Ecological Grief: How Climate Change is Affecting our Mental Health
Erica Mannis visited a panel discussing the trauma that comes from monitoring the impact of global warming and deforestation.
The ecological breakdown of our planet is cause of anxiety for people across the globe. Environmental scientists are at the forefront, discovering catastrophes, watching their work disappear before their eyes. Loss of species, ecosystems and landscapes are grieved by many. However, the scientist’s traditional response is to ignore and deny their feelings to ensure a traditional objective approach.
The emotional trauma they experience is similar to that found in other professions however, unlike military, healthcare or law enforcement professions, little to no support is given.
Ecogrief is a new term founded in a letter written to the journal Science by Tim Gordon (Exeter), Andy Radford (Bristol) and Steve Simpson (Exeter). The phrase is coined quite literally from the circumstances. Ecologists are grieving the loss of the environment they study and are understandably attached to. The emotional trauma they experience is similar to that found in other professions however, unlike military, healthcare or law enforcement professions, little to no support is given, despite evidence that emotional trauma has adverse effects on creativity, decision-making and coherent thought.
On the 25th February the Exeter “Be The Change” Society, in collaboration with several other student-led societies, held a panel debate and discussion on Ecological Grief. Panellists included authors of the original letter to Science, Tim Gordon (PhD student) and Steve Simpson (Professor of Marine Biology & Global Change), alongside environmental journalist Anna Turns and the University Buddhist Chaplain John Danvers.
Steve and Tim introduced the session by truly opening up to the sense of loss they have experienced whilst carrying out their research. Tim, a current PhD student, shared his experiences of fieldwork. His first trip to the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 was quite the opposite of what anyone could expect. Between applying for his PhD and his first field season, the reef experienced its greatest bleaching effect, 80% of their study sites were lost.
Despite reading the articles and papers showing the tragic effect bleaching had caused, it wasn’t something he was prepared for. Still anticipating the beautifully diverse reef, what awaited them was a devastated coral graveyard. This is not Tim’s only experience: on a trip to study the Arctic marine life, their ship was the first ship to sail so deep into the Arctic. This was not a feat for their sailing skills but rather because it wasn’t sea before. 100,000 km2 of ice is lost from the Arctic circle every year.
Ecologists are grieving the loss of the environment they study and are understandably attached to.
It is not only scientists that experience ecological grief or anxiety, many members of the public feel the immense weight of the climate crisis before us. In fact, it is considered a primal and healthy response.
It is very easy to hear the negative louder than the positive and often people are left feeling frustrated and ignored due to the lack of action. However, there are ways to help ourselves and the planet. Anna’s top tips include reconnecting with nature, finding your tribe and taking positive action. The Climate Psychology Alliance provide information on climate change as a well as therapeutic outreach to support people experiencing eco-anxiety.
It is important to remember not all hope is lost. All speakers recognise that we are not a breaking point yet and there are many things we can to look after our planet and ourselves. To encourage social reform and change in our society. To restore the environment where possible, replant trees, encourage coral reef regrowth. And to reimagine a future, we may not have the species we have now. The future will be “different, not a disaster” – Tim Gordon.