Grief in Green
For young and old, thinking about the enormity and severity of the climate crisis can have profound psychological effects.
These feelings of despair, hopelessness and apathy are being reclassified as their own category of emotional experience called ecological grieving, or eco-grief.
Though the term “eco-grief” is linked to an emerging field that acknowledges the existential seriousness of climate change, the idea of mourning for natural spaces is not new.
“I think it is related to something that we've talked about for a long time, particularly in the context of genocide,” said Anthony Greene, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Florida's Counseling and Wellness Center.
Anthony Greene, professor of clinical psychology, in his office at the University of Florida.
The origins of eco-grief are seen in environmental tragedies throughout history and across countries, such as the trauma felt by First Nations for the loss of the lands of their ancestors.
In today’s eco-grief, Greene said the pattern is the same regardless of your age. The key element of grieving the world is understanding what will be lost, either by seeing it firsthand or by becoming educated.
“It's a very similar phenomenon across the generations,” Greene said. “Those who are exposed to the information, those are the ones who are impacted by it emotionally.”
Greene has witnessed eco-grief manifest in clients who are directly involved or aware of environmental issues, particularly students enrolled in environmental and journalism studies.
However, he says eco-grief is far from widespread. For those who are not faced with manifestations of the climate crisis on a regular basis, the easier path forward is to deny there is an issue rather than learning to cope with the reality of it.
The process of grieving for the environment can be remarkably similar to grieving for a loved one, marked by five emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“You have to process the grief to get there,” Greene said, “and if most of the population is at this point of denial, then they can't even acknowledge the grief to process it to get to where they can react.”