Emma-Jane Burian sheds a tear with a fellow Green Party supporter during the aftermath of their party’s loss on election night at the Crystal Gardens in Victoria. (Black Press Media file photo)

Environmental fears give rise to ecological grief

Royal Roads professor says children especially have absorbed the culture of fear

Whether you call it a movement or a crisis, the climate is being talked about now more than ever and with that comes the emergence of ecological grief.

Ecological grief is the feeling of grief in relation to experienced or anticipated climate losses or change. While you might think it would be felt strongest in those fleeing from wildfires or floods, Elin Kelsey, a professor at Royal Roads University, says the population that is dealing with those feelings even more so is children.

“More than 85 per cent of children in a particular [2018] study between the ages of 10 to 12 honestly felt that the world might not be there when they grow up,” she says. “[They’ve] absorbed the culture of fear to the point where it impacts their sense of well-being.”

To see the fear-inciting slogans, one needs only to attend a climate march, watch an interview with Greta Thunberg or open a newspaper — ‘Our planet is burning,’ ‘The sea turtles are dying,’ ‘We need to save the whales.’ Kelsey believes the climate crisis is also a crisis of hope and she is currently working on a book, set to be released this fall, that sets out an evidence-based argument for why hope is crucial in the climate crisis.

READ ALSO: Climate protest hinders afternoon traffic on Victoria streets

“The vast majority of what we hear about the environment is problem identification, so you almost never hear about the solutions,” she says. “In no way am I saying [this] isn’t an urgent problem, but there’s a tremendous amount that’s shifted … all kinds of great things are happening in response but we almost never hear about them.”

For Emma-Jane Burian, a Victoria climate strike leader, the word ecological grief isn’t new, it’s something she’s been feeling for a long time. Burian says the climate crisis is a daunting problem to focus on, but organizing climate strikes is one thing that makes her anxiety ease.

“I know a lot of people who organize climate strikes who feel it, but also a lot of people who don’t organize and still feel it,” she says. “I talk about it a lot amongst my friends and it’s something we try to give each other support for but it is definitely hard.”

Burian, who deals with generalized anxiety order, says the feelings of ecological grief present pretty similar to the disorder, at least for herself.

“I feel panicked, or this immense pressure to solve everything right now,” she says. “I think there’s a sense for everyone across the board that we’re overwhelmed and you can’t handle all this stuff that’s happening.”

According to Kelsey, symptoms of ecological grief on the individual level present similarly to high-level anxiety or depression, whereas on a societal level it has people really questioning what kind of future they’ll have. It’s especially impacting people’s decision to have children says Kelsey.

RELATED: Victoria teenager demands action of world leaders in face of climate crisis, pledges not to have children

Burian pledged last year not to have children until a set of demands were met by the government to help reverse the impacts of climate change. She says ecological grief definitely played a part in that decision but added it was about facing the facts of “what will happen if we don’t take action.”

Kelsey contends the pervasive belief that “if we don’t scare people they’ll become complainant,” is one of the main driving forces behind ecological grief but says psychological literature doesn’t back that up.

“When we’re fearful we lose our creativity, we only look out for ourselves instead of collaborating and we don’t come up with the kind of joint solutions we actually need,” she says, adding that feelings of pride and collective meaning are more inspiring.

This might be one of the reasons why climate marches became so popular in the past year.

“[Those marches] were so powerful because you can see actual other people out there who care about what you care about,” says Kelsey.

To help those dealing with the feelings of grief, Kelsey says it’s important to hear them out but to also challenge some of their notions that are rooted in fear.



kendra.crighton@blackpress.ca

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