The term ecological grief captures the profound sense of loss, dread and fear people feel when trying to cope with climate change. We talk about this new mental-health paradigm, how acute it is in endangered communities in the North, as well as its unexpected companion—hope.

No Little Plans Season Two

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The age of anxiety

In late 2019, New York Times journalist Cara Buckley wrote one of the first mainstream news stories about struggling with a little-discussed form of mental-health crisis.

“Have you ever known someone who cited the Anthropocene in a dating profile? Who doled out carbon offset gift certificates at the holidays? Who sees new babies and immediately flashes to the approximately 15 tons of carbon emissions the average American emits per year? Who walks around shops thinking about where all the packaging ends up? You do now.”

Perplexed about how to cope, she went about “searching for a cure” for a knot of emotions—including anger, frustration, sadness and fear—brought on by thinking about the future of the planet. (That search included attending a workshop in Brooklyn called  “Cultivating Active Hope: Living With Joy Amidst the Climate Crisis.”)

Like countless others, Buckley was suffering from ecological grief.

Finding the words

It’s not technically new. For arguably hundreds of years, people with a connection to the environment and its well-being have suffered in the face of its destruction. But the term ecological grief was coined in 2018 by authors of a research publication, including Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University.

In this episode of No Little Plans, Cunsolo talks at length with host Vicky Mochama about her experience, starting with a definition:

“Ecological grief is the pain that people feel in connection to the loss of something that isn’t human. It can be as a species. It can be a body of water. It can be a singular animal. It can be a beloved place.”

That pain is particularly acute with those who live or work in endangered communities. Cunsolo is one of them. The Labrador Institute is a leading centre of research, education, outreach and policy, by and for the North. Cunsolo and her small team spent two years investigating one of the hardest hit areas, Northern Labrador, which included hundreds of conversations with residents and elders. There, mourning losses due to climate change was described to her a “grief without end.”

“It’s not like when you lose a loved one. Societies have structures around that. We have rituals. We have funerals. You can take bereavement leave. People come around you…. When it was around ecological grief and loss, people almost felt alone. They felt sometimes embarrassed, sometimes ashamed to talk about it.”

Preventing that isolation—by talking about eco grief as a real, scientific issue—is one of the key factors that motivates Cunsolo’s research. In fact, the field some now call “ecopsychology” is enabling a more widespread acknowledgment of the psychological and emotional connections that people have to the natural world, whether they’re bearing day-to-day witness to loss in the North or dealing with the anxiety from a distance, like Cara Buckley describes in her New York Times story.

The youth factor

One of the most prominent voices of eco grief is also one of the most visible leaders of the climate movement. Greta Thunberg and her family have spoken often about her personal struggles.

For Thunberg and for other young leaders, such as Indigenous water activist Autumn Peltier, the personal is the political. Their work starts with acknowledging the very presence of a physical and emotional environment-to-human bond.

During this podcast episode, Vicky talks to Hillary McGregor, a 22-year-old coordinator at Indigenous Sport and Wellness in Ontario who helped develop a leadership program for Indigenous youth in Canada called the Standing Bear Program. Many youth, he says, have seen first-hand the effects of the climate crisis on their communities. This underscores a disconnect between their front-line experience and the more existential climate change debates among politicians and policymakers.

“[The youth] are not really questioning whether or not climate change is happening. They want to know: What are the solutions going to be? How can I contribute now to make things better for my community?”

That pivot from experiencing loss to being proactive is key to carving out space for hope—that unexpected but necessary companion to eco grief.

From grief to panic to action

Near the end of the episode, we hear from Hillary’s mother, Deborah McGregor, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice at York University’s Osgoode Hall. Professor McGregor acknowledges that eco grief is real, but not new, and that pain of this kind has been a fact of life across hundreds of years for Indigenous communities. She tracks the progression of grief to panic about the annihilation of the planet and, in turn, to a scaling up of measures by front-liners to demand change.

“It’s been a crisis for a long time. But Indigenous peoples have managed to survive and been resilient and adapted over that. So maybe there’s something that we can offer other people about how to survive, how to work through this and the kind of knowledge and skills that you need to be able to do that.”

This includes better governance that enlists people witnessing climate-change first hand in leadership roles. It includes pressuring world leaders to move past the high-level discussions about, for instance, whether carbon tax is a good idea. As host Vicky Mochama concludes:

“Maybe it’s time we took a step back and listened to the people that climate change is affecting directly and learn from them. We are past the point of figuring it out as we go. But there’s also hope and resilience: Youth have come out all over to address climate change. We’re grieving together. It’s time to act together.”