Wildfires in Australia, a melting Arctic, rising sea levels threatening communities – many will recognise the deep unease these headlines create within ourselves. While concern about climate change and the future is a normal response, an increasing number of people experience profound feelings of depression and grief relating to the environment.
Many of you will have experienced ecological grief at least once in your life – just close your eyes for a minute and think back to a natural place you used to cherish in the past, but is not there anymore. To me, this place is the wetlands near where I grew up. I recall many happy hours of identifying the abundance of plant species, playing hide and seek in the tall grass, meeting hedgehogs on my daily walks. Today, the wetland is not there anymore but has been replaced by housing. Every time I visit my family, my heart aches when I see how tame and sterilised my wild refuge has become. I can still see the moors when I close my eyes.
But ecological grief does not necessarily have to relate to losses we have personally experienced – my own research focuses on anticipatory loss, which refers to the long-term changes climate change will bring and can lead to ill mental health just as much as experienced losses. It is important to recognise the emotional distress resulting from anticipation, especially when we are constantly bombarded with news of extreme weather events, worrying research findings and heart-breaking footage of communities torn apart by the disaster.
Ecological grief has been categorised as a type of “disenfranchised grief”, meaning that it is often disregarded by others because it is so difficult to comprehend – but many of the psychological processes are not new.
Mourning nature can occur in a similar way we mourn loved ones – a long process of coming to terms with what has been taken from us. And yet, grief for ecosystems, nature and the planet as a whole has a certain quality to it that sets it apart – we know that we are complicit in the destruction of our natural environment. Often it is not our choice to make when we find ourselves in a capitalist system, and breaking out of it can seem daunting and leave us feeling powerless. For many, this leads to feelings of despondency for a period of time. But it can also be immensely empowering if we take the right steps.
So how do we channel ecological grief into positive action whilst working through these complicated feelings?
1. Accept that you won’t save the world
Take small steps, but accept that you won’t save the world. I am not here to lecture you on individual behaviour change – because hopefully you will be aware that you are not the problem, but big corporations who perpetuate environmental destruction and injustice. However, in my research I have found that making small changes in your daily life – such as cutting down on plastic, animal products and flying – can have considerable benefits for mental health, endowing you with a sense of stability and purpose (Kleczka, 2020).
Many see these things as their responsibility as conscious citizens, but do be aware not to overdo it – focusing all your efforts on living with a minimal impact will not only deprive you of life quality, but you will also quickly hit a wall – everything in our modern lives comes with a carbon footprint. Know where to invest your energy without compromising your wellbeing.
2. Find your role
Finding your role in this crucial point in history is important, especially as realising the implications of climate change can throw us off balance and make us feel bereft of our place in the world. Finding new meanings can involve engaging in activism, joining your local rewilding or conservation group, educating others or communicating your experience through art.
Every little bit of action is doing a big service to the cause. Do not beat yourself up if this is not accessible to you – climate activism comes from a place of privilege and with a unique set of challenges and risks, especially for people from marginalised groups.
3. Find your tribe
In my study, the community was found to be the single most powerful factor in adapting to this scary new world, both for building emotional resiliency and preparing on a more structural level for the challenges we will face in the next decades. Having your voice heard and your concerns validated – these are crucial waymarkers in grieving the natural world in a society that does not typically perceive nature as a mournable body.
The “we-creating capacity” of mourning through shared vulnerability is powerful – some theorists even argue that actively mourning environmental losses is our responsibility to both the planet and ourselves. The group you turn to in facilitating this journey may be the people who you have always held close in your life, or a new community you actively seek out in order to find like-minded people – realising that you are not alone can be a transformative experience.
4. Cherish what we still have
Spend time in nature and practice gratitude – when we spend our energy fighting to protect nature, we have all the more reason to enjoy her company. Nature has been found to have immensely beneficial effects on mental health. While it may seem ironic to actively seek out what we fear losing, it is also what can help us recharge and remind ourselves what it is we live, hope and fight for. Even spending as little as ten minutes in your local park will help elevate your mood, sharpen your focus and reduce anxiety.
5. Don’t try to “get over” your feelings
Do not feel the necessity to “get over” your feelings and leave them behind. Just as climate change is a continuum, our pain for the natural world will not go away anytime soon. Some would even argue that expressing these feelings is our responsibility as conscious citizens, engaging with what has been lost.
In the context of this discourse, the term “resistant mourning” has emerged – a type of mourning that does not want to be consolidated, one we hold on to in order to hold ourselves accountable and actively confront our responsibility for the loss. These confrontations are important in order to avoid the repression of our feelings but we also need to remember to be gentle to ourselves. Only through fierce love will we be able to fight against the injustices of our system, and this love must also include ourselves.
|If you feel that you are unable to cope, please do not be afraid or embarrassed to reach out for help. There are many people out there who know exactly what you are going through and are trained in helping guide you through your grief. The Climate Psychology Alliance offers free counselling to environmental activists and everyone else experiencing painful feelings relating to climate change and the environment. Know that you are not alone – and by connecting we can make incredible things happen.|