigenous issues. Educating ourselves on Indigenous issues is paramount to help fight climate change and channel ecological grief. Indigenous communities are on the front lines of this fight around the world. A good place to start is by looking into your local area to find out what the key climate issues are for the Indigenous communities you live near. Online, you can also follow the hashtag #LANDBACK on Twitter to learn what different Indigenous communities are doing to fight for their future.
During your research, remember to be respectful and considerate of these communities as you learn how to support them. For many people protest can be a common response to grief, but Bennett cautions that “protest is a loaded term, and there is a conscious effort to move away from this term in activist circles.” This is where direction from grassroots initiatives, such as tiny house warriors, beaver hills warriors, or water defenders, for example, can help guide you to appropriate responses that actually support these communities on their terms.
Bennett reminds us that “when we’re talking about ecological grief in Indigenous communities, we’re almost always dealing with natural resource exploitation, infrastructure development projects, or some kind of economic expropriation of land.”
She goes on the explain:
“We aren’t fighting to ban plastic straws; we’re struggling to keep traditional territories intact, biologically diverse, and to keep the land healthy for future generations. An important statistic that was published recently was that Indigenous peoples are responsible for maintaining roughly 80% of the world’s biodiversity. This is a direct result of ecological practices that are informed by hundreds and thousands of years living on the land. I would suggest that learning from Indigenous communities, and supporting their efforts to maintain traditional territories is one of the greatest overlooked opportunities for combating climate change and ameliorating ecological grief.”
A Call to Action
Coming together as a community, both locally and globally, and mobilizing under a common cause for change can help people channel their grief into more productive and meaningful action. We may be grieving, but we can still do something together.
Instead of trying the run from the anxiety that stems from this change, reflect on your anger, anxiety, and fear and turn these feelings into action.
When Atkinson lost her father to cancer, she found comfort and advice from loving people who were there to support her in her grief. “They reminded me to sit with those hard feelings, to be present with my pain and anger and whatever else rose to the surface in that process … Grieving doesn’t lead to endless suffering. It leads to healing and mental health. Why should our grief for the world be any different than the loss of a loved one?”
Atkinson concludes that: “Grief is strength in these times. Burying our emotions might shield us for a while, but grief keeps us in contact with truth, and beneath everything, it opens our eyes to the profound love we feel for the fabric of life that’s under threat. Grief is a direct expression of connection—a pain we could never feel if it weren’t for the depth of our love. And more than cheerfulness or stoicism or more information, it is love that will move us to fight. No scientific report or technological innovation will ever match that kind of power.”
The future is going to be different. Instead of trying the run from the anxiety that stems from this change, reflect on your anger, anxiety, and fear and turn these feelings into action. It is important that we talk about our emotions around climate change, and acknowledge its presence in order to learn how to cope with ecological grief as a community moving forward.