Grieving for the environment, without saying ‘climate change’

Why We Wrote This

When environments change, people can feel they’ve lost something familiar and dear – even if they can’t agree why. In an era of climate change, there’s new thinking about how to cope.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Susan Heather, a farmer and agronomist, stands on a hill overlooking her family farm and the Little Bow River, which flooded in 2013, on July 9, 2019, in Vulcan, Alberta. Ms. Heather helps other farmers deal with the stress caused by the vagaries of Mother Nature.

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Agnieszka Wolska, a therapist in Calgary, joined an “Eco-Grief Support Circle” that meets twice a month after losing faith, she says, that nature could rebalance itself. She compares the circles to being at a wake, but it’s also where she finds hope. “Together we have less individual despair. We can just have connection instead of fear or just sadness,” she says.

Academics have begun to attach neologisms to feelings like Ms. Wolska’s: “solastalgia,” coined by an Australian philosopher in 2005, describes a form of distress caused by environmental change, or “ecological grief.” Those feelings of loss surrounding a place are becoming increasingly common, as wilder weather patterns and natural disasters are, many scientists say, becoming more commonplace.

In the capital of Canada’s oil industry, where everyone knows someone employed by it, that can lead to mixed feelings. Just 52% of Albertans believe they’ve seen conclusive or solid evidence of climate change, the lowest percentage in Canada. But people here describe a feeling akin to mourning over the loss of natural landscapes.

“When you lose your special place, it’s a deep feeling,” says Albertan agronomist Susan Heather.

After water submerged her family’s farm in June 2013, in one of the worst floods in recent Canadian history, Susan Heather took a pragmatic, can-do approach to the challenges – both physical and financial – ahead. 

But when she learned that the mountain trails in the foothills of the Rockies where she long sought solace were wiped out, and that beloved High River, the closest sizable town to her farm in southern Alberta, was devastated, a deep sadness that she compares to mourning rose up in her. 

“I remember after the flood thinking, nothing is the same anymore,” she says over coffee in her farmhouse on a recent day. “All my favorite places are destroyed.”

That refrain is becoming increasingly common, as weather patterns and natural disasters are becoming more intense. Academics have even begun to attach neologisms to the feelings: “solastalgia,” coined by an Australian philosopher in 2005, describes a form of distress caused by environmental change, or “ecological grief.”

People have long grappled with loss from wildfires, tornadoes, and environmental changes, of course. Observers say what’s different now (aside from having a name to go with the feeling) is the sense that people might need mental health supports to deal with that sense of lost place.

Like most things related to weather and climate, though, the terminology can be polarizing; increasing warnings from scientists, such as this month’s United Nations Climate Report about the consequences of a warming planet, serve to stir some while alienating others. 

Yet those in the middle like Ms. Heather, who believes warming is a natural progression but agrees humans have accelerated it, say they still experience the stresses of change and unpredictability, and their mental health needs shouldn’t be overlooked.

“There are many people who might deny climate change, for example, but still have really fundamentally strong relationships to their land and to nature, and that’s something we need to tap into,” says Katie Hayes, who is working on her doctorate at the University of Toronto on the psychological and social consequences of climate change, using the 2013 Alberta floods as a case study. “People can have anxiety about what’s happening to them and maybe not see that climate change is a problem that is exacerbating that ecological degradation.”

Where fossil fuels pay the bills

That’s perhaps not truer anywhere than in Alberta, the Canadian province at the heart of the country’s resource economy. Albertans also happen to be the Canadians least likely to believe that climate change is happening, with only 52% saying they see conclusive or solid evidence, according to a 2018 poll conducted for the Ecofiscal Commission, compared to 61% nationwide. Of those who believe Earth is warming, 54% of Albertans say they believe warming is caused by human behavior, compared with 70% of Canadians overall.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tourists hike up to Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield on July 6, 2019, in Jasper National Park. Alberta is home to two of Canada’s most famous national parks, Banff and Jasper. But a warming planet is having an effect on one of its biggest draws: the glaciers, which are shrinking.

The climate-energy debate has become increasingly divisive. The province’s conservative premier, Jason Kenney, has railed against foreign environmental groups who he claims are seeking to undermine the oil and gas industry.  

At the same time, Alberta has been on the front lines of disasters in recent years, including the devastating floods in 2013 and a raging wildfire in 2016 in Fort McMurray, the gateway to Alberta’s oil sands. All of this has created mental distress in the province, says University of Alberta professor Vincent Agyapong, who is studying patients with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder in Fort McMurray. He says that the climate doesn’t come to the fore when he talks with his patients, who tend to see it as more of a scientific or political question. And yet with changing weather patterns, anxiety “is definitely something that’s become an increasing phenomenon,” he says.

Finding hope in community

It doesn’t take being a victim of disaster to produce “ecological grief.”

Amy Spark trained as an environmental scientist and co-founded the Calgary-based Refugia Retreats in 2016. They run workshops focused on the intersection between ecological change and mental health. Sometimes those meetings take the form of informational sessions at universities or community centers, where she and her colleague provide an overview of the growing body of research on ecological grief. Sometimes they are spiritual retreats that help participants process their feelings about the loss of cherished spaces – a destroyed landscape or even a single tree.

The anxiety they see is often not about the changes in the present but fears about what is coming or doubts that individual action – say, eschewing plastics – will make a difference. Much distress comes from disorientation – a sense that rhythms of the seasons aren’t reliable, that birds are chirping at unfamiliar times of year, or that wildfire smoke is coming earlier.

Many people are seeking out such support groups. Agnieszka Wolska, a therapist in Calgary, joined the “Eco-Grief Support Circle” that meets twice a month after losing faith, she says, that nature could rebalance itself. She compares the circles to being at a wake, she says, but it’s also where she finds some hope. “Together we have less individual despair. We can just have connection instead of fear or just sadness,” she says. They sit together over tea and discuss what’s around them, whether that’s wildfire smoke in their midst, memories of the 2013 flood, or far-off news of a natural disaster. 

“There is an honesty and there’s a courage and there is a sense of community,” she says.

Yet over herbal tea in a vibrant neighborhood of Calgary, Ms. Spark explains that her retreats, in the capital of Canada’s oil industry where everyone knows someone employed by it, often surface mixed feelings.

“I think there’s a lot of fear around using these terms because there’s a sense you might be judged,” she says. “Because if I say I’m experiencing eco-grief, what [people assume] I’m really saying is that I am not supportive of the industries that gave me my high quality-of-life. So I think there are these kinds of entanglements of grief and guilt and hypocrisy and fear of judgment that get wrapped up in the context of Alberta.”

Ms. Spark says their intent is not to present a zero-sum scenario. “Even if you work in an extraction industry, you’re also allowed to grieve what’s happening,” she says. “Eco-grief should be something that builds compassion rather than builds barriers between people.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Susan Heather, with her daughter Faron Messerli, sits at the table in her home. Ms. Heather helps other farmers find ways to build resilience around changing landscapes.

Another initiative, the Alberta Narratives Project, attempted to do just that. The organizers held more than 50 workshops with almost 500 participants last year to try and build more constructive conversations around the province’s energy-climate dichotomy, and published recommendations about how to emphasize all Albertans’ shared identities. One finding is that shrill language – that climate change is the “most important” issue we face and is an “immediate threat” – breeds distrust. Instead participants preferred to talk about it as an emerging concern among other challenges.

Ms. Hayes avoids the term “ecological grief” altogether in her fieldwork in High River. In part that’s because many in the area don’t buy into the notion. “When we talked about their experiences with the flood, the big challenge that they had is that they haven’t wanted to experience a flood like that again. So putting the flood in the broader context of climate change is really scary, because it made people think that this could happen again.”

That flood remains so vivid in these parts that when Ms. Heather attended a rural Mental Health First-Aid course organized by the High River District Health Care Foundation, and it rained the day it was held (coincidentally during the sixth anniversary of the flood), those memories came to the fore. Ecological grief wasn’t introduced as a term, she says; no one even mentioned the words “climate change.” Instead they focused on their shared anxieties and how to help build capacity in the Albertan agricultural community to better respond. Ms. Heather says it gave her confidence that she can help, in her work as an agronomist, other farmers facing mental health challenges.

For farmers here, a lot of the stresses are financial, especially as this patch of Alberta has seen three years of drought. The more intangible loss is often the harder to cope with – or explain. “When you lose your special place, it’s a deep feeling. A lot of emotion is attached to places, especially natural places,” says Ms. Heather. “It’s not necessarily a house, but a rock or a tree or a valley that somehow you’re connected to.”

On this day she’s just returned from a fundraiser for her parents, who lost their grassland and fencing after a bushfire. Ms. Heather says she was devastated – this is where she grew up playing – “but it’s already starting to regrow, and it’s beautiful.” And all that was lost in the flood has since been restored – even if not exactly to its original state.  

“High River is beautiful, and the mountains are the same,” she says. “And the river. It’s different, but the same.”

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