Good grief: grappling with eco distress

The feature piece below appeared in this week’s Business Post Magazine, under the heading ‘Distress signals from Earth: the new condition of ‘eco-grief’. This is a subject that has long been close to my heart and no doubt for most people who have been paying attention to the parlous state of the biosphere and the relentless slide towards climate breakdown. Rather than just navel-gazing on the subject, I decided instead to draw on the thoughts of four interviewees, each with a unique perspective to share.

IN GREEK mythology, the Trojan princess, Cassandra was given the gift of prophesy by the gods, only to be cursed that she would never be believed. Today’s Cassandras are the scientists and activists who have been warning for decades that the Earth is hurtling headlong towards an ecological abyss. Yes, they were right; no, we haven’t listened.

The ever-intensifying drumbeat of relentless environmental collapse, from rapid ice melting, record-smashing wildfires and ongoing rainforest clearance to species extinctions and global plastic pollution is now also taking a heavy toll on our collective mental health.

A report in the medical journal, The Lancet in July quoted “empirical evidence showing that both the acute and chronic mental health effects of climate change have risen sharply in the last decade.” Among the commonly reported impacts were “post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, psychotic symptoms and suicidal ideation.”

Earlier this year, research commissioned by the BBC found that 73 per cent of young people aged 8-16 were worried about the state of the planet, while one in five reported having bad dreams about climate change. Tellingly, over 40 per cent of these youths say they do not trust adults to solve the climate crisis.

Among those working on the climate front line, the term ‘ecological grief’ has been coined to describe widespread anxiety, sadness, depression and suffering experienced by those witnessing at first hand the collapse of ecosystems as well as people directly impacted by extreme weather events.

And while Ireland may to the untrained eye seem like a green oasis of biodiversity, far removed from the burning forests and parched wastelands, Pádraic Fogarty, ecologist with the Irish Wildlife Trust, knows that looks can be deceiving. “When you’re working in this area, you have the burden of knowledge, you’re tuned in to all the things that are happening; it weighs down on you because the destruction is absolutely relentless.”

The overwhelming feeling for those working in the environmental sector is, he adds, the sense that time is running out. “It’s not just grief for loss that’s in the past, but things that are being lost, the frustration and the anger that comes with the inability to do anything about it.”

For Fogarty, author of the critically acclaimed book, ‘Whittled Away’, which details the sharp decline in Irish ecological well-being in recent decades, simply driving through the countryside can be painful. “When you know what to look for, you can see the wounds on the landscape, you can see it has been subject to assault.” The extinction crisis is, he notes, largely invisible. It’s happening right before our eyes but almost no one is paying attention.

“People I know who are working full time in this area, while it might be an exaggeration to say that they’re damaged, they certainly don’t jump out of bed in the morning,” Fogarty adds. “It’s a depressing job to be in.”

The term psychologist, Prof John Sharry uses to describe this phenomenon is ‘eco distress’. This includes grief for what has already been lost and also acute anxiety about the future, which can manifest itself in sleeplessness and a constant sense of dread and unease. “It’s important not to put this in a box as health professionals or to view it as some sort of pathological reaction to the world,” says Sharry.

“Anxiety is a very understandable and real emotion in the face of danger and we are in fact in a genuinely dangerous and perilous situation so it’s what you would expect humans to be feeling if they’re truly tuned to what’s happening”.

If you are experiencing these feelings, Sharry suggests the first step is to realise you are not alone. “It’s important to acknowledge that what you are going through is a normal and understandable set of feelings, given the situation”. He advises reaching out for support, including talking to people who are experiencing similar distress and going online to find support groups.

“The other stage of coping is doing something about it. Action helps a lot,” he adds. “For some, that might mean deciding to campaign to tackle climate change, for others, it’s about taking action to build resilience or build community.” Many people simply find solace in connecting or reconnecting with the natural world.

“The silver lining, if you like, of eco grief is that for many people it makes them more sensitive, more tuned in and more appreciative of the life they have right now, and to savour their relationships with their children and friends.” Realising how fragile and precious our lives really are “leads many people to live their lives more meaningfully,” Sharry adds.

Writing these words in a garden on a beautiful late summer afternoon, watching the bumble bees busily grazing the lavender and with birdsong in the air, amid this beguiling normality it’s hard to even begin to grasp the unfolding crisis, let alone that we may teetering on the edge of collapse. Yet here we are.

As a journalist and a parent, I have lived for almost two decades in the dark shadow of ecological tragedy. Some days, it feels like you’re falling, helpless, out of control. Other days, anger, but mostly, a sickening low-level sense of dread and foreboding that never fully abates.

David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor of New York magazine admits to having no particular interest in nature or wildlife, but researching and writing his harrowing non-fiction bestseller, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ caused his comfortable world-view to come crashing down. It is, he says, “impossible to even consider our likely future without recoiling in horror and grief.”

Now in his mid-40s, he acknowledges that: “the world that I was born into, is already gone. The world I’m living in today will be gone soon, and that evolution is going to produce much more suffering than anyone ever would have found acceptable.”

His awakening to the reality of the climate crisis came in what he recalls as a panic attack. In late 2016, Wallace-Wells lost his father; shortly afterwards, Trump was elected. “My worldview was somewhat destabilised as a result, and then I read about some really unusual Arctic temperatures that were 40 degrees warmer than expected”. So began his ongoing journey of ecological awakening.

Despite everything, Wallace-Wells remains surprisingly upbeat. “One of the reasons I’ve been able to work in this material is that as a journalist, I keep a kind of a distance from it. I often joke it’s as if all journalists are somewhat sociopathic in their ability to regard stories as just stories.” He does find being able to use his public platform to draw attention to the climate crisis “a unique privilege of being a journalist…when I’m feeling especially distressed about the future of the planet, I tend to think about what I can do.”

For Dr Ailise Bulfin, coming to terms with ecological loss involves “a strange combination of nihilism plus activism; feeling complete and utter hopelessness but still doing something about it.” Bulfin, a literary and culture scholar at UCD finds that, for her, “sometimes it bizarrely works to consume really gloomy, apocalyptic fiction.”

A common theme in post-apocalyptic fiction is exploring the recovery of nature after humanity disappears. However, Bulfin prefers fiction that explores possible futures other than the Mad Max variety. “Dystopia is nearly pornographic at this stage; we talk about climate porn or disaster porn, where it’s all about re-doing the tropes, going to extremes, so as soon as things get difficult, we’ll all turn into cannibals.”

However difficult the future, Bulfin feels we have to “keep on keeping on, for our own mental health; one of the things fiction can do is offer a deeper insight into your own condition and your understanding of reality by walking through it with you.”

Denial is a common human response to the prospect of climate and ecological breakdown. “Denial is a defence mechanism that works to reduce stress in the short term, but if your denial stops you doing anything about the problem, then it will eventually overwhelm you,” says John Sharry.

While stoic about his own mortality, Sharry admits to experiencing acute anxiety over the world his children will face. “I was recently planting a tree with my son, he’s only 11, and I explained we were planting it for future generations, and he replied that he didn’t think there will be a future generation, with climate change – that was a very moving encounter with him.”

For Sharry, public reaction to the Covid crisis has given him a glimmer of optimism. Overall, he reckons, people have responded remarkably well. “Rather than looting and smashing up shops, we’ve mostly looked after one another. We’re kind as well.”

Pádraic Fogarty’s 13-year old daughter has shamed him into becoming a vegetarian. “Her generation are acutely aware of the climate crisis…I don’t like thinking about what the world’s going to be like in 30 years”, he says. “This burden is too great for any one person to bear; connecting with other people who feel the same way is in itself a remedy. I think it’s true that through action comes hope.”

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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