Ecological grief describes individuals who experience deep emotions related to loss of the environment and nonhuman life, loss related to the degradation of landscapes and ecosystems, and loss of cultures, livelihoods, and ways of life. Ecological grief also involves the experience of anticipatory grief for what is likely to come with continued climatic and environmental changes (Cunsolo & Landman, 2017).
Last October, the United Nations released its report on climate change. In it, the U. N. warned that without “unprecedented action,” catastrophic conditions could arrive by 2040 or earlier. The increasing discussions about, and visibility of, climate change, combined with bleak, often terrifying reports from scientists around the world, are taking a toll on mental health—especially among young people who are increasingly losing hope for their future. This “climate grief” shows up as depression, anxiety, despair, and mourning over a changing world (Scher, 2018).
Despite the growing evidence that climate change is wreaking havoc on our environment and our psyches, many people still resist the evidence and do not make the small changes that may help avoid disaster. Why? Many believe that people will not change until they acknowledge their “ecological grief.” The psychological effects of climate change currently affects, or will affect, approximately 200 million Americans (Rosenfeld, 2016).
The Inuit have a word for changes they are seeing in their environment and in their way of life—uggianaqtuq. It means “to behave strangely” but it is not just their weather that is in turmoil. The melted ice, shorter winters, and unpredictable weather have made those who live there feel trapped, depressed, stressed, and anxious. In some cases, it has led to increased substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
Children are more impacted by ecological changes and disasters than adults and are more likely to have continued trauma-related symptoms after these changes. Children are also more vulnerable to the long-term consequences of stress related to extreme weather events, including population migration, lack of food, pollution, disease, unemployment, and loss of social support (APA, 2018).
Richard Louv (2008), author of Last Child in the Woods, suggests that as we lose access to wild habitats and our connection with the natural world, we develop what he calls a “Nature Deficit Disorder [NDD]” and experience many debilitating types of physical and emotional tensions in our lives. He strongly believes that while we often see ourselves as separate from nature, humans are inherently part of nature’s wildness.
What Can You Do?
Many individuals feel overwhelmed by the challenges of climate change. They tend to throw up their hands and say “What can one person really do to change the climate?” or “It’s too much for any one person to really change so why bother?” Yet, most social change starts at the grassroots level where individuals, one by one, decide they will “do their part” to contribute to a better world. Small acts can have big results. The most important things anyone can do to slow or reduce climate change are get involved, do small things every day to reduce our impact on the planet, speak up, and vote for those who support climate/environmentally-sustaining actions!
Cunsolo, A., & Landman, K. (2017). Mourning nature: Hope at the heart of ecological loss and grief. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press
United Nations. (2019). Climate reports. Retrieved July 14, 2019 from https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/reports.shtml
Scher, A. (2018). “Climate grief’: The growing emotional toll of climate change. Retrieved July 21, 2019 from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/climate-grief-growing-emotional-toll-climate-change-n946751
Rosenfeld, J. (2016). Facing down “environmental grief.” Retrieved August 1, 2018 from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/facing-down-environmental-grief/
Albeck-Ripka, L. (2017). Why lost ice means lost hope for an Inuit village. Retrieved August 2, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/25/climate/arctic-climate-change.html
American Psychiatric Association. (2018). Climate change and mental health connections. Retrieved July 8, 2018 from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/climate-change-and-mental-health-connections
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill