As someone studying environmental sciences, I sometimes wonder why I chose for this field of study. Most of the courses and topics, especially those related to climate change, do not exactly paint an optimistic picture of the current and future world, so why would I want to spend so much time studying them? To be honest, I am not sure if I actually enjoy studying these subjects, but instead it might have more to do with the importance and urgency of the issues related to climate change and environmental degradation. A while ago I came across a term which might explain this feeling, strong enough to encourage a choice of career path: environmental grief. This term was coined by Kriss Kevorkian in 2004, which she defined as “the grief reaction stemming from the environmental loss of ecosystems caused by natural or man-made events”. Recently, a paper was published by Cunsolo and Ellis (2018) about ecological grief, which was similarly defined, but with a specific focus on climate change-related losses of nature. Although this form of grief is still an underdeveloped area of inquiry, both Kevorkian and Cunsolo and Ellis have some interesting thoughts on the subject.
What is environmental grief?
Grief is an emotional response to loss which is well-understood and about which many theories have been formed, like that of Kübler-Ross which distinguishes the five stages of grief, shown in the figure below (Kübler-Ross, 1969). However, usually this grief is caused by the loss of a person, not that of the natural world. Thus, environmental grief is often described as a disenfranchised grief. Kevorkian names the Gaia theory, developed by James Lovelock, as an important contributor to the acknowledgement of environmental grief. In the Gaia theory, the world is seen as a living, self-sustaining organism, and humans are also part of and dependent of this organism. According to Lovelock, this worldview can cause people to care more for the overall health of ecosystems and nature on Earth.
Cunsolo and Ellis found three pathways of environmental grief by doing research on case studies and reviewing literature, although they are overlapping and incomprehensive. The first is grief associated with physical ecological losses. This form can be caused by acute events, such as natural disasters. For example, research conducted among people who had to evacuate because of hurricane Katrina were found to experience grief about the loss of their homes, neighbors, and surrounding environments (Morrice, 2013). However, this grief can also be caused by more gradual changes. In this case the environmental grief is very similar to solastalgia, which is a type of homesickness one feels while still being home and which is induced by environmental change (Albrecht et al., 2007).
Second comes grief associated with loss of environmental knowledge. In this case, people who usually live closely with their environment may have constructed their personal and collective understandings of self-identity partially in relation to their environment. Because of this connection, they are vulnerable to mental distress when their environment is changing or degrading, as they lose confidence in their knowledge and abilities around it. This distress might also be related to the fact that this environmental knowledge has been passed on for generations and that their cultural system based on the environment is ceasing to exist as well.
Lastly, there is grief associated with anticipated future losses. Although this area is the least studied out of the three, it might be the one especially climate-scientists experience the most. This grief comes from the anxiety about the anticipation on the decline of nature, sometimes also in relation to associated ways of life.
Why is it good to know about it?
Well, lately this threat to global mental health sparked some more attention. For example, the National Wildlife Federation published a report about the psychological effects of global warming and explained how the U.S. mental health system is not prepared for them. Also, it is noted in the report that certain groups of people are at a much higher risk of experiencing psychological effects, namely the natural scientists and people who depend on nature for their careers.
Luckily, Samantha Whitcraft, a conservation biologist, explains how this grief can be used for a good cause by saying “There’s a chain of productivity that potentially starts with recognizing what environmental and ecological grief is and recognizing it in yourself […]” (Rosenfeld, 2016). Also, acknowledging environmental grief as a non-market loss associated with environmental degradation can help shed even more light on the importance of mitigating it for policy-makers and other relevant parties.
What can you do about it?
Since the study of environmental grief is still at an early stage, there is no concrete remedy for it yet. The acknowledgement of it, however, can already help a lot by validating the emotions people may experience. Hopefully, this will also encourage more research on the issue so that one day there will be specific programs and therapies. Websites like isthishowyoufeel.com already show messages of scientists and other people about their thoughts on climate change, linked to an actual exhibition in the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change (MoCC) in Hong Kong. Reading these messages can be helpful for anyone who recognizes themselves in those thoughts. Lastly, Whitcraft explains how she tackles the feeling of grief by taking small actions against climate change and celebrating the little wins (Rosenfeld, 2016).
So, if you believe environmental grief is a problem, you can help by spreading the word!
Albrecht, G., Sartore, G. M., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., … Pollard, G. (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change. Australas Psychiatry, 15, 95-98. doi: 10.1080/10398560701701288
Coyle, K. J., & Van Susteren, L. (2011). The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System Is Not Adequately Prepared. (NWF National Forum and Research Report February 2012). Retrieved from National Wildlife Federation: https://nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Global-Warming/Reports/Psych_effects_ Climate_Change_Ex_Sum_3_23.ashx
Cunsolo, A., & Ellis, N. R. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change, 8, 275-281. doi: 10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2
Kevorkian, K. (2004). Environmental grief: Hope and healing (PhD Dissertation). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.561.289&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. London, UK: Routledge.
Lovelock, J. E., & Margulis, L. (1974). Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the gaia hypothesis. Tellus, 26, 2-10. doi: 10.3402/tellusa.v26i1-2.9731
Morrice, S. (2013). Heartache and Hurricane Katrina: Recognising the influence of emotion in post‐disaster return decisions. Area, 45,33-39. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01121.x
Rosenfeld, J. (2016, July 21). Facing Down “Environmental Grief”: Is a traumatic sense of loss freezing action against climate change? [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/facing-down-environmental-grief/