Wikipedia recognises the existence of climate or ecological grief and defines it as:
“A psychological response to loss caused by environmental destruction or climate change.”
Others have defined it 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.”
Scientists associated with maintaining the integrity of the Great Barrier Reef have reported to have feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and despair.
As long ago as October 2nd 2004, an article by Jo Confino appeared in the Guardian about this:
Here is part of his introduction:
“Is it possible to hold all the grief in the world and not get crushed by it?
I ask this question because our failure to deal with the collective and individual pain generated as a result of our destructive economic system is blocking us from reaching out for the solutions that can help us to find another direction.
Our decision to value above all else comfort, convenience and a superficial view of happiness, has led to feelings of disassociation and numbness and as a result we bury our grief deep within our subconscious.
The consequence is not only a compulsion to consume even more in an attempt to hide our guilt but also a projection of our hidden pain onto the world around us and at the deepest level, the Earth itself.”
“The point of recalling the rape, pillage and desecration of communities as well as the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity is not to get stuck in anger and hopelessness, but to transcend them through the power of compassion and forgiveness.”
It is from this standpoint that several people are now running workshops to help people come to terms with their climate grief and to move on from it. Professor Jem Bendell runs such workshops, in which he describes the process as “Deep Adaptation”. People are encouraged to express their grief in a variety of ways. Some of his talks have been recorded on youtube eg
in which he challenges people to ask the question “What if?” What do I (we) need to do to adapt to the changes that are ahead of us?” “What changes do I need to make in my life?” He believes that this process will lead people to cherish more what we (they) have and start seriously discussing with others strategies for the future.
According to Bendell, one of the ways of coming to terms with this grief or, in some cases, anxiety, is to start cherishing nature and engaging with it more. This is part of the deep adaptation process.
Last year, Extinction Rebellion also ran a 3-hour workshop entitled “Feeling Nature: Grief tending Workshop”:
When I wrote my first book, “I will lift up my eyes”, I described a feeling of climate grief in the final chapter, though at the time I did not realise that it was climate grief. I have used it as an introduction to this third book, “Three generations left? Human activity and the destruction of the planet”. Most of the grief that I have personally felt has been about the loss of species and the destruction of habitats and ecosystems, as I am a great animal lover. Indeed, it was finding scientific analysis about the rate of loss of species that was the first focus of this book, and its title, as it would appear that a there might be a sixth mass extinction coming in three generations time.
Other posts elsewhere on this website have provided more details about the loss of species (for example: “Orangutans and Pangolins” and several posts about coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and bush fires and floods in Australia). And there has been a suggestion that the coronavirus pandemic could have been initiated by the trafficking and eating of pangolins in China. It is hoped that the shock of the global pandemic may save this gentle creature from extinction.
It would appear that a Chinese NGO dedicated to the shared vision of living in harmony with nature, CBCGDF (China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation) has been active to reduce the import of endangered wildlife species into China, as well as other wildlife issues. On 11th April 2020, 441 kilos of pangolin scales, mainly from Africa, were confiscated by customs officials; they are thought to have been removed from 800-900 pangolins, mainly trafficked from Africa. Further details can be found on their website:
441 kilos of pangolin scales seized by Chinese customs officials
A pangolin in captivity
But my grief has not just been about the loss of species; it has been about cruelty inflicted by humans to sentient creatures. It is so widespread that it is now an endemic part of the global culture. It includes the poaching, killing and/or trafficking of animals from one continent to another for financial gain, certain fishing and whaling techniques, a long era of farming on an industrial scale and the use of animals in circuses. In my book I include pictures of sows farrowing in crates, to prevent them from moving and trampling on their piglets; battery hens laying their eggs in cages and the long-distance transport of sheep, cattle and other farm animals in cramped conditions across oceans and continents to be slaughtered for meat in another country.
This image above makes me weep. But even more upsetting is the recently-acquired knowledge that this practice has been going on for more than 120 years. Why has it never been challenged? Is the acquisition of money and the balancing of the economy considered to be more important than the suffering endured by these sheep on the long, cramped journey to their death?
Here is part of a poem written in 1896 by W.H. Davies, who worked for a time on a ship that transported farm animals from America to England:
“The first night we were out at sea
Those sheep were quiet in their mind;
The second night they cried with fear —
They smelt no pastures in the wind.
They sniffed, poor things, for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.”
Davies also wrote the well-known poem, which begins “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare, No time to stand beneath the boughs, And stare as long as sheep and cows…..”
A very old recording of him reciting this poem can be found on youtube:
These poems, perhaps more than anything else help to describe the situation that we, the human species, have brought upon ourselves. And the Sheep poem expresses the grief he felt 120 years ago. “What is this life..” perhaps describes the busy life of humans, which has led to the activities causing climate breakdown, now far worse than when he first recited it.
Letters to the Earth
One of the ways that people have been encouraged to cope with the Covid-19 lockdown is to write letters to the earth. Doing this may also help in the grieving process.
In these moments of separation, stillness and unknown, Letters to the Earth is an opportunity to reconnect and for a new story to emerge.
What do you want to say? What needs to be heard?
For our key workers, neighbours, faraway friends and family. For yourself, for others and for the Earth: Letters of love, support and hope are needed.
The deadline for posting these Letters in Lock-Down was Earth Day, 22nd April 2020 and they can be viewed as videos on:
A similar exercise was carried out in 2019 and those letters were published in a book:
Facing the Future
Some people, rather than feeling grief about the loss of, and cruelty to, various species, are more concerned about what the future holds. Their feelings would perhaps be those of anxiety and fear. Prof Jem Bendell thinks that some people respond by denialism. Others feel angry and accuse others of causing the climate situation. Others think we can “invent” our way out of it by designing machines that will capture carbon dioxide.
It is so difficult to know what will be the worst effects of climate change and how they will manifest. Many people think we will experience food shortages and hunger; others may lose their homes from flooding or coastal erosion or fire. My personal view is that, whilst these situations will undoubtedly arise, that extreme climate events may be the most traumatic. Already hurricanes and tornadoes are ripping through communities; already we are seeing excess human deaths during the frequent heatwaves we now have in parts of the world; already seeing losses on a great scale due to wild fires; already seeing whole islands disappear from sea level rise.
I think that Jem Bendell’s workshops on “Deep Adaptation” deal most with fears arising from the above. By encouraging people to express their fears, they can be externalised and strategies found to cope with them, moving eventually away from hate and anger with those who have brought about this situation, to love, cherishment and acceptance. This is a big jump but maybe the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has brought about more sense of community and an acceptance that “we are all in this together”. Maybe this has been a trial run for the future that awaits us.
The issue of denialism has been discussed by Prof. Rebecca Willis in an article for Scientist for Global Responsibility (SGR). Here it is in its entirety:
Prof Rebecca Willis, Lancaster University, spoke at SGR’s Responsible Science conference, and writes here about the challenge of overcoming social denial of the climate emergency, drawing on her new book Too Hot to Handle? The democratic challenge of climate change.
Article from Responsible Science journal, no.2; online publication: 22 June 2020
“When life gets me down, I go running. I have a collection of comedy podcasts which I plug into, as the dog and I make our way round the local hills at rather a sedate pace. My favourite is a show that is as old as me: the BBC’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. It’s a panel of very clever, very funny people doing silly things. For me, it is the best medicine for climate anxiety.
To live in a time of climate crisis is to compartmentalise. If, like me, you spend many of your waking hours thinking about climate, it exerts a heavy toll. The news of what is already afoot: the wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and floods. The predictions for the future, within my own lifetime, and in the lifetime of my children. The intransigence of the response from politicians, media and many people. It goes round and round in my head, and I have to switch off. When I take time off work, I can feel myself disconnecting from climate change too, and it is a relief.
Responding to climate change is about balancing this dual reality: acknowledging the enormity of climate change, without being overwhelmed. But it is a difficult balance. Those of us who work on climate daily are stalked by it. But most people keep it at a distance, or laugh it off with quips about the end of the world.
When the anthropologist Kari Norgaard went to a Norwegian village to study understandings of climate change, she uncovered a paradox which, for me, is fundamental to understanding our responses. Villagers were aware of, and concerned by, climate change. They had noticed changes to snowfall, and to the ski season that many of them depended on for income. Yet they chose, together, to ignore it. It just wasn’t something that people spoke about.
As Norgaard asked, “how could the possibility of climate change be deeply disturbing and almost completely invisible — simultaneously unimaginable and common knowledge?” She labels this phenomenon ‘societal denial’.
In my own research with politicians, I have seen many examples of this. The politicians I spoke to showed a marked tendency to play down the climate threat. Like Julia (not her real name), a confident politician who expresses her views freely. As we chatted over coffee, she was deliciously unguarded in her opinions of her colleagues, criticising the vast majority of her fellow parliamentarians for not dedicating time or attention to climate. She said that just a few of her six hundred or so colleagues took the issue seriously – “you might not get into double figures”.
And yet Julia knew that she must tread carefully, not for scientific reasons, but sociological ones: she has to fit in. I asked her what would happen if she tried to interject in a debate on budget issues, to persuade her colleagues that fossil fuels should stay in the ground. She replied: “I think they’d just think that they’d think you were a bit ‘niche’, is the way I’d put it – I say ‘niche’ in quotes like a bit of a lunatic fringe.”
Julia wasn’t the only one who worries about her ‘niche’ reputation. One former MP, who had been an active climate campaigner in Parliament, said “I was known as being a freak”. Another told me about how he tried to avoid being seen as a ‘zealot’. He said he had been arguing for better public transport in his constituency, and I asked him whether he had mentioned climate change. He said he hadn’t: “I think if I had mentioned carbon emissions, there would have been a rolling of eyes and saying, ‘oh here he goes again’.” These remarks were common in my conversations with politicians. Some went as far as deliberately avoiding any mention of climate, for fear that it would be an unhelpful label.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. As any undergraduate sociologist learns, the way people think and act is conditioned by their social world. We are heavily influenced by our social surroundings, and by implicit rules and norms.
This insight brings with it an important lesson for all of us who are concerned about climate. It can be summed up in one sentence: If you’re thinking about climate, talk about it too.
It’s not an easy thing to do, because by naming climate change you are saying a lot of difficult things about how we live our lives. In the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, it is not a coincidence that it was a child who pointed out that the Emperor was, in fact, naked. As Greta Thunberg has demonstrated admirably, children have that enviable ability to ignore social convention, and say what they see. We could all learn from that. You won’t always be thanked for it, but your courage will be noticed.
You can talk to politicians. National leaders, local councillors – any and all elected representatives. Tell them you are worried about climate change, and ask them what they think. The rest of the suggestions below will help you to think about how that conversation might go. The charity Hope For The Future has a brilliant set of resources on its website to help you through the process of asking for, and planning, a meeting.
But don’t stop with politicians. You could raise it at your workplace, talk to your friends, make it clear on social media. In short: fight socially organised denial. Last year, I took a deep breath and chatted to the parents on the touchline when my son was playing football. It was a really positive conversation. Since then, I’ve tried to include it in a lot of general chat. Or rather, I have stopped censoring myself.
The UK charity Climate Outreach has been encouraging people to have these conversations, and researching the impacts. They worked with volunteers who offered to start up conversations, with strangers, family members, acquaintances and work colleagues, and to report back on their experiences. Though it was sometimes hard to start with, participants were glad they had done it. As one said, “talking about it breaks down the isolated feeling, and makes me feel more supported to take action”. This confirms research which suggests that taking action on climate is good for you: it helps overcome feelings of helplessness or grief that may emerge from contemplating something so all-consuming.
Practising what you preach?
This brings me to the all-important question of your own footprint. Of course, we should all be thinking about this. Your own carbon footprint is a drop in the global ocean. But every drop, like every vote, counts. It counts even more if you talk about it. What better way to talk about the need to reduce aviation than to say that you have restricted your own flying, for work and for holidays? Imagine how powerful it would be if everyone who campaigned for climate action – politicians, businesspeople, celebrities, everyone – made meaningful pledges about what they would do in their own lives. Could you be the person who prompts your organisation to change?
There is a growing band of university researchers who have pledged to stop the wasteful amounts of flying that are currently a normal part of academic life. As a result, new options are opening up. International conferences have been run without air travel – like the 2018 ‘Displacements’ anthropology conference, where online presentations were watched at different regional hubs. When I write research grants, I factor in the time and money for train travel, not flights. I have also done some brilliant research using webinars rather than actual meetings. It’s different, but it can work really well. On one memorable occasion, a workshop participant in California decided to show everyone joining from round the world his beautiful stripy knitted socks. I remember him waving his feet in front of his laptop camera.
It’s not a case of all-or-nothing. My good friend Kate Rawles, an amazing adventurer and climate communicator, has set herself a budget of one flight every three years, and talks about this whenever she can. She says that people find it easier to relate to than stopping flying altogether (in rich countries, at least – it’s always worth adding the caveat that most people in the world have never got on a plane). Similarly, I’m an occasional meat-eater – I don’t think you have to choose between meat every day and a strict vegan diet. Do what you can – and tell people about it. There’s research to show that it makes a difference. As my research shows, people are heavily influenced by their social world. If people they respect have changed their behaviour significantly, this has an impact.
We are now seeing higher levels of concern about climate change than ever before. This is thanks to many brave people who have decided to speak out, and confront societal denial. It’s a lesson that bravery and honesty are as important as technology in the climate struggle.”
Rebecca Willis is a researcher with twenty years’ experience in environment and sustainability policy and practice, at international, national and local level. She is a Professor in Practice at Lancaster Environment Centre, and an Expert Lead for Climate Assembly UK, the national Citizens’ Assembly commissioned by Parliament. In 2009 Rebecca founded Green Alliance’s Climate Leadership Programme, an initiative to support Members of the UK Parliament, and still supports Green Alliance’s work in this area. Previously, she was a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee for the UKRI Energy Programme, Council Member of the Natural Environment Research Council, vice-chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, and Director of Green Alliance.