February - March 2020 (13:4)

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Editor’s note: Every month, I skim dozens of newsletters, reports, and articles for material relevant to managing and conserving marine ecosystems. And every month, I’m a little shellshocked by the onslaught of bad news. People ask me how I like my job, and I tell them that I love the oceans, I love the work, and I love the people I work with, but it is profoundly sad to chronicle the decline of ocean ecosystems. I know many Skimmer readers have these same – and perhaps even more intense – feelings and experiences. Several recent studies and a body of recent reporting are now providing a framework for recognizing and legitimizing these feelings and experiences as well as highlighting the need to develop systems to deal with them. This Skimmer provides a brief summary of recent research and news in the hopes it can help marine conservation and management practitioners move forward with their vital work studying, managing, and protecting marine ecosystems.

What is ecological grief?

  • As professionals in the marine conservation and management field, Skimmer readers are hyperaware of large scale and global changes to marine ecosystems changes including loss of biodiversity, top predators, iconic species, and biomass and the degradation of habitats. These changes are due to climate change, overfishing, coastal development, and other human activities.
  • New research is now examining the emotional and psychological toll that these changes are having on people, especially:
  • People who work to protect and understand natural ecosystems
  • People whose cultures and livelihoods depend on healthy, functioning natural ecosystems
  • People with other close relationships to the natural environment.

A landmark 2018 paper uses the term “ecological grief” to describe the “grief, pain, sadness, or suffering” people feel due to the loss or anticipated loss of beloved ecosystems, landscapes, seascapes, species, and places. These losses can arise from both acute events (e.g., storms or marine heatwaves) and gradual environmental changes (e.g., rising ocean temperatures). And they can be felt as both individual losses as well as collective losses of a group.

  • Grief associated with physical ecological losses such as the disappearance, degradation, and death of ecosystems, landscapes, seascapes, and species
  • Grief associated with loss of environmental knowledge and identity such as when people with close relationships to the natural environment feel like they no longer understand the environment, can no longer pass on their environmental knowledge to others, have lost the environment as part of their identity, and/or have lost the environment as a source of pride
  • Grief and anxiety associated with anticipated future losses, including loss of culture and livelihoods. [Editor’s note: “Ecological anxiety” or “eco-anxiety” – anxiety about ecological disasters and environmental threats such as climate change and pollution – appears to be a closely-related concept and may be an aspect of ecological grief.]
  • A 2019 study of “reef grief” looked at some of the impacts of marine ecosystem loss – in this case, coral bleaching and mortality in the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem off the coast of Australia – on mental health and well-being. Researchers led by Nadine Marshall asked local residents, national and international visitors, and people whose livelihoods depend on the reef to rate their level of grief at the ecological losses of the reef on 10-point scale (with 10 being the highest level). Half of local residents, tourists, and tourism operators and a quarter of fishers rated their level of grief at the ecological losses of the reef as an 8, 9, or 10.

“Climate change is not just an abstract scientific concept. Rather it is the source of much hitherto unacknowledged emotional and psychological pain, particularly for people who remain deeply connected to, and observant of, the natural world.”

---- Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis, “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss” published in Nature Climate Change, 2018


How does ecological grief affect those in conservation and management?

  • In one of the few formal studies of how global change is impacting scientists, Lesly Head and Theresa Harada’s 2017 paper looked at the emotional management strategies of a sample of Australian atmospheric climate scientists and environmental scientists. They found that scientists used a range of behaviors to manage their emotions around climate change and the future and to persist in their work. These behaviors included:
    • Suppressing painful emotions such as anxiety, fear, and loss and developing “compulsory optimism”
    • Avoiding thoughts or discussion of work when not working, including avoiding discussing climate change in social situations
    • Avoiding discussion of climate change with their children because of worries about leaving them distressed and disempowered
    • Using dark or “graveyard”/”gallows” humor
    • Embracing “normal” routines and the quotidian (e.g., reading novels, drinking tea) to maintain a sense of self
    • Becoming stoic and “thick skinned” to “laugh off” attacks (including accusations of fraud, hate mail, and even death threats) from climate denialists.
  • A particularly critical theme in this study (as well as in other interviews with climate scientists and conservation/management professionals, e.g., here and here) is the perceived need to separate emotions from the practice and communication of science. Western scientific culture emphasizes rationality and views emotion as inferior and antithetical to reason. This creates strong social and cultural pressure on climate scientists to be dispassionate, restrained, and “positive” in their research and communication. This pressure is problematic for several reasons.

“We’re documenting the destruction of the world’s most beautiful and valuable ecosystems, and it’s impossible to remain emotionally detached… When you spend your life studying places like the Great Barrier Reef or the Arctic ice caps, and then watch them bleach into rubble fields or melt into the sea, it hits you really hard. The emotional burden of this kind of research should not be underestimated.”

---- Tim Gordon and Andy Radford, quoted in “Scientists 'must be allowed to cry' about destruction of nature” published in Science Daily in October 2019


Why is ecological grief unique?

Other possibilities for memorials include museums, artwork, films, music, and stories.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

----- Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac, 1949


Where do we go from here?

  • Ecological grief and the need for mental health programs and services related to it are likely to become more common as impacts from climate change become more prevalent. Addressing these needs effectively requires actions on numerous fronts – including academic research, development of therapeutic practice, and institutional and policy changes.
  • In terms of research and development of practice, the authors of the Consolo and Ellis 2018 study of ecological grief as a result of climate-change related loss highlighted the following needs for developing the science and treatment of ecological grief:
    • Greater conceptual and theoretical development of the concept of ecological grief
    • Increased understanding of vulnerability to and risk factors for ecological grief, including the interplay with personality, culture, and environment
    • Increased understanding of the relative impact of different types of losses, e.g., landscapes, ecosystems
    • Increased understanding of how ecological grief relates to similar concepts such as eco-anxiety
    • Development of interventions and therapies to reduce suffering and promote coping.

Some particularly important questions revolve around the degree to which our understandings and treatments of other forms of grief can be used to help address ecological grief. In particular, can models for dealing with traditional grief – for working through it and rebuilding lives – be adapted to deal with ecological grief? Or do ongoing ecological losses mean sufferers are more likely to get stuck in a grieving process?

As an example, research shows that when communities have to be resettled, harms can be minimized by allowing enough time for planning, compensating people for their economic losses, taking measures to maintain community cohesion and social networks, and providing resources to the resettled and host communities.

  1. Fully recognize grief as a natural and legitimate response to ecological change
  2. Provide programming and supports for employees dealing from ecological grief, similar to how other professions – disaster relief, law enforcement, military, and health care – have strategies and structures for helping employees manage emotional distress. Programming and supports could include trainings, debriefings, support groups, and counseling.

Building effective systems to help employees dealing with ecological grief can facilitate “healthy” grieving and psychological recovery and reduce the risk of long-term mental health impacts. This in turn can lead to better decision making and work performance and make people more resilient to future trauma.

In addition, they are also doing what they can at an individual level. In a recent article about climate-related “eco-anxiety” among young people, mental health care professionals stressed the need for those of all ages to find the “empowered middle ground” between paralysis in the face of catastrophe and ignoring the problem. They recommend focusing on taking individual actions to work towards a solution and recognizing that progress can be made. Climate scientists and conservation and management practitioners (here, here, and here) are particularly capable of this at an individual level because of their professional expertise, and they describe taking individual action by:

  • Advocating for change by tweeting, campaigning, and giving talks and teaching
  • Reducing their own personal carbon footprint by commuting by bike or public transportation, telecommuting, buying offsets for flights, putting up solar panels, becoming a vegetarian, and driving a hybrid vehicle
  • Working harder to publish their work more quickly
  • Celebrating small wins.

How are you dealing with ecological grief? Share your stories about dealing with ecological grief with other Skimmer readers by writing to skimmer [at] octogroup.org.

Figure 1: Dying coral reef. Picture from https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldworldworld/6975915640

Figure 2: A plaque placed at the former location of the Icelandic Okjökull glacier, which disappeared due to climate change. Picture from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Okj%C3%B6kull_glacier_commemorative_plaque.jpg

Figure 3: DTSJ bike commuter #Cycling. Picture from https://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/18660594993

Some more climate change-related news and resources:

And some other recent news articles that caught our attention:

Editor’s note: The EBM Tools Network got started in 2005-2006 under the leadership of Patrick Crist, then the director of conservation planning and ecosystem management at NatureServe. Over the past 14 years, the Network has grown to over 11,000 coastal and marine conservation and management practitioners worldwide, and is now run by OCTO, which also publishes this newsletter. For this issue of the Skimmer, we catch up with Crist, now principal at the consultancy PlanIt Forward, to see how conservation planning tools have changed over this time.

Skimmer: What changes have you seen in the use of conservation planning tools since the EBM Tools Network got started in 2005-2006? Are more conservation projects and groups using them? If so, why do you think this change has occurred?

Crist: It is really hard to quantify the use of tools – I haven’t seen any polling or studies on this although it would be really informative. Given that most conservation software is free, it is hard to tease apart casual downloads from actual application. For example, when the NatureServe Vista decision support system became free, there were about 2000 downloads worldwide almost immediately and there have typically been a few hundred every year since then. Periodic polling of the registrants, however, suggests single-digit percentages of actual use.

My sense, however, is that in the last 14 years, use of conservation software tools has become much more commonplace in academia and larger conservation organizations and agencies. I think that using GIS is now the norm for these organizations, as it is in other sectors (e.g., transportation) that rely on spatial information. More specialized conservation software is still primarily in the domain of “experts” within organizations, however, rather than broadly used throughout organizations. I’ve also observed that very specialized tools such as Marxan, connectivity modeling tools, and species distribution modeling tools have seen much more widespread use than general conservation planning software (i.e., software that provides a variety of tools covering processes ranging from vulnerability assessment to planning and adaptive management). I think the reason for this is that experts within organizations like to use these specialized tools to do a single or a few select very hard tasks and would rather assemble a suite of tools to their liking for an overall planning process rather than use multi-function planning software.

Skimmer: Where do you think the conservation planning tool field needs to head in the future in terms of functionality, usage, etc.?

Crist: For the past 14 years, the Coastal-Marine EBM Tools Network has been advocating for widespread use of tools by all those involved in conservation planning and decision making. I consider it progress that most larger conservation organizations have acquired the expertise to feed good scientific and stakeholder information into their planning processes using tools. However, one of the objectives of creating multi-function planning tools such as NatureServe Vista was to insert conservation capacity into other sectors such as land use and infrastructure planning that also have large impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. There is still a limited amount of technical expertise in most organizations to do advanced spatial planning so enabling non-technical experts such as planners and managers to do some of this work themselves is also an important goal. Organizations like Esri, the Conservation Measures Partnership, Conservation Biology Institute, and NatureServe are pushing that envelope with easier-to-use online tools with relatively low hardware and expertise requirements, but it is taking a very long time to change the paradigm from “expert tool user” to the “planner/manager tool user”. One positive observable trend is the commonality of GIS education in most planning, resource management, and conservation curricula at universities. As more GIS-trained practitioners emerge from these programs, capacity for using tools will increase.

Outside of simple capacity needs, there are clear trends and progress in the use of data – both “large data” derived from remote sensing, and dynamic data. Climate change impacts and concerns for the future are driving the need for data collected at broad scales and advanced modeling. Users, particularly resource managers, also want remote sensing data that is updated frequently so they can detect changes in real time or close to it. Other forms of data (e.g., from drones, remote cameras and microphones, and ecosystem-level DNA collection) are making their way from research to decision making, and we need to develop tools to readily integrate them into decision support.

Skimmer: Can you tell us a bit about your new venture PlanIt Forward?

Crist: PlanIt Forward is focused on integrating the needs of people with the need for nature preservation and restoration. To accomplish this, we create expert teams to address complex problems. PlanIt Forward is based near Boulder, Colorado (US), which is inland, but my long history with the Coastal-Marine EBM Tools Network takes me into coastal regions for many of my projects. We are just beginning a project with Duke University and agencies in six US states to conduct coastal vulnerability assessments and blue-carbon restoration/adaptation from North Carolina to New York. Other projects include nature-based climate adaptation work in the San Francisco Bay region, watershed planning in Australia, and developing frameworks for managed retreat under sea level rise to inform practitioners globally. While some work has been done on the socioeconomic and political aspects of managed retreat, we are collaborating with the ARC Center for Coral Reef Conservation to tackle the ecological context of retreat planning. We look forward to presenting this work in a future EBM Tools webinar!

Figure of coastal vulnerability assessments and blue-carbon restoration/adaptation results courtesy of Patrick Crist, PlanIt Forward

Editor’s note: In last month’s issue, The Skimmer interviewed three practitioners about their experiences developing and using serious games to educate stakeholders, professionals, students, and the general public about aspects of the conservation and management of coastal and marine ecosystems. This month we interviewed Harald Warmelink, a senior research project leader at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, about his work developing the serious game MSP Challenge. Warmelink’s work focuses on the design, use, and evaluation of serious games for policy analysis, decision-making, management, and organization, as well as their gamification.

The Skimmer: Can you tell us a little bit about your game and the target audience?

Warmelink: As we wrote in the article “Communicating Maritime Spatial Planning: The MSP Challenge approach”: “The MSP Challenge Simulation Platform integrates real geodata (both marine and human activities) sourced from a great many proprietary institutions and data-portals (such as IMO, HELCOM, EMODnet, and national data centers) with science-based simulation models for shipping, energy and ecology (Ecopath with Ecosim). The data and models have been linked together in a game engine (Unity) to create an interactive simulation platform. This simulation platform allows anyone – experts as well as non-experts – to creatively operate it for scenario development, and/or for multi-player game sessions. This can have multiple purposes such as scenario exploration, co-design, validation or policy-oriented learning. Although the simulation platform has taken a significant step towards becoming a next generation marine planning support system, it continues to use play mechanics, in the form of player roles, scenarios and challenges.”

More practically, in a multi-player game session, players/users can review a large number of data layers to review the current status around a specific sea basin (e.g., the North Sea). They can then draw up new spatial plans on their own or in collaboration or after negotiation with the other players/users. Once they have agreed on their plans, we can start simulations on shipping, energy, and the marine ecosystem to see the impact of the plans on those levels. Think of the impact of a new wind farm on shipping routes, or the impact of the increased noise of an oil rig on certain species, or the impact of decreased fishing in a marine protected area on certain species.

In terms of target audience, we organize sessions with mixed groups of professionals (typically around 20 people) working for national governments on marine spatial planning and companies and marine sector NGOs, particularly those focused on shipping, energy, and ecosystem protection. We also work with ‘professionals to be’, namely university undergraduate or graduate students in these areas.

The Skimmer: How has MSP Challenge been used to date?

Warmelink: We described some of the uses of MSP Challenge in the article “Communicating Maritime Spatial Planning: The MSP Challenge approach”: “Since its launch in 2018, the MSP Challenge simulation platform has been used for seven transboundary stakeholder sessions in ecology, shipping and energy in the Baltic, North Sea and Clyde areas. Furthermore, it has been used in MSP courses at The Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg (Germany), Novia University of Applied Sciences (Finland), the UNESCO/IOC training centre, Oostende (Belgium) and the Universita IUAV di Venezia (Italy). At the time of writing, the new simulation platform edition has been used by hundreds of stakeholders, planners and students.”

We are planning to roll out the entire simulation platform for free and open source later this year through the website www.mspchallenge.info. Then everyone everywhere can use it for whatever purpose they see fit.

The Skimmer: What outcomes have you seen from that use?

Warmelink: We also described a number of outcomes in the article “Communicating Maritime Spatial Planning: The MSP Challenge approach”: “It is apparent that the MSP Challenge’s ‘learning by doing’, or ‘learning by playing’ approach is both enjoyable and informative for many participants. Although some find the gaming approach to public policy issues such as MSP challenging, there is no doubt that it has stimulated widespread interest and has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Participants and observers appreciate the gaming format that creates a ‘safe place’ to develop a better understanding of:

  • The different roles in an MSP planning process and how they interact;
  • How MSP is guided by Integrated Maritime Policy objectives, some of which will be political in nature and driven by the actions and opinions of stakeholders, resulting in a series of challenges for MSP officials
  • Key mechanisms of planning, in particular the role of communication, language, negotiation, use (and mis-use) of information, and dealing with conflicting targets and interventions from stakeholders, the general public, and politicians; and
  • MSP as both a technical exercise based on objective information, but also as a social endeavour requiring communication and mediation skills, social competence and empathy and at times requiring support from external experts with particular skills.

Gaming also allows people to switch into unfamiliar roles and develop a better understanding of different lines of argumentation and of the positions and underlying pressures of other participants. As one prominent player commented, ‘It is a fantastic tool to give insight to all stakes [in MSP …] and enter into the conversation’.”

The Skimmer: Have you learned any lessons or has anything really surprised you from seeing the game in action with participants?

Warmelink: We have learned so many lessons on so many levels - about project management, serious game/play design, software development, session design and facilitation, and more… One of the more fascinating aspects is to see different people reacting in completely opposite ways. For example, some participants find the game session not realistic enough. They indicate that certain GIS data in the platform are incorrect, outdated, or incomplete. This is an understandable remark, given they are playing around a real-life sea basin (e.g., the North Sea) using real-life GIS data. That already frames the experience as one that is based around utter realism, in all aspects of which one can think. However, other participants find the game too realistic! They indicate that because of the realness of the GIS data and the sea basin itself, as well as the fact that we manage to get rooms full of real-life stakeholders and planners together working around that very same sea basin, the session seems like something rather official, a part of a political process. So what we learn from this is that it is paramount to carefully and clearly frame and communicate what the session is about before, during, and after the actual session.