Climate scientists overwhelmingly say that we will face unprecedented warming in the coming decades. Those same scientists, just like you or I, struggle with the emotions that are evoked by these facts and dire projections. My children—who are now 12 and 16—may live in a world warmer than at any time in the previous 3 million years, and may face challenges that we are only just beginning to contemplate, and in many ways may be deprived of the rich, diverse world we grew up in. How do we relate to – and live – with this sad knowledge?
Across different populations, psychological researchers have documented a long list of mental health consequences of climate change: trauma, shock, stress, anxiety, depression, complicated grief, strains on social relationships, substance abuse, sense of hopelessness, fatalism, resignation, loss of autonomy and sense of control, as well as a loss of personal and occupational identity.
This more-than-personal sadness is what I call the “Great Grief”—a feeling that rises in us as if from the Earth itself. Perhaps bears and dolphins, clear-cut forests, fouled rivers, and the acidifying, plastic-laden oceans bear grief inside them, too, just as we do. Every piece of climate news increasingly comes with a sense of dread: is it too late to turn around? The notion that our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a reaction to the decline of our air, water, and ecology rarely appears in conversation or the media. It may crop up as fears about what kind of world our sons or daughters will face. But where do we bring it? Some bring it privately to a therapist. It is as if this topic is not supposed to be publicly discussed.
This Great Grief recently re-surfaced for me upon reading news about the corals on the brink of death due to warming oceans as well as overfishing of Patagonian toothfish in plastic laden oceans. Is this a surging wave of grief arriving from the deep seas, from the ruthlessness and sadness of the ongoing destruction? Or is it just a personal whim? As a psychologist I’ve learned not to scoff at such reactions, or movements in the soul, but to honor them.
A growing body of research has brought evidence from focus groups and interviews with people affected by droughts, floods, and coastal erosion. When elicited, participants express deep distress over losses that climate disruptions are bringing. It is also aggravated by what they perceive as inadequate and fragmented local, national and global responses. In a study by researcher Susanne Moser on coastal communities, one typical participant reports: “And it really sets in, the reality of what we're trying to hold back here. And it does seem almost futile, with all the government agencies that get in the way, the sheer cost of doing something like that – it seems hopeless. And that's kind of depressing, because I love this area.” In another study by sociologist Kari Norgaard, one participant living by a river exclaims: “It’s like, you want to be a proud person and if you draw your identity from the river and when the river is degraded, that reflects on you.” Another informant experiencing extended drought explained to professor Glenn Albrecht’s team that even if “you’ve got a pool there – but you don’t really want to go outside, it’s really yucky outside, you don’t want to go out.”
A recent climate survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication had this startling statistic: “Most Americans (74%) say they only ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ discuss global warming with family and friends, a number that has grown substantially since 2008 (60%).” Emphasis mine.
These quotes and statistics underscore the reality that many prefer to avoid or not dwell in—this Mordor-esque land of eco-anxiety, anger, despair, and depression. One of denial’s essential life-enhancing functions is to keep us more comfortable by blotting out this inner, wintry darkness.
The climate survey, however, also has this encouraging finding: “Americans are nine times more likely to lean toward the view that it is people’s responsibility to care for the Earth and its resources (62%) than toward the belief that it is our right to use the Earth and its resources for our own benefit (7%).”
So, what if instead of continuing to avoid this hurt and grief and despair, or only blaming them—the corporations, politicians, agrobusinesses, loggers, or corrupt bureaucrats—for it, we could try to lean into, and accept such feelings. We could acknowledge them for what they are rather than dismissing them as wrong, as a personal weakness or somebody else’s fault. It seems, somehow, important to persist and get in touch with the despair itself, as it arises from the degradation of the natural world. As a culture we may uncover some truths hinted at by feelings we tend to discredit as depressive. These truths include that they accurately reflect the state of ecology in our world. More than half of all animals gone in the last forty years, according to the Living Planet Index. Most ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably, according to Millennium Assessment Report. We’re living inside a mass extinction event, says many biologists, but without hardly consciously noticing.
In order to respond adequately, we may need to mourn these losses. Insufficient mourning keeps us numb or stuck in anger at them, which only feeds the cultural polarization. But for this to happen, the presence of supportive voices and models are needed. It is far harder to get acceptance of our difficulty and despair, and to mourn without someone else’s explicit affirmation and empathy.
Contact with the pain of the world, however, does not only bring grief but can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living. It holds the potential to break open the psychic numbing. Maybe there is also community to be found among like-hearted people, among those who also can admit they’ve been touched by this “Great Grief,” feeling the Earth’s sorrow, each in their own way. Not just individual mourning is needed, but a shared process that leads onwards to public re-engagement in cultural solutions. Working out our own answers as honestly as we can, as individuals and as communities, is rapidly becoming a requirement for psychological health.
To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning and sadness, not speedily bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference. And with this deepening, an extended caring and gratitude may open us to what is still here, and finally, to acting accordingly.
Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist, an economist, and an entrepreneur who has cofounded clean-energy companies. He spearheads the BI Norwegian Business School’s executive program on green growth. He has written three books, including What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. He lives in Oslo, Norway.