This short but important article caught my eye the other day and I wanted to share it here. I've done a lot of writing and contemplating on this topic, one I believe is deeply depth psychological. I would love to have a conversation online (either by voice, video, or writing) with others here who are also deeply impacted by the topic. Please message me my My Page if you are interested participating in a conversation like this. ~ Bonnie Bright

"In order to respond adequately, first we may need to mourn..."

Climate scientists overwhelmingly say that we will face unprecedented warming in the coming decades. Those same scientists, just like you or I, struggle with the emotions that are evoked by these facts and dire projections. My children—who are now 12 and 16—may live in a world warmer than at any time in the previous 3 million years, and may face challenges that we are only just beginning to contemplate, and in many ways may be deprived of the rich, diverse world we grew up in. How do we relate to – and live – with this sad knowledge?

Across different populations, psychological researchers have documented a long list of mental health consequences of climate change: trauma, shock, stress, anxiety, depression, complicated grief, strains on social relationships, substance abuse, sense of hopelessness, fatalism, resignation, loss of autonomy and sense of control, as well as a loss of personal and occupational identity.

This more-than-personal sadness is what I call the “Great Grief”—a feeling that rises in us as if from the Earth itself. Perhaps bears and dolphins, clear-cut forests, fouled rivers, and the acidifying, plastic-laden oceans bear grief inside them, too, just as we do. Every piece of climate news increasingly comes with a sense of dread: is it too late to turn around? The notion that our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a reaction to the decline of our air, water, and ecology rarely appears in conversation or the media. It may crop up as fears about what kind of world our sons or daughters will face. But where do we bring it? Some bring it privately to a therapist. It is as if this topic is not supposed to be publicly discussed.

This Great Grief recently re-surfaced for me upon reading news about the corals on the brink of death due to warming oceans as well as overfishing of Patagonian toothfish in plastic laden oceans. Is this a surging wave of grief arriving from the deep seas, from the ruthlessness and sadness of the ongoing destruction? Or is it just a personal whim? As a psychologist I’ve learned not to scoff at such reactions, or movements in the soul, but to honor them.

A growing body of research has brought evidence from focus groups and interviews with people affected by droughts, floods, and coastal erosion. When elicited, participants express deep distress over losses that climate disruptions are bringing. It is also aggravated by what they perceive as inadequate and fragmented local, national and global responses. In a study by researcher  Susanne Moser on coastal communities, one typical participant reports: “And it really sets in, the reality of what we're trying to hold back here. And it does seem almost futile, with all the government agencies that get in the way, the sheer cost of doing something like that – it seems hopeless. And that's kind of depressing, because I love this area.” In another study by sociologist Kari Norgaard, one participant living by a river exclaims: “It’s like, you want to be a proud person and if you draw your identity from the river and when the river is degraded, that reflects on you.” Another informant experiencing extended drought explained to professor Glenn Albrecht’s team that even if “you’ve got a pool there – but you don’t really want to go outside, it’s really yucky outside, you don’t want to go out.”

A recent climate survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication had this startling statistic: “Most Americans (74%) say they only ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ discuss global warming with family and friends, a number that has grown substantially since 2008 (60%).” Emphasis mine.

These quotes and statistics underscore the reality that many prefer to avoid or not dwell in—this Mordor-esque land of eco-anxiety, anger, despair, and depression. One of denial’s essential life-enhancing functions is to keep us more comfortable by blotting out this inner, wintry darkness.

The climate survey, however, also has this encouraging finding: “Americans are nine times more likely to lean toward the view that it is people’s responsibility to care for the Earth and its resources (62%) than toward the belief that it is our right to use the Earth and its resources for our own benefit (7%).”

So, what if instead of continuing to avoid this hurt and grief and despair, or only blaming them—the corporations, politicians, agrobusinesses, loggers, or corrupt bureaucrats—for it, we could try to lean into, and accept such feelings. We could acknowledge them for what they are rather than dismissing them as wrong, as a personal weakness or somebody else’s fault. It seems, somehow, important to persist and get in touch with the despair itself, as it arises from the degradation of the natural world. As a culture we may uncover some truths hinted at by feelings we tend to discredit as depressive. These truths include that they accurately reflect the state of ecology in our world. More than half of all animals gone in the last forty years, according to the Living Planet Index. Most ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably, according to Millennium Assessment Report. We’re living inside a mass extinction event, says many biologists, but without hardly consciously noticing.

In order to respond adequately, we may need to mourn these losses. Insufficient mourning keeps us numb or stuck in anger at them, which only feeds the cultural polarization. But for this to happen, the presence of supportive voices and models are needed. It is far harder to get acceptance of our difficulty and despair, and to mourn without someone else’s explicit affirmation and empathy.

Contact with the pain of the world, however, does not only bring grief but can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living. It holds the potential to break open the psychic numbing. Maybe there is also community to be found among like-hearted people, among those who also can admit they’ve been touched by this “Great Grief,” feeling the Earth’s sorrow, each in their own way. Not just individual mourning is needed, but a shared process that leads onwards to public re-engagement in cultural solutions. Working out our own answers as honestly as we can, as individuals and as communities, is rapidly becoming a requirement for psychological health.

To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning and sadness, not speedily bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference. And with this deepening, an extended caring and gratitude may open us to what is still here, and finally, to acting accordingly.

Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist, an economist, and an entrepreneur who has cofounded clean-energy companies. He spearheads the BI Norwegian Business School’s executive program on green growth. He has written three books, including What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming. He lives in Oslo, Norway.

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Replies to This Discussion

It's far from enough to "figure out" the situation. The system is designed in a specific way (http://www.strelka.com/en/press/books/dark-matter-and-trojan-horses..., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_(book)). Fighting the system and me as a part of a system doesn't seem to be a viable option. We are designed in a specific way to see only immediate effects to causes and to use violence and ignorance as the fastest and as such "the best solution".

Information and energy are two pillars of organized society. The people in Microsoft, Google, and Facebook are usually seen as "good capitalists", as people who just can't have too many billions on their bank accounts. Is the renewable energy sector waiting for the next generation of good capitalists who will use their radical monopolies (http://toolsforconviviality.digress.it/radical-monopoly/) and use the catastrophe to climb on the top of the food (and other resources) chain of all against all?

Of course you are right, Aleks. Case in point: renewable energy may be renewable, but there is still and always a shadow side. Solar panels require huge amounts of heavy metals and rare earths to manufacture, and current models will likely be defunct in two or three decades to say the least—then what happens to them? Do we dump them in China or Africa as e-waste where kids as young as 6 work day and night amidst toxic chemicals to strip the m of their valuable parts? Those companies that are manufacturing them, along with others jumping on the "green" bandwagon still have capitalist and financial goals at heart. I still patronize Microsoft, Google, and Facebook in spite of not agreeing with (probably most) of their values and ethics. It's NOT just oil and the instinctual horror many of us feel at the oil spill. The system is broken and must change from the inside out. My question is...when will we hit rock bottom—ALL of us (and including myself in that query here....)—or will the system have to collapse entirely before we decide to change? 

Thanks for posting this, Bonnie. Our community of Santa Barbara is suffering an oil spill and ecopsychologists and ecotherapists are needed to help us deal with channeling our grief into effective healing of ourselves and our human and more-than-human community. We're trying to figure out how best to do that work. From a depth psychological perspective, this spill is an eerie echo of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that led to the formation of Earth Day and the US environmental movement. What is being communicated to our local and wider community once again? I'd love to hear from others what they intuit on both symbolic and practical levels about this current spill and what we need to learn from it.

Linda: Your allusion (in a comment below) to Refugio and "refuge" struck a chord for me. Are you planning to attend the "Seizing an Alternative" ecological conference in Claremont in June? I'm presenting on "Storienting the Displaced Psyche"—which directly relates, of course, to the instances of displacement going on all over the world, from the boat people in Asia whom no one will take in to the climate refugees migrating out of traditional herding and grazing lands in Africa as drought claims the pastures tribes have used for hundreds for years, to those two-legged, four-legged and flying people that have either been ousted due to ecocide, or are simply living with destruction to their home places and bearing the (sometimes horrific) consequences.

The increasing symptoms we see in the form of outer displacement and refugeeism correlate, to me at least, witn the inner displacement of psyche in the sense of us being separated from the larger fabric of being. Those who study depth psychology (as well as others, of course) have some sense of where refuge might be found...but are we consciously making an effort to take authentic refuge in lieu of distracting or numbing ourselves in order to forget that we are all essentially refugees in some way?, More, are we taking the responsibility to help others find it too and truly effect the transformation so needed in our culture?

I understand Santa Barbara itself is said to be named after a young girl who was beheaded by her own father after joining the Christian church. It's hard to miss the symbolism of the "big oil" company that has so swiftly destroyed the pristine beaches which serve as the threshold to the Mystery and the feminine, symbolized by the ocean.How can such innocence be mourned...and she became a Saint, so how can this event not be in vain but rather serve to draw more honor and attention to that which was wounded?

"When I leave here, I want to know that I loved this world wholly and by so doing I added to filling the belly of the world; I wasn't simply a point of extraction." --Francis Weller, "Reclaiming the Indigenous Soul"

Certainly, as Weller above and Prechtel in his "The Smell of Rain on Dust" and many others before have reminded us and illuminated for us, our grief helps us to access the fullness of our love--grief deepens our praise of what is loved, needed, and in the collective body: grief is praise. 

When I open my heart to the spill of oil at Redondo Beach and beyond, I sense the potential in me for a spilling of grief of large proportion. There is even an inner gage of emotions, that says, steady here, this could be a disaster, a spill of tears, hard to clean up and recover from. And then, in turn, there is the knowledge, or at least the possibility, that this spill of oil and grief could bring about an equally powerful expression of love and heightened, deepened, care and attention for the body of the earth and her suffering.

Furthermore, as I'm imagining occurs in the collective, there is my strategic mind, that places the potential fullness of my response to the grief of the world at bay, for another time, until I get these few essential projects on my desk, with my family, the jobs at hand, taken care of...Hopefully the response of the depths will win out over the response of these times in these matters of the heart and body of the world.

Thank you Linda for offering the grief ritual from yours and Craig's book. Looks like a great collective and personal opportunity for expression.

Also, I see I typed Redondo Beach, of course the beach at the epi-center of the spill is Refugio.

In heart of grief and love,

Mark

Thanks, Mark. The ritual is actually from Howard Clinebell's 1996 book, not Craig's and my Ecotherapy book from 2009.

I'm thinking of how to take a depth perspective on what's happened. Refugio means refuge, doesn't it? And yet now there is no refuge for sea life, ocean and humans in this area.

Would love to hear your and others' thoughts and feelings on depth approaches for healing these kinds of eco-traumas.

Yes, grief and love and what we need - and heart...

Linda

Here are some ideas for those of you who might be interested in holding an eco-grief gathering in your area.
I've been re-reading psychologist Howard Clinebell's 1996 book Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth in preparation for Pacifica Graduate Institute's upcoming Ecotherapy Certificate Program and was struck this morning by a section on how to lead a community ecological grief group. So many of us in Santa Barbara are now in pain over what is happening. We want to help in some way, to gather... and yet we're told to stay away from the stricken area and let the "professionals" help the ocean and the animals (conveniently for the oil company!). 
In case anyone might want to do such a group here or elsewhere as ecotherapy treatment for ecotrauma, here is an adaptation of the recipe from Clinebell's book, which of course can be adjusted for current use:
1. Read Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese"  Share images of the affected area, before and after the current devastation.
2. In small groups, share a brief part of our "ecological story" - perhaps the natural area we were born into or experienced in our youth - or what places we love most deeply.
3. Share our feelings about the current oil spill or environmental loss. Listen for messages to our community from the stricken area.
4. Share a recent positive experience of nature connection.
5. Do a brief ritual of commitment to healing nature in your area. (Possibly also providing info on local active green groups to join).
6. End with an earth blessing.

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