Spreading the word on yet another climate change problem: Environmental grief

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.

Source: https://cancerawakens.com/death-loss-part-2-five-stages-of-grieving/

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!


References

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/

8 thoughts on “Spreading the word on yet another climate change problem: Environmental grief

  1. I think that this, indeed, is a feeling that we might often experience, especially by studying these subjects.. Thank you for sharing this, it helps to conceptualize my emotions a little bit more. 🙂

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  2. I think it is a beautiful concept and it probably plays a larger role amongst humanity than we think. I think that this is an important issue as people often just regard climate change as a given fact, instead of a consequence of our own deeds (due to the fact that the consequences are not directly noticeable?). However, with the concept of environmental grief, people might stop and think about what they personally think and how they feel about climate change and its consequences. However, I do have mixed feelings about this notion though. I feel like this might be a way to just accept the fact that that climate is changing and that we will have to grief about it in order to ‘get over it’, which feels to me as giving up.. On the other hand, it might as well have to do with the fact that in order to do something about climate change, people have to accept it first.. I am not sure which of the two, both or maybe neither, environmental grief could lead to, but still, it would be a shame if this were a concept for people to hide behind..

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  3. I understand what you mean. It’s a similar effect of only posting negative articles about climate change instead of some positive as well. However, environmental grief is not something deliberate, it is another unintentional mental reaction. Therefore, I think acknowledging it does more good by allowing people to understand their feelings than it does bad by causing inaction. On the other hand, being aware of this potential effect could be used in the development of treatments such that it can be prevented.

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  4. Thank you for this interesting article, I was very happy to read it! I am currently writing my thesis on ecocriticism. More specifically, I’m analyzing how nature and environmentalism is represented in movies, for which I’m using some concepts from the deep ecology movement. Your article fits in very well with what I am currently working on!

    Are familiar with Arne Naess? He is the philosopher who coined the term deep ecology. The deep ecology movement states that all living beings have an equal intrinsic value, independent of whatever their use value is for humans. In this respect he also talks about one’s ‘ecological self’. It basically means that someone’s philosophical idea of themselves is larger than their own body, and includes the environment someone lives in. If this environment is damaged, someone personally feels this loss, as if they lost a part of themselves. I think the term ‘environmental grief’ is very applicable here! I am definitely going to read more about environmental grief, and maybe I can give it a place in my thesis. Thank you!

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  5. Thank you for your comment Manon! I’m honored to hear my blogpost might have inspired an addition in your thesis. I am familiar with the term deep ecology. However, through discussing about environmental problems and values in e.g. Environmental Law & Policy at AUC and another course I took abroad, I’ve found it is very difficult to conclude anything other than that in the end all values depend on the use to humans unfortunately. Even though I hope the opposite, I don’t think anyone’s behavior could confirm the notion of deep ecology.
    In case you do look into environmental grief more for your thesis: I found it interesting how the paper by Cunsolo and Ellis did not mention Kevorkian’s work/term/definition at all. On her website, Kevorkian also states that her work has been plagiarized, which is why she took it off the website. I assumed she was referring to the paper by Cunsolo and Ellis, but I am not sure about this and I couldn’t figure out any more details. This might be something to take into account while referencing in your capstone, considering the strict rules on plagiarism.

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  6. Yes, I agree. The way I understood it Naess used the term to critique contemporary efforts to recycle more and to invest in carbon capture techniques and stuff. Those latter efforts are what he called part of ‘shallow ecology’ as opposed to ‘deep ecology’, because although it certainly helps, these methods are insufficient to really make a large change, as they do nothing to really radically change our consumption patterns. So in that sense I think you are right for saying that deep ecology is more like an ultimate goal than a reality.

    Okay, thank you for pointing that out! I will look into that.

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  7. Hey Marron, thank you for a really elucidating blogpost! I really liked the idea of Whitcraft of celebrating ‘little wins’ against environmental grief, but how are we supposed to feel about ‘little losses’? I was wondering if you have some thoughts on the relation between environmental grief and environmental guilt/eco-anxiety. As you describe that as an environmental sciences student, you feel that maybe environmental grief is encouraging you to stay in maybe a disillusioning and depressing career path. My personal environmental grief and anxiety (which until reading your blogpost I had not really identified as such) makes me often wonder if I do ‘enough’. Especially as a privileged someone in the Global North, whose opportunities are rather large because of the historical carbon budgets our ancestors have consumed, I feel like this burden and the ‘guilt’ are maybe even larger. Sometimes I struggle with finding out which ‘burden’ is mine to carry as someone that is more aware of environmental injustices than maybe most people in society. If we do thinks that are bad for the environment, like flying far away for going on exchange or not separating waste, I wonder if we more to blame for environmental degradation than others that are maybe less aware. While I do think the discussion around grief is really important, I also feel like there should be a discussion about guilt and personal responsibility. For these climate scientists that are posting their feelings on isthathowyoufeel.com, their contribution to battle against climate change is obvious, but what kind of responsibilities do we have as students? The Gaia hypothesis that you mention makes sense in that you are allowed to grief for the demise of a larger whole that you are a part of, but maybe that partaking in the whole gives you also some responsibility, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. I hope this rant makes a bit of sense.

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  8. I have briefly examined the connections between solastalgia and environmental (ecological) grief in an essay: Albrecht, G.A. (2020) Negating Solastalgia: An Emotional Revolution from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene. American Imago, Vol. 77, No. 1, 9–30. © 2020 by Johns Hopkins University Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/753059 I hope it adds clarity, rather than yet more confusion to this important domain of enquiry. I also acknowledge the work of Kriss Kevorkian as a pioneer in this field.

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