Imagine waking up on a summer day. You're getting out of bed to then see a red-colored sun and orange sky outside. Sticking your head out the window, you see nearby wilderness catching fire, moving from tree to tree like a dancing plague. Tears gush from your eyes almost instantly. Smoke fills the air, and you begin wheezing. You fall to your knees in desperation. Many emotions, including a sense of hopelessness, envelop you as you take in what’s happening. Thoughts of environmental destruction attack your senses of stability and security, and your hope for the future.
Now, widen your view and recognize… it’s not just your imagination!
What is eco-grief?
The emotion I just described is known as ‘eco-grief,’ a term coined in the 1940s by philosopher/ecologist Aldo Leopold to express the generalized emotional distress caused by environmental loss. It’s a natural and universal reaction to separation or loss that includes a variety of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses. ‘Climate anxiety’ is a closely related term that focuses specifically on climate change. Unfortunately, due to the growing threat of global environmental issues, mourning the loss of ecosystems, and ways of life we’ve come to expect, is becoming more common everywhere.
In recent years, many populations in British Columbia, Canada have seen recurring extreme heat, increased precipitation and seasonal flooding, rising sea levels, more intense and prolonged drought, and increased wildfire occurrence. An example is the 1,600 or so wildfires that burned about 870,000 hectares from April 1, 2021 to March 28, 2022, as shown by the BC Wildfire Season Summary.
These climate change-related environmental changes can have direct or indirect mental health consequences over a lengthy period of continual stress and climate anxiety. And they coexist with other difficult emotions such as powerlessness, fragility, and resentment of past generations' impacts on the environment. People most at risk are those with existing mental health challenges.
Who is at risk?
The degree of eco-grief you experience largely depends on where you live and your socio-economic circumstances. There are big differences between people living in privilege, and those living in poverty or belonging to ethnic minorities. This also highlights an idea of environmental justice. People's experiences are impacted by arbitrary allocations of waste facilities, manufacturing plants, energy production, transportation facilities, and the like, which are all sources of pollution leading to eco-grief.
For more and more people, the long-term impact of climate change on the environment is a lived experience. Sustainabiliteens member Zoha Faisal believes the effects of eco-grief are spread out evenly, intergenerationally, but when considering intersectionalities, it’s not the case. She states, “As a woman of color and being South Asian, I think black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) feel the effects of eco-grief much stronger than those in places of privilege. Growing up I visited my grandparent’s house, which is back in Pakistan; we lived so sustainably. All of our crops we grew ourselves, we caught our fish from a local river. But our water was polluted, it was us facing the very worst of climate change.”
When we look at people's equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities, we can see a clear link to the climate grief they face. In the Canadian documentary The Magnitude of All Things, Jennifer Abbott connects personal grief with climate disengagement by providing stories from many different voices, including her own story of losing her sister to cancer. The film showed that people who maintain working, residential, or cultural relationships with their natural environment are more prone to face ecological bereavement. Those with lower socio-economic status (e.g., farmers, mountaineers, and Indigenous groups) are more likely to be directly affected by weather and environmental consequences, leaving them vulnerable to eco-grief.
What about youth?
Age is another factor that determines the amount of eco-grief you face. Although youth (defined as 15-24 years of age by the World Health Organization) have contributed very little to anthropogenic (human-caused) issues and are not policymakers, they will bear the brunt of climate change impacts over their lifetimes in the form of eco-grief. Speaking as a member of Gen Z, I feel as if I’m always surrounded by environmental degradation… having to become accustomed to these record high heat temperatures, destructive floods, unrelenting wildfire seasons, and so on.
I recall the summer of 2017 being a time of tremendous uncertainty for me. With the wildfire season in BC raging, I wasn't sure if there would ever be a day when the air didn't smell like burnt rubber. Because I played soccer, I was exposed to excessive air pollution that caused lung irritation. Fear kicked in, and I began contemplating about the future. Will the situation become worse? Will I ever feel better? These seemingly unanswerable grief-ridden questions bombarded my mind daily.
I considered the impacts of this on my family, close friends, and community. My mental health suffered due to my respiratory troubles and the discomfort I felt about the environmental repercussions. The inflammation eventually subsided, and I began to feel better. The melancholy, on the other hand, lingered.
How are other young people feeling? A survey done by Ipsos for RBC Insurance (Benefits Canada.com) involving more than 1,500 Canadians aged 18 and over, found that those from 18-34 were significantly more likely to be depressed than those 55 and above. With climate crises worsening, this could precipitate new psychological conditions and worsen existing mental illnesses among young people already experiencing eco-grief.
In a North American investigation of mental health issues due to climate change by Canada's National Observer, about 49 percent of 152 post-secondary students experience “existential angst” over climate change, with related occupational and economic stability as mental health stressors. Another online report commissioned by the University of British Columbia discovered that 53 percent of participants, including more than 3,000 students, staff, and faculty, said they worry about climate change at least once a day, and nearly a third said they worry about it at least once a week.
How can I manage eco-grief?
Many people, including me before I wrote this blog, are unaware that experiencing or anticipating ecological loss due to environmental destruction or climate change is a common and ever-growing phenomenon. But there are ways to cope with these emotional strains. Jocelyn Lynette, co-founder and lead facilitator of the Kelowna Climate Café, partnered with the University of Victoria to provide a safe space where people meet in groups to talk about anything that comes up for them around climate. In her words, “The space itself isn’t solution focused, the space is just for people to come and talk about things that don’t naturally come up in other conversations… a place to create a community to help people not feel alone.”
In addition, it helps to practice grieving about climate change (e.g., writing, photography, singing, or visual arts) while also finding ways to contribute to the solution by focusing on what you can control (e.g., adopt climate-friendly behaviours, send donations to climate-action groups, start a youth climate cafe, sign petitions, meet with elected officials).
It’s also important to find solace in nature. By temporarily removing ourselves from urban living, we get a therapeutic break for our mental health that restores well-being and resilience.
- Identifying Types of Eco-Anxiety, Eco-Guilt, Eco-Grief, and Eco-Coping in a Climate-Sensitive Population: A Qualitative Study
- Young Canadians and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptive Capacity, Education, and Agency
Bruce Yang is a Grade 11 student who is passionate about local community involvement and research projects pivoted towards mental health, taking opportunities to grow in these areas. He hopes to pursue a business degree in post-secondary after completing his senior years of high school. Most days, he can be found playing table tennis or hiking in the early afternoon.