Worrying About Nature Is Affecting Mental Health. It’s Called Eco-Grief.
Photo: Milada Vigerova/Unsplash
- We could be suffering ecological grief for what we are losing now or expect to in future – animals, forests, landscapes.
- But eco-grief is here to stay: the world will have more of it as climate change worsens, although it could also spur climate action.
When it comes to the natural world and our environment, the news is often bad.
A warming planet, melting glaciers, rising sea levels.
Dying coral reefs, burning forests, rivers running black, species going extinct.
It’s a long list.
And more devastation is on the cards.
Human-induced climate change is set to make things worse. Many parts of the world, including India, are likely to witness more extreme weather events – heatwaves, intense rainfall, floods, cyclones and more – a 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, warned. Such climate events cause losses of all kinds, and displacement and suffering.
The latest IPCC report says in fact that climate change has caused, and continues to cause, “irreversible” losses to ecosystems worldwide. It says we need to act now, before it becomes too late.
In all, the future looks positively dismal. We know that our well-being is tied to that of the environment around us. And the environment is coughing and spluttering. This has become a source of worry for many of us. So much so that it’s affecting peoples’ mental health.
It is causing feelings of despair, hopelessness and anger. It’s contributing to the prevalence of post-traumatic stress, depression, even thoughts about and leading to suicide, according to researchers studying these effects.
There’s a name for it all: ecological grief.
Grief and mourning are usually only associated with the loss of a loved one. But now, these are also associated with the loss of nature and its functioning, and our experiences of the natural world as we knew it to be before.
Researchers define ecological grief as that “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”. Ecological grief is associated with anxiety, sadness and mourning. It’s a form of grief that is often not acknowledged publicly, say scientists.
In the context of climate change, it’s also called ‘climate grief’. Researchers classify this kind of ecological grief into three kinds. One is grief associated with physical ecological losses (such as land, ecosystems and species). For instance, people who are displaced by extreme weather events such as cyclones or floods experience sadness due to the loss of their homes, fields and neighborhoods.
The second is grief associated with disruptions to environmental knowledge and loss of identity. For instance, many communities – especially indigenous ones – possess ‘traditional ecological knowledge’: local knowledge about nature and natural systems. Such knowledge is increasingly being acknowledged as crucial in complementing our understanding of how many ecosystems work. These can include an understanding of seasonal rhythms of local weather.
For instance, many communities in India – especially agrarian ones that depend on seasonal rainfall for their livelihoods and survival – have a local weather almanac of sorts that they rely on to cultivate crops. But as climate change alters local and regional weather patterns, this traditional knowledge no longer holds. This causes anxiety and stress.
And finally, there’s grief associated with anticipated future ecological losses. Things are changing, but not really for the better. What will happen to the coming generations if these ecological losses continue to occur – or even aggravate – in future? How will they cope?
Even scientists are experiencing ecological grief, as they head to natural spaces to document wildlife and ecology but see degradation and loss at these locations.
Much we don’t know
According to researchers, American naturalist Aldo Leopold was one of the first to describe the emotional and psychological fallouts of ecological loss as early as the 1940s.
And yet there’s still much we don’t know yet about ecological grief. For instance, how different is it from similar concepts such as solastalgia, which is defined as the distress one feels when faced with an environmental change? And how much does ecological grief, or its impacts, change across peoples and cultures? Does it affect certain sections of society more than others?
But one thing is certain: it’s here to stay. According to researchers, the world is going to experience more ecological grief in the next decade because the impacts of climate change are going to continue.
In such a situation, it could be crucial to understand ecological grief and its ramifications on our mental health better. That is the only way we’d be able to tackle this illness of the heart: by incorporating coping mechanisms at numerous levels, from that of the individual to that of communities. In the US and Europe, for example, people are holding funerals for glaciers that are ‘dying’ in a warming world.
Coping may look like our only way out for now, but the strong emotions that ecological grief is built on could do more: spur people, communities and hopefully governments to action, and thus play a vital role in mitigating the impacts of human-induced climate change.