Ecological grief: New research on the mental health consequences of working in marine conservation and management in a time of rapid global change

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

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

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