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Creating space for climate grief

Do you have an icky case of the climate cold, planet pessimism, or sustainability sadness?

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Snowstorms in Texas? Heatwaves in Los Angeles? The world is on fire? 

Addressing climate change head-on can be extremely difficult, and many are left feeling so hopeless and burnt out that they are unable to grasp possible solutions. UW Bothell environmental humanities professor Jennifer Atkinson, recognizing the emotional toll of eco-anxiety and its implications for students, created BIS 293: Environmental Anxiety and Climate Grief. 

“The sciences put so much emphasis on objectivity and detachment that there can be a stigma around discussing subjective responses,” Atkinson said in an email. “So both established scientists and the students working under them are concerned about compromising their professional credibility by appearing too emotional.”

Atkinson wanted to create a space where students and colleagues could openly grieve and discuss their anger and sadness surrounding the climate crisis. This environment has given students permission to sit with their thoughts instead of jumping straight to action, which, Atkinson said, makes all the difference. Accepting the facts and reintroducing new technology for our changing climate is one thing, but grieving the loss of our long-established way of life is another. 

“The problem is when we try to jump straight to the final step without first processing the emotional toll of all this lost beauty and life, we're bypassing the very insights that motivate us to fight for our world in the first place,” Atkinson said. “We can't act creatively and honestly in this new reality if we still believe we're living in the old one.”

After she debuted the course, some people were confused why Atkinson decided to focus on grief rather than hope. She argues that collective action is the necessary response to the climate crisis, but collective action may not be possible if we are too overwhelmed by the problem. Atkinson insists we must lead with “intrinsic hope,” living within what we can control and letting our choices on Earth define who we are. 

“Guided by hope generated from within, we commit to climate solutions not because we're convinced we'll win, but because fighting for a livable future is the only sane and moral way to live in these times,” Atkinson said.

Environmental studies student and vice chair of UW’s Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG) chapter Sydney Porter echoed these thoughts regarding climate anxiety. 

“There is some climate anxiety that has driven me to want to make a change, but I pretty strongly believe that you cannot have a meaningful impact on something if you are primarily driven by fear because you end up in this place of feeling frozen and overwhelmed by all the problems [where] it is hard to palate the solution,” Porter said.

Porter thinks that we can all contribute to a better future. She urges people to view themselves as not separate from the environment. Everything in our environment has the capacity to positively contribute to our ecosystem, and we can too. 

“Confronting your anxiety and understanding its source will lead you to discover what is so meaningful to you, why it is worth protecting, and what you want to do about it,” Porter said.

Porter recommends that people dealing with climate anxiety envision what a positive relationship might look like between themselves and the environment. For her, it means learning more about plants native to her area, spending time outside, and picking up any trash left behind from her outings, or anyone else's. 

“My work with WashPIRG is about stopping harm and working towards a better future, but it is in my actual engagement with the environment where I can begin to understand what a positive relationship looks like,” Porter said. 

Reach contributing writer Aspen Anderson at Twitter: @aspenwanderson

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(2) comments

More Inclusive than Thou

We need to put world leaders and celebrities onto large mostly empty luxurious jet airplanes and fly them somewhere far away so that they can spend several days in large mostly empty luxurious hotels enjoying 5 star service. While there they can figure out a set of rules that other people should have to follow to solve this crisis. Then they can fly back. Later on some of them can then fly out on large luxurious mostly empty jet airliners to go to an awards ceremony for environmentalism.

If so much as 10 percent of the worlds population lived the way the people that the people who make the most noise about all of this live, the Earth would have been a burnt cinder hanging in the heavens for decades past.

I ride a bike or bus to work. I do not run cooling in the summer at home. And I do not fly around the world on mostly empty luxurious jet airliners and attend environmental events at 5star hotels, and then fly to environmental awards ceremonies.


1) Despite our political differences, I can empathize with this cynicism, hahah. It's the world leaders and corporate interest groups that are making empty promises and dragging their feet on this- many others like myself are the ones who support a Green New Deal that'd revitalize the economy and help reign in the temperature and such. World leaders make claims at places like the Paris Accord but they move so infuriatingly slow in transitioning to green energy like nuclear plants and wind farms that the world is bound to get bad before it starts to shift direction.

2) I don't think you have a study or source to back this up, unlike the many scientists and students fruitlessly telling the bought-out corporate politicians what they should do in order to preserve the only planet in the known universe habitable for life.

3) That's a good thing! The average person isn't responsible for the ongoing Climate Catastrophe- the messages about "recycling" and "composting" are helpful in bringing about a greener lifestyle shift, sure, but our efforts are meaningless if the sources of carbon- the fossil fuel plants, meat farm industry, wasteful transportations, etc, aren't dealt with in time. The blame isn't on you or me or pretty much anyone at the UW or in society, but the bigwigs who know they can buy their way out of increasingly powerful storms and the waves of climate refugees and the extreme weather conditions.

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