In part one of this two-part article, Kaira Jewel Lingo encourages us to recognize that anxiety and grief about the climate crisis are shared by many and are natural and adaptive responses. Accepting these difficult emotions can bring us peace as individuals and support coming together in community. “By being completely open to the full range of our emotions around climate change, we can welcome and befriend them, so that the power they hold can be directed towards meaningful action.”

Walking along stretches of beach in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a city of five million people, trash is everywhere: plastic bottles, straws and bags, styrofoam, the lone flip flop, take-out food containers, and more. At one spot there is a strong, unpleasant odour, where an open sewage line flows directly into the ocean.

Colombo, Sri Lanka. © bestbauch from Pixabay

The contrast between this human-produced ugliness and the beauty of the sparkling ocean and the vast, colourful sky is striking. I feel sadness and frustration that our consumption-driven society, in which I actively participate, is not more awake to the havoc we are wreaking on fragile ecosystems.

According to Wikipedia:

Eco-anxiety is anxiety about ecological disasters and threats to the natural environment such as pollution and climate change

Ecological grief is defined as “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”

In a 2014 Guardian article, Jo Confino asked, “Why aren’t we on the floor doubled up in pain at our capacity for industrial scale genocide of the world’s species?”

Eco-anxiety is intelligent and adaptive in the face of collapse

With the 2018 IPCC warning that we have until 2030 to make a change before it’s too late and just 18 months to stabilize climate change, and with ever more dire climate headlines, incidences of climate-induced worry, fear and despair are intensifying.

These emotions are not pathological nor are they a disorder. They are a healthy and realistic response to the terrifying and tragic realities of our times.

200 species go extinct every day. 75% of Arctic ice has melted in the last 30 years. 10% melt would already mean a huge crisis. Half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years. Each year heatwaves break a new record, wildfires are ever bigger and harder to control, and we see unprecedented levels of flooding.

There are many natural systems and phenomena that will never be the same again. Growing eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, and eco-grief are natural and adaptive as more of us become aware of the incredible harm we humans are causing to our planet, other species, and ourselves. They are an intelligent response from our psyches to the SOS signals in our environment, just as we would feel grief at the death of a loved one or if our community were devastated by a natural disaster.

Nothing can be changed until it is faced

While eco-grief and anxiety are natural, they are also painful and overwhelming. Denial is a coping strategy to avoid feeling them.

Mechanisms of denial and defensiveness are parts of us we set up to protect ourselves. We will only begin to address the problems of the climate crisis if we can face them and learn to fully and compassionately experience our grief and fear. We can’t take actions to protect our planet if we are in denial that there is a problem to begin with. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Bleached branching coral. Keppel Islands,
Great Barrier Reef. Wikimedia Commons

I believe part of why denial is so seductive as a response is that many of us are trying to hold this immensely disturbing reality alone, and our nervous systems are not set up for this. The hugeness of what faces us can only be adequately held in community, with other living beings we can hold, shake and cry with, and with whom we can envision and dream up solutions and creative responses.

But many of us live increasingly isolated lives, spending hours a day on screens that do not help us to feel truly connected to others. We are vulnerable to messages that disempower us and convince us we have no agency, so we tune out, numb ourselves, and take refuge in consumption of some sort to find relief.

And not only is the reality hard for us to take in as individuals, it is also something our society, media, and even some climate experts and sustainability researchers work very hard to sidestep and to shield us from, for numerous reasons.

It’s only slowly becoming acceptable to speak about the full extent of societal collapse due to climate change.

Releasing guilt, nurturing wholesome remorse

Another common emotion that arises in response to the climate crisis is guilt. There is a difference between wholesome remorse and unwholesome remorse. In unwholesome remorse, we stay stuck in the past. We cannot move forward because we are drowning in our self-criticism and self-judgment over what has happened. We cannot act constructively when we are tied up by guilt and climate anxiety.

Wholesome remorse on the other hand can take us inward to really feel our grief and then it can bring us outward again and give us energy to act. The inward movement is key. It is an experience of humility, and taking responsibility for how we have benefited from the ignorance, greed, violence, and destructiveness of our species. It is necessary to feel the pain of this. As Brenda Petersen writes, “It is never too late to quietly go to our oceans, lakes, rivers, and even small streams, to say to the seagulls, the bald eagles, the Great Blue Herons, the salmon, we are sorry.”

We can take care that our wholesome remorse does not turn into guilt by taking concrete actions to resist, reduce, or alleviate the destruction of our natural environments and act in solidarity with those most impacted by climate change, those that are marginalised, poor, or living in the Global South. Healthy remorse motivates us to change our behavior to take action to protect the preciousness of all life.

Meeting eco-anxiety with compassion

Both the tendency to retreat in denial and become immobilized by guilt in the face of the tragic unfolding of climate change is understandable. But shutting down or becoming frozen by guilt will not stop or delay the collapse that is already underway any more than will burying our heads in the sand.

Meeting the tendency to withdraw with compassion is much more effective than meeting it with judgment or shaming. There is real potential to discover and develop creative ways to adapt to this new reality together if we can accept and befriend our pain, sadness, fear and worry.

Knowing each of us is in some kind of traumatic response to the greatest traumatic event the human species has yet encountered, can help us hold each other with compassion rather than blame or judgment.

Self-compassion in particular is a tool of climate resilience that can help us meet the pain of eco-anxiety and climate tragedy. Kristin Neff cites research done with veterans coming back to the US from Iraq and Afghanistan. What determined whether or not they developed PTSD was not how much combat they had experienced in the war but whether or not they had self-compassion. Those who had self-compassion did not develop PTSD. It is key to our mental health.

Neff suggests three steps that can help us to practice compassion with ourselves in times of difficulty:

  • Acknowledge that we are suffering. Notice it and take it in. Don’t deny it, suppress it or push it away.
  • Be aware that the painful emotions we experience, whether climate-related or not, are experienced by everyone to some extent. We are not the only ones experiencing this suffering. The suffering we feel is not unique to us but belongs to all of humanity. This step is important because our suffering can be quite unbearable if we feel alone in holding it.
  • Be kind to ourselves. We can bring our hands to our heart, or simply with tenderness or friendliness, tell ourselves, “I care about this suffering. I want to be here for it and take good care of it.”

Accepting our diagnosis: Deep Adaptation

In his work on Deep Adaptation, Jem Bendell acknowledges the importance of mitigating climate change, through resisting systems of harm, but he also emphasizes the need to adapt to climate change. There are certain changes that have begun that we can no longer stop. Deep Adaptation invites us to learn to talk about the even more massive changes that are coming and how we can re-envision our lives and our societies to meet these new realities.

The thought that we are facing collapse is extremely hard to accept. We’ve basically been given a terminal diagnosis as a species. Our tendency is to deny or resist this diagnosis, but acceptance of the gravity of our situation can bring us peace. It can be healing and even refreshing. By being completely open to the full range of our emotions around climate change, we can welcome and befriend them, so that the power they hold can be directed towards meaningful action.

Bendell notes that there is much to be learned from groups of people who have gone through, and continue to face, cultural annihilation, genocide, the loss of their land and cultures.

Examining the way Native American Indians coped with being moved on to reservations, Lear (2008) looked at what he calls the “blind spot” of any culture: the inability to conceive of its own destruction and possible extinction. He explored the role of forms of hope that involved neither denial or blind optimism. “What makes this hope radical, is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is”. He explains how some of the Native American chiefs had a form of “imaginative excellence” by trying to imagine what ethical values would be needed in their new lifestyle on the reservation. He suggests that besides the standard alternatives of freedom or death (in service of one’s culture) there is another way, less grand yet demanding just as much courage: the way of “creative adaptation.” This form of creatively constructed hope may be relevant to our Western civilisation as we confront disruptive climate change.

There is much room for creativity here. The ‘don’t-know mind,’ the beginner’s mind taught in Buddhism, is crucial now. We need to begin to envision how to build structures that can support the change coming.

Taking action can support mental health

We all can do something, and in our own particular way. Taking action is a way not to fall into despair.

Each of us can decide what is the right action for us to take. It is important that our action comes from a place of peace inside, and that it brings joy. It does not need to conform to other people’s standards or expectations. We can find our particular passion that lights us up, and put it in service to the earth, in service of strengthening our collective wellbeing.

Great togetherness

Recently I went to the lake one evening in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. I was sitting on a bench as it was getting dark. Out in the lake a large clump of trees and bushes were growing and there was a huge community of birds making a lot of noise as they settled into their nests for the night. And then, all of a sudden, they all went quiet at the same time. It was very dramatic. Maybe 1000 birds going from very loud squawking to sudden silence.

Once silence fell, there were still a few peeps here and there. Maybe a little conflict around who would sleep where, and then silence again. So it was not a perfect togetherness. But it was a transmission for me, I experienced this as a kind of lesson in togetherness, the oneness of this flock of birds. This needs to inform our response to the climate crisis: to find ways to be together, to work, play, and act together.

And not only is being together with other humans important, but also being together with other species, with nature. Much healing and insight can arise when we nourish our joy and delight in the beauty of the world we still have available to us. An important medicine to help us hold eco-anxiety is to take time to be in nature, savour sunsets, birdsong, the caterpillar, the flower, really take these precious gifts in and be present for the incredible intelligence of nature that is still here.

Falling in love with the Earth

When I was about 10, living in Kenya, my dad took me with him on a business trip to Mombasa. We went to a village near the coast and while he was in a meeting, I discovered a large, inviting tree with huge branches that were very horizontal, perfect for climbing. I found a branch I could lie down on and I enjoyed just laying there looking up at the sky.

I remember the reassuring hum of crickets and the humid heat that enveloped me. I was totally at peace as I lay on that tree branch. The tree was ancient, enormous and I felt very safe there. I felt accepted as I was, I knew I belonged. Time disappeared as I lay there, completely content. I experienced that everything was alright, nothing was missing, I could relax and just be.

This was a moment that I have never forgotten. The peace and connection I experienced laying on the tree branch have stayed with me ever since in a very tangible way. It continues to nourish me to this day.

The conclusion of this two-part series can be found here. This series is based on Kaira Jewel Lingo’s “Befriending Eco-Anxiety: A Practice of Deep Adaptation”, which originally appeared on ethical.net.