Ecological Grief and the Climate Crisis

S3E27 of The Conversation Piece

Black and white photo of Ashlee Cunsolo over a template of The Conversation Piece podcast featuring a mic and outlines of other mics.


HOST: Information about global warming is everywhere. And although the delivery of this message brings up awareness, the overload of information can lead to ecological grief and anxiety. According to Geographer Ashlee Cunsolo, says that despite the discomfort these emotions may bring, acknowledging these feelings can better help us understand the severity of the climate situation. In other words, it’s worth it.

Welcome to The Conversation Piece.

ASHLEE CUNSOLO: Hello, everyone. It is such a pleasure to be here this evening and to have this important conversation. So I’m Ashlee Cunsolo. I’m the founding Dean of the school of art and sub Artic studies at the Labrador campus of Memorial university. But I’m also a health choregrapher and I’ve been researching the mental health impacts of climate change for almost 15 years. And I’m also deeply affected, uh, by the mental health impacts of climate change. So it’s a personal interest and it’s also a professional, uh, research place that I’m in. So today I’m joining from the ancestral and continued homelands of the Innu Innu and happy valley goose bay Labrador. And I’m also joining from a place that really has been at the front lines of a changing climate and environment for decades and in Labrador in so many other places, climate change is not a dis uh, threat at all.

It’s a very real present issue that that many people are facing. And as one of the, the authors on the mental health content in the I P C C reports, I can tell you that this is not only in Labrador, but it’s across Canada and it’s around the world. And when we look across the country and when we look around the world, you know, the, the signs of the planetary crisis really are all around us, you know, from floods and fires and droughts and storms and rising sea levels and melting sea ice, changing ecosystems and disappearing species. We really are bearing witness to a rapid and widespread degradation, alteration and loss. And we’re surrounded by warnings from the scientific community. We’re surrounded by imagery in the media, and we know we’re gonna continue to face catastrophic loss and damage going forward. So with all of this, with the changes with the projections, with the ongoing media, with what we know to be our very closing window for action, there are a lot of complicated, difficult, and very real mental and emotional responses that emerge.

So things like fear, anger, frustration, sadness, stress, distress, and helplessness. You know, all of those things we hear all the time from, from others. And we may experience ourselves. And these changes also ex um, bring feelings of grief and anxiety. And so ecological grief, this grief that we feel to the changes in the environment or ecosystems or wildlife and beloved places and things that matter to us and ecological anxiety, which is the anxiety we feel when we experience current change, or we think about the change that’s coming in the future. And what that means for us have really become these dominant emotional responses to climate crisis and have gained increasing attention as these key emotions of our time. And so a lot of the, the questions are, is, you know, what are they and how do we deal with them? So what I wanna talk about tonight is, is things that I’ve learned about ecological grief and anxiety through my work. And the first one, I think the most important is that they are natural, reasonable, rational, and emotionally congruent responses to what we are witnessing and experiencing with the climate crisis. There is truly no shame in these emotions and these responses because they make complete sense to what is happening around us and

On, you know, we really need to acknowledge our grief and anxiety. We need to name them and validate them, and then find ways to elevate them. So we can move through these emotions and find new ways of balancing our actions and our emotions together. And it’s okay that we feel bad. So it might not feel great. These are difficult emotions. These are scary times, but the grief and the anxiety they break through and they get our attention. And in fact, in many ways, we may even need more of these emotions to deal with the enormity and the severity of what we are facing. And even though they’re hard, ecological grief and anxiety really are gifts because they show us what we care about and what we value. And they help us recognise our shared vulnerabilities, both to each other and to the more than human worlds and connected to that.

The other side of ecological grief and anxiety is love. And we can’t forget that because we only grieve what we love and that’s where the true power of these emotions come from because they can bring us together and they unite us and they have what Judith Butler calls an incredible we creating capacity because they create community. They break down boundaries and they bring people together. And so while ecological grief is a term is new. The concept behind it is really old. People have been deeply connected to the environment mentally and emotionally for thousands of years and people, and particularly indigenous peoples globally have long understood the interconnectedness of human emotions and natural environments, including grief and loss. But we need new terms to talk about what is happening in these rapidly accelerating times of change. And so, you know, these are difficult emotions, but we can support our experience of ecological grief and anxiety through things that also support overall mental health.

So time and nature, exercise meditation, counselling, and therapy, having strong support networks and talking to people you trust and coming together. So really when we’re thinking about ecological grief and anxiety, they’re difficult and they’re hard and they shouldn’t be annoyed. They shouldn’t be ignored, but they are gifts and they are calls to action. And so there’s so much work that needs to be done on the climate crisis. And while we can’t save what has already been lost, we can continue to defend what can still be saved. And that means there’s also much grieving work that needs to be done so we can navigate the emotions. And so it’s time for action, but it’s also time as Thomas Morton proclaimed for grief to persist, to ring throughout the world and for us to harness our ecological grief into a passion for, and dedication to change. Thank you.

HOST: Ashlee Cunsolo is the founding dean of the School of Arctic and subArctic Studies at the Labrador campus, at Memorial University. She spoke at the The Walrus Talks Youth and the Climate Crisis March 2022 and she’s just one of the over 800 fantastic Canadians who have wheeled, walked, and webcammed onto the stage at The Walrus Talks.

Ashlee Cunsolo