- The ongoing climate breakdown is resulting in a phenomenon known as ecological grief, which can overlap with trauma responses.
- There is a lack of social validation, guidance, or support for this unique type of suffering.
- Ecological grief and trauma can be a catalyst for psychological transformation and larger cultural shifts.
We are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction of our world; the loss of so many species has resulted in a substantial decrease in global biodiversity. Further, things are getting worse and worse each day for our environment. This is confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific organization under the auspices of the United Nations, which released another report in 2022 confirming how human activity continues to drive the ecological crisis. Rising global temperatures, ocean acidification, glaciers melting, wildfires, extreme weather patterns, species extinction, pollution, and other irreversible changes continue to significantly impact the Earth’s ecosystems.
All of this has a direct impact on human health, and the ongoing climate breakdown is resulting in layers of loss for people across the world, particularly for younger generations, disadvantaged socioeconomic communities, and indigenous peoples. More and more people are experiencing a phenomenon known as ecological grief, which is a natural response to losses associated with:
- Tangible loss of ecosystems, wildlife, and natural habitats. Other tangible losses may include the loss of jobs, economic stability, material possessions, homes, and entire communities from natural disasters.
- Intangible losses around the loss of traditional knowledge associated with environmental systems, particularly for indigenous communities, environmental workers, and scientists. This may also intersect with losses around identity, cultural traditions, losing ways of life, or a spiritual sense of connection to the Earth due to environmental changes.
The above list is by no means exhaustive, and there are many other types of losses that can occur with the ongoing climate breakdown. For example, there can be a significant loss of trust, faith, or certainty for the future, as there is anticipatory grief towards future environmental degradation. This can manifest itself as chronic sorrow, as individuals may grieve for the ecological destruction that has already occurred, while also grieving what is to come. Many are worried that there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050, for instance.
Continuously witnessing extinction, death, and catastrophe either firsthand, or at a distance, can also result in vicarious trauma responses. Many individuals feel a profound sense of emotional dysregulation, despair, hopelessness, and an overall experience of powerlessness as they witness the ongoing destruction of the natural world. Survival instincts to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn can often be observed when conversations around the ecological crisis emerge within our daily lives.
What further complicates this experience is that there is no foreseeable end or a sense of resolution regarding these traumatic losses. Ecological grief can also be further complicated as humans are responsible for the ongoing climate emergency, and thus individuals may feel guilt or shame for participating in something we are collectively responsible for.
This experience is also magnified by the experience of disenfranchised grief, as there is a lack of social acknowledgement, validation, and rituals towards this unique type of grief experience. Publicly experiencing ecological grief can be met with active social resistance, as environmental awareness in any capacity threatens modern industrial values and practices. Sharing one’s experience of ecological related grief or trauma can challenge the status quo, as many of us were raised with the social ideology that we should consume as much as possible, and that we should buy things without reflecting on it. As such, our grief intersects with sociopolitical tensions around systems of power, in addition to the devastating environmental impacts associated with global capitalism and unconscious consumerism.
It is plausible to think that our experiences of ecological grief and trauma can provide us with the space to critically reflect on the social values, customs, and practices that led our collective species to this moment in time. By choosing to engage with our suffering consciously and actively, perhaps we can find the clarity, courage, and compassion to reconstruct a new way of relating to our planet. A radical re-imagining of the way we exist on this planet is necessary if we want to prevent future destruction, grief, and trauma towards both the human and the more-than-human world.
A deep cultural shift towards greater interconnectedness is possible, although it requires a degree of learning, unlearning, advocacy, action, and personal development that many of us are not used too. A poignant example of ecological grief, and how it can offer opportunities for psychological transformation, is captured in the following poem known as “Hieroglyphic Stairway” by Drew Dellinger:
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
Dellinger, D. (2018). Hieroglyphic stairway.
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Shelvock, M., Kinsella, E. A., & Harris, D. (2022). Beyond the corporatization of death systems: Towards green death practices. Illness, Crisis, and Loss, 30(4), 640–658.
Shelvock, M. (2022). Grieving when no one has died. Psychology Today.
Shelvock, M. (2022). A Grief That Never Ends: Chronic Sorrow. Psychology Today.
Shelvock, M. (2022). Relearning The World Through Grief. Psychology Today.