Updated: Mar 24
Loss in the natural world due to climate change and other ecological catastrophes has become a lived experience for more and more people these days (Comtesse et al., 2021). Try asking people in Greece how wildfires destroy their homes and croplands, leaving nothing but desolation. Or how relentless drought has forced mass migration to overcrowded cities in the Middle East. Perhaps you might also experience some kind of emotional pain seeing landscapes around you change, reading news about climate disasters, and witnessing people suffer because of ecological loss. Seeing all this ecological destruction is bound to have a psychological effect on us all. This feeling has a name, it’s called ecological grief and it’s likely to become more common as climate impact worsens (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018).
Ecological grief is the pain and sadness we experience after the loss of ecosystems, natural landscapes, or species (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018). Experts have tried to explain the cause behind this psychological phenomenon. Kim Usher, a mental health researcher at the University of New England, suggests in her paper that climate impact disrupts our innate connection with the natural environment, resulting in feelings of loss. Another possible explanation based on the Place Attachment Theory is that we form an emotional attachment to meaningful environmental landscapes, hence a disruption after ecological losses results in a grief-like response (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018).
Ashlee Cunsolo, a health geographer, has identified four types of ecological grief. The first one is acute grief from directly experiencing environmental disasters such as wildfires, floods, and landslides. This type has the strongest mental health impact and could result in long-term PTSD, depression, or anxiety. The second one is slow-onset grief when you are grieving over a gradual environmental change like pollution and a loss of biodiversity. The third one is vicarious grief, which is the pain you feel after seeing others suffer from ecological catastrophes. And the last one is anticipatory grief, the anxiety you experience when thinking about future ecological loss, such as the grief many of us feel thinking about climate change.
Anyone can experience ecological grief in their own way, however, people living in the same area often experience similar grief responses. For example, in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) there is a place-specific phenomenon known as reef grief. It’s an emotional response to the environmental degradation of the GBR ecosystem, namely from coral bleaching. A survey conducted by researchers from James Cook University and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that a large number of people (Australians and international tourists alike) used words associated with sadness, fear, and disgust when asked about the environmental decay of the GBR (Curnock et al., 2019).
Now that we have identified ecological grief as a real and ever more pressing phenomenon, you may be wondering what you can do to cope with this feeling? First of all, it’s important to understand that it’s a normal psychological reaction. There is nothing wrong with having negative emotions, it’s a sign that we care and value the environment. However, if the emotional pain becomes too much to cope with, consider joining a support group to express your grief and anxiety over the loss, or consulting a mental health professional (Cunsolo et al., 2020). Secondly, alleviate your grief by taking action for the environment. Getting involved in environmental activism or conservation can help you regain hope for a better environmental condition.
Ecological grief is a natural response to environmental degradation, reminding us that climate change is not only an environmental problem but is also a mental one personally experienced by more and more people. Dealing with this feeling is important because there’s hope from this grief. Hope that can transform into actions to protect our important places, animals, and ecosystem and to prevent losses in the future. We can face this problem if we come together.
Writer: Kemas Saddam
Editor: Stevenson Ramsey
Comtesse, H., Ertl, V., Hengst, S., Rosner, R. et al. (2021). Ecological grief as a response to environmental change: A mental health risk or functional response?. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(2), 734. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18020734
Cunsolo, A., & Ellis, N. R. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change 8, 275–281. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2
Cunsolo, A., Harper, S. L., Minor, K. et al. (2020). Ecological grief and anxiety: The start of a healthy response to climate change? The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(7), e261–e263. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30144-3
Curnock, M. I., Marshall, N. A., Thiault, L. et al. (2019). Shifts in tourists’ sentiments and climate risk perceptions following mass coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Nature Climate Change, 9, 535–541. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0504-y