Climate Grief: Our Greatest Ally?

August 27, 2020

Climate activist Tim DeChristopher once said that carrying the weight of despair “is a burden in tranquil times. But in turbulent and stormy times, that heavy weight is an anchor [that] prevents you from getting swept away.” It’s one of those lines I’d typically dismiss as just another quote you find on sympathy cards, but after twelve years in the environmental movement, those words have made me rethink the role of dark emotions in climate activism.

Every week when I walk into the classes I teach the University of Washington there’s some new report to break your heart: fires raging across California or Australiaclimate refugees and melting icecapsstarving wildliferising seas, and the disproportionate suffering of communities of color.

Terms like eco-grief and climate anxiety have become increasingly popular among young people. My own students tell me they don’t want to have children because they could grow up in an apocalyptic future. Some have trouble sleeping at night, and many feel betrayed by their parents’ generation.

And it’s not just students suffering from climate grief. Scientists talk about falling into depression from researching dying coral reefs and disappearing wildlife. I know restaurant workers and video game developers who suffered chronic anxiety after the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement. And then there are all the communities on the front lines of this crisis who aren’t just watching the world unravel from a distance; they’re living it every day.

As a climate educator I wanted to directly address this despair, so in 2017 I created a seminar that helps students navigate the emotional toll of our climate crisis. Those who enrolled said they were seeking relief from their distress. I wanted that too.

But something unexpected happened along the way. I had always thought of grief as a bad thing, a dark state to avoid or overcome as quickly as possible. I thought that feeling grief was like giving in to a preventable illness, or that once it took hold I might fall into a bottomless hole of despair. Like the students who signed up for my class, I was hoping to extinguish my pain for all this suffering.

Then it dawned on me that maybe we were seeking solutions to the wrong problem. We all wanted to fix the way we felt so we could go back to feeling happy. But grief isn’t something to be fixed, because it’s not dysfunctional. It’s a healthy and necessary process we have to undergo in order to heal.

In fact, grief can be a valuable source of wisdom and compassion as we move into an uncertain climate future. This may sound controversial in a moment when environmentalists are urging us to focus on hope, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Grief may even turn out to be our best ally in this age of climate crisis. Here are three reasons I believe that to be true.

Processing loss

First, grief isn’t just one of many options for accepting loss. Grief is the process of accepting loss.

I get why many people working toward sustainability want to sidestep emotional issues and push the public straight into action. The situation is urgent, and dwelling on our feelings can seem like an extravagance as the fires close in. But the problem is when we try to jump straight to the final step without first processing the emotional toll of all this lost beauty and life, we’re bypassing the very insights that motivate us fight for what we love.

Ignoring climate grief is like trying to rush through any great loss — a job, a home, someone you love — without pausing to acknowledge what you’re leaving behind. In all those cases, we’re not just losing something we once had; we’re losing the future that many of us had counted on.

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We can’t act creatively and honestly in this new reality if we still believe we’re living in the old one. But most of us are stuck in a pre-climate-change fantasy realm, clinging to delusions that our world in coming years will still be the world we imagined growing up. Denial isn’t just a description for people who reject the science. It describes all of us who understand the problem intellectually, but don’t live as though we do. We accept the facts, but haven’t felt our way through what those facts mean — how our lives, how all lives, will be undone in some way. We’re like the person who knows a loved one is dead, but hasn’t let that reality penetrate to their core, where it will reorganize all the ways they relate to the past and future, and determine all they’ll have to let go of.

Moreover, in several respects climate grief may be more complicated than many other forms of loss. For one, we can’t find comfort in telling ourselves that what’s happening is a necessary and inevitable part of the natural life cycle. Unlike the death of individuals, ecological assault is preventable. Another difference is that our climate suffering doesn’t happen a single time to a single person: it’s an intergenerational legacy that will leave behind a diminished world to everyone not yet born.  And third, while our loved ones may die of an illness we played no part in creating, with environmental loss we feel complicit, which adds more layers of guilt and denial.

In the face of so much emotional complexity, even people who can openly grieve in other situations feel numb in response to climate disruption, or cultivate a detached posture to protect themselves from setbacks. But if we deaden our sadness and pain, how can we still feel love and compassion as intensely as before? Our emotional life can’t be compartmentalized like that: when we stifle one sense, we diminish all the others as well. And the result is an impoverished experience of the world we want to save.

Breaking down boundaries between species

 The second way grief acts as our ally is by breaking down boundaries we’ve created between ourselves and other species — as well as other humans.

We usually think of mourning as a private experience, but it can also be a radical political act. In our culture there’s a hierarchy of lives that matter and lives that don’t. Some deaths receive elaborate mourning rituals and public tributes, while others are trivialized or ignored. Marginalized groups know how this absence of public grief dehumanizes them, which is why Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ activists, and people seeking justice for murdered indigenous women all use public protests and vigils to demand that those deaths aren’t made invisible.

In similar ways, when we openly grieve for the loss of other species or forests or rivers, we’re asserting that nonhuman lives are also worthy of mourning. We refuse to accept their exclusion from human circles of compassion.

In addition, the act of challenging boundaries between species transforms our personal perceptions. Keeping nature and humanity in separate categories prevents us from seeing our living planet as a network of kinship to which we belong.  Grief calls us back to an awareness of those bonds. This makes it a restorative spiritual practice in its own right, as Douglas Burton-Christie has argued. He wrote that “The ability to mourn for the loss of other species is … an expression of our sense of participation in and responsibility for the whole fabric of life.”

Grief is an act of love

This brings us to the third and most powerful way that climate grief can act as an agent of transformation. Beneath everything, grief is a sign of deep attachment and connection. You will not grieve for something you don’t love. That’s what grief is: it’s the pain felt in losing something dear to you.

So we shouldn’t think of grief and love as opposites, but actually as two sides of the same coin. The artist Chris Jordan echoes that insight in claiming that when we try to be cheerful and suppress our grief for the world, we’re also suppressing our love for it. “Grief and love can be seen as inseparable twins,” he wrote. “When we hold grief at a distance, our love becomes inaccessible; and when we embrace grief, we reconnect with the essential aspect of our being that has gone missing.”

That’s what I’ve come to understand about environmental loss as well. Eco-grief and anxiety arise from the recognition that our existence and wellbeing are entwined with other lives — an insight that’s fundamentally missing from our modern worldview and consumer way of life. Remembering how intimately our lives are bound up with others will be key to undoing this legacy and ensuring our collective survival.

So go ahead and grieve. It’s a good sign that you’re shedding old defenses and denial. Which is precisely what we need now in the fight to save what remains.

Teaser Photo by Jessica Delp on Unsplash

Jennifer Atkinson

Jennifer Atkinson is an Associate Professor in environmental studies at the University of Washington and the host of Facing It, a podcast about climate grief and eco-anxiety. She works with a global team of climate researchers to offer workshops on the mental health impacts of climate disruption, helping students channel despair into action. Dr. Atkinson is also the author Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice, a book that explores the history of why people garden in hard times.

Tags: building resilient societies, eco-grief