Climate Grief: Can Feelings Of Loss Inspire Climate Action?

A person struggling with feelings of climate grief.

Climate grief is the natural response of anyone paying attention to the death of our planet’s biological systems.

For many of us, it’s hard to ignore – and in most cases, that’s how it should be.

Both physically and metaphorically, we are experiencing loss on a scale never faced by humanity, and it’s only reasonable that we should feel some grief about it.

Managing grief is about forming healthy attachments and learning to detach as well; it takes a mix of adaptive thinking, coping strategies, and a collaborative philosophy.

So, how can you realistically approach all of this?

A lifetime of a changing climate

Just 15 years after John D. Rockefeller became the very first billionaire, William Shatner was born, and he joined a global community of around two billion people.

In 1931, the earth had around 45% forest coverage, the Amazon rainforest was home to well over 4 million square kilometers of forested land, and global temperatures were 0.06°C below the 100-year average.

By the time Shatner was 7 years old, the first scientific research papers were published that suggested we were on a warming trajectory, as a result of atmospheric CO2 being released from human activities.

annual co2 emissions fossil fuels

In 1961, the first human space flight was conducted successfully – and a mere eight years later the first humans set foot on the moon.

Roughly 28 years after the first scientifically-backed climate change warnings, and only five years since the first manned space flight, Shatner became the star of one of the most influential sci-fi productions in history, Star Trek.

This was a show celebrating the highest ideals of humanity at a time long before mobile phones and automatic doors existed. Set in a future where humanity is borderless, collaborative, and technologically advanced – it depicted a spacefaring future of exploration with diplomacy, peace, and sustainability at the forefront of a shared philosophy.

Many of the idealistic technological dreams of the show came true; while many more, and perhaps some of the most important and fundamental ideals have yet to be realized.

In 2021, a 90-year-old William Shatner became the oldest person to fly into space aboard a private shuttle owned by Jeff Bezos, a member of the elite billionaire class that has expanded by over 3300 times since Rockefeller.

In the span of this single lifetime, our global population has quadrupled.

Earth’s important forest cover has been reduced to less than a third, global average temperatures have risen by more than 1°C, and the Amazon rainforest has lost around one million square kilometers of tree cover.

We’ve lost at least 500 animal species, one million more species are threatened with extinction, and we’re approaching various climate tipping points at a much faster rate than we anticipated – with no sign of slowing down.

At this point, a global climate lockdown is starting to seem like a pretty reasonable idea for many of us.

What does ecological grief feel like?

After returning from space, a visibly moved Shatner struggled to find the words to describe his experience to the camera.

Within seconds, an impatient Bezos ruins the moment, interrupting Shatner by spraying a bottle of champagne into a screaming group of onlookers. Hilarious, but also somewhat depressing.

Given time to compile his thoughts, a description was later articulated perfectly: Shatner described the experience as if it was a funeral.

Viewing the Earth from space drew attention to the uniqueness and necessity of it as our nursery and our home.

earth from space

And equally, to its mindless devastation at the hands of a small-minded species of incredibly successful ape.

Shatner said this:

“I didn’t realize it until I got down. When I stepped out of the spacecraft, I started crying. I didn’t know why. It took me hours to understand why I was weeping. I realized I was in grief for the Earth.”

Most of us don’t need to take a ride in a billionaire’s space shuttle to experience this, as it’s clear the Earth is in trouble, and many of us feel it acutely already.

This feeling isn’t much helped by mindless cliches often heard, like when climate change deniers spout off about how “the Earth will be fine, it’s us who are screwed”.

Because, that’s exactly what we meant in the first place, of course. Nobody’s lamenting the destruction of a floating rock here.

And this often isn’t helped by distractions like TV or video games, as that often feels like it’s the cause of the problem in the first place. We have a sense that we want a future for our species – regardless of whether we’ll be here to see it.

There’s also all the collateral damage and biodiversity loss; perhaps humanity has blown its chance, but the rest of the planet’s life doesn’t deserve this.

Shatner went on to say:

“It was the death that I saw in space and the lifeforce that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige and the white. And I realized one was death and the other was life”.

We’re all witnessing that death on some level, creeping into our sanctuary as we poison our atmosphere and pollute even the cleanest water in the world.

This climate grief, or ecological grief, is becoming an established phenomenon in psychology, and it’s affecting people all over the world.

Climate grief is a little different than climate anxiety. From a psychological perspective, grief requires an element of yearning. The feeling comes from a desire for another time or place when or where things are different.

The terminology around ecological or climate grief specifically is yet to be standardized, but there are many forms and demographics affected:

People who have been living in the same environment for many decades are particularly susceptible, due to an awareness of the severity of changes. For example, birds disappear and the air becomes polluted as towns become busier.

People who follow the topics closely online or in other media may be prone to stronger expressions of eco grief as they’re exposed to the problems to a high degree.

Conservationists and ecologists who are intimate with the environment on a personal level witness mass deforestation and extinctions and are following trends closely, often working alongside these tragedies.

Then, there are specific events like climate-related disasters. Increases in hurricanes and landslides bring with them a tangible and easily-identified source of loss and grief.

Even those who don’t see these events clearly will often experience some form of subconscious angst, a gnawing feeling which is a lot easier to ignore with the right distractions.

And while climate anxiety is a different topic, these feelings likely exist on a spectrum, and many people address them with similar superficial solutions.

How do most people cope with climate grief?

As animals, we follow some very standard rules like most lifeforms: reproduce, and find the path of least resistance.

As social animals, we’re a bit more complex – but the prime directive is still a powerful one. We like to conserve energy, and that means taking in as much as we can and releasing as little of it as possible.

Consumerism, though destructive, can be an enjoyable force – but it’s at odds with working to conserve our planet.

Conservation efforts threaten mindsets of endless growth and expansion, and when we’re told that something enjoyable is wrong and the solution is hard work, we don’t like to hear it.

So, we distract. We change the subject, or we deny climate change altogether. We do this to ourselves, and we do it to others.

wealth inequality
Image by A. Hickson via Flickr

Star Trek was (and is) a popular series, but it was never a cool one. “Trekkies” have always been caricatured as socially inept, unhealthy, obsessive, and weird. All of this discredits the production as something to be avoided by the popular crowd, and the same is true within environmentalism.

It feels to a lot of us that dreaming of a better world is something that goes against society; something that people don’t want to invest thought or energy into, and something that distracts us from our brief time of enjoyment on this planet.

As such, those of us experiencing climate grief are subject to the distractions of others and the cognitive dissonance within our own ways of coping.

William Shatner spent his Star Trek career exploring the ideals of a civilization that leverages its technology for productive ventures, while simultaneously experiencing first-hand the vast majority of human-caused ecological destruction, in real life.

It’s no wonder that the impressions of a life spent dreaming of the vast potential of humanity while living among its most destructive influences could be perfectly crystallized by a trip to space.

Looking at the bigger picture – seeing the earth from a distance, a person can see just how small it is, and how much we take it for granted.

And then, suddenly, they’re back. Surrounded by people with small worlds, living their small lives, getting back to business as usual: deliberately distracting themselves and everyone else with champagne interruptions.

How can you work through eco grief?

So ecological grief is clearly a response to a real problem that’s exacerbated by people who wilfully try to ignore it. It’s also energy-intensive to think about, and even more so to get involved in working against.

We’re continually interrupted by the alien attitudes and superficial distractions of those most responsible for the losses we’re grieving. The trouble is, we don’t want to ignore it.

The first step you should take if you want to overcome climate grief is to understand what it’s good for and what it isn’t.

Grief is a good motivator for action. These feelings are what push us to keep trying. On the other hand, living in perpetual despair isn’t healthy, so there needs to be a middle ground between apathy and crippling sadness.

There are a few angles to approach this and they all start with the understanding that you’re just one person, but you’re not alone!

1. Distractions are important

As much as we associate distractions with people who will never summon up enough energy to care, distracting yourself is a valid coping mechanism.

Mental holidays are a must, and they don’t have to be a sign that you’ve stopped caring. Take them as needed and work to your strengths in between.

And physical distractions are also incredibly effective, in my experience, when it comes to relieving a bit of angst or stress. Especially if it involves being outdoors – as there’s still plenty of nature to enjoy, no matter what you’ve heard lately.

joshua tree national park hiker

If you aren’t a big hiker, you may want to consider another outdoor hobby like learning how to start a garden or setting up a backyard compost pile, both of which are really quite simple to set up once you do a bit of research on what is compostable and what to avoid composting.

And don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a big backyard, as urban gardening and composting is a growing movement and will be an essential part of enjoying a sustainable city lifestyle in the future.

Gardening and climate grief relief go hand-in-hand; with that being said, keep tabs on your distractions as they can quite easily spiral out of control if you let them, and you may find yourself back where you started!

2. Find your limits and work towards them

Stoicism is a classic school of philosophy centered around the idea that living an ethical life results in a happy and fulfilling existence. While stoicism is often associated with toxic aloofness or emotional suppression, the origin of the philosophy holds some important points.

The basic ideas are:

  • If you’re worried about it, do something, so there’s no need to worry
  • If you can’t do any more than you’re doing, don’t worry about it

Easier said than done obviously, but the emphasis here is to do what you can, even if it’s not much. Stoicism is about not hiding from your struggles, and embracing them to become the best person you can be.

As long as you’re doing your part, worrying is mainly just a negative force that serves no purpose.

3. Share your journey with others

The real secret behind getting a grip on your feelings of eco grief is by sharing your thoughts and experiences with others. For example, let’s say instead of publishing this article you’re currently reading, I just kept all of these thoughts to myself.

What would that accomplish? And who would benefit from that, really?

In some ways, it doesn’t matter how much you care or how many ways you try to change your lifestyle or reduce your carbon footprint if nobody sees you leading by example.

Some of the most popular and sustainable actions that people encourage take very little effort, and go on in the privacy of your own home.

And I’m not saying don’t support sustainable brands, or don’t change small habits in your life – the point is that those of us who care about the planet need to share our thoughts and experiences with others (and seriously, keep doing the small things too).

If you’re struggling to find a place to start, you could consider joining a Reddit community like /r/ZeroWaste, a community of like-minded people who share and discuss how they reduce their overall impact on the environment.

4. Realize you’re not alone

On that note, remember that there are hordes of people feeling the same way. We’re all battling against the billionaires and the billions who haven’t lifted their gaze beyond the TV to notice the fires raging outside their window.

It’s our job to distract the distracted and nobody can accomplish much on their own, in person or online.

And take note of that – as springing into action and spreading information is viable in both real life and online considering how blurred the lines are becoming nowadays.

climate protester

There’s also a lot of opportunity to find a sustainable career nowadays, like any of the numerous high-paying green energy jobs out there. Or, you could consider learning how to go vegan and joining the growing plant based movement, made up of a community of people who care alot about our planet.

Climate grief therapy is also a real thing nowadays, and if you’re struggling with these feelings to the point where it’s affecting your ability to function, it could be valuable to be on the lookout for climate grief support groups, where you can speak with others going through the same struggles.

So join in, reach out, spread the word, and preach a better world.

5. It’s not too late for change

Doomsayer rhetoric, climate doomerism – we’ve all seen it lately.

According to some, it’s too late, so why bother? Just remember that the people telling you this would never have tried anyway.

We’re hurtling toward a much lower standard of life for humanity as a whole, but it’s not set in stone. You don’t stop braking just because you can’t avoid the crash, you do the best you can to minimize the damage.

It’s not too late until it’s over, and we need people to remember this. If all you do is spread this message, you’re doing your part.

6. Be gentle with others

There will be good days and bad days.

You won’t get everything right, and you will face resistance. Combine all of the above tips and pick and choose from them to work to your strengths.

You will need to take a break, you will need to find others who think like you, and you’ll need to find something to channel the force of climate grief into that works with your lifestyle.

So, go easy on yourself, but extend this mercy to others too.

Even when you’re filled with motivation and highly energetic, remember that others won’t respond well to being berated or harassed. We need to be kind, and understand that everyone is at a different point along this journey.

The only way out of this is through collaboration, and at this stage we need as many people on our side as we can get.

Final thoughts

Climate grief is a collective response to current environmental disasters, although it can feel like an individual experience at times.

The good news is, hope is not lost, no matter what you’ve been told; so don’t give up – instead, reach out and find others who share the same passion you do for our planet, as it’s the only one we’ve got.

Have you experienced climate grief? If so, what has it been like?

We love hearing from you.

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