In her essay, “The Ecology of Grief”, grief counselor Phyllis Windle includes a section entitled The Grief of Ecologists (Windle. P., 1992). She writes, “Ecologists are both blessed and cursed in seeing natural systems clearly. We see what is there and also what is gone…Our external as well as our internal worlds may make environmental losses difficult to mourn. We have almost no social support for expressing this grief.”
I know from my work over the past few years through workshops and coaching that many in this field are suffering. When I ask why people attend my sessions (regardless of the topic), I inevitably hear at least one person say they are trying to decide if they want to stay in the field.
I believe we can no longer separate burnout, toxic work culture, exclusion, Covid overwhelm (the term I use for the lingering effects on the workplace since the pandemic started) and ecogrief (or similar terms like ecoanxiety or climate grief). All play a role in the mental wellbeing of the conservation profession.
Connecting Counseling and Conservation
Early in my business, I offered ecopsychology-related topics through Adler Graduate School, which developed my connections to the counseling community. At the same time, I sensed that the conservation community does not often receive “people management” skills as a part of undergraduate and graduate programs. So, I created workshops to help fill those gaps.
When COVID-19 hit, my work ramped up. I saw a deep need for topics like self-care, team wellness, conflict resolution, burnout and more. I think the pandemic called conservationists to look at our lives and determine what was important. Some have struggled with that call. Workshop participants often express insane amounts of burnout, little autonomy, and feelings of being devalued. They also struggle to work when their efforts seem fruitless. And yes, some mention terms like ecogrief and ecoanxiety.
In addition, counselors have expressed a growing interest in ecopsychology because more clients are expressing distress and anxiety related to climate issues. As a result, more discussions and workshops have been created for counselors to become more climate-aware in their practices. A growing number of conservationists are expressing these sentiments around ecogrief and are longing for conversations so they don’t feel so alone.
The Historical Reality of Ecogrief
The grief of ecologists and the suggestion that we need places to process ecological losses are nothing new. In fact, the very person considered to be the father of the field of conservation wrote plenty on this topic. Aldo Leopold shared the following –
“We grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from western Dane County is no cause for grief if no one knows it only as a name in a botany book.”
“Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.”
“It is easy to say that the loss is all in our mind’s eye, but is there any sober ecologist who will grieve? He knows full well that there has been an ecological death, the significance of which is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science.”
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,”
“The case for the land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against ‘modern’ trends.”
I am always perplexed at how many in the field selectively quote Leopold only to justify their work but ignore his broader perspective. If we really read and embraced Leopold’s work, we’d see how much he warned would happen if we economize nature.
Phyllis Windle’s essay, referenced earlier, was originally written in 1992 and reprinted in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth Healing the Mind. Her work heavily influences my nature-relationship classes, including words like –
“Scientists and resource managers usually do not speak freely about the aspect of our feelings for the places and organisms that are part of our work any more than our love for nature.”
“I am tempted to dismiss my feelings for dogwoods as irrational, inappropriate, anthropomorphic. My arguments go like this: another tree will take the dogwood’s place, death is part of the life-cycle, too: evolution removes as well as adds species. These arguments are all true. Timing is the key issue, though. Premature reassurance and pressure to accept a loss just short-circuit the grieving and recovery process.”
“Most of our contemporary mourning customs are important in the first weeks and months of the grieving process. I suspect that ecologists are more likely to need support in a longer, continuing way. Environmental losses are intermittent, chronic, cumulative, and without obvious beginnings and endings.”
I will acknowledge here, as I do in workshops related to this topic, that ecogrief and ecoanxiety are quite possibly white-washed terms. Indigenous and First Nations people have experienced existential crises from the moment of colonialism. Many from marginalized communities and those from the Global South, often closer to the direct impacts of environmental degradation, have also been facing existential crises for a very long time. In Generation Dread, a book by researcher Britt Way, humanitarian Vinay Gupta is quoted as saying “What you people call collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.” That hits hard.
Data and Research
While not much direct data specific to the field exists, the science around eco-anxiety is growing. A simple Google search of eco-anxiety research will provide more information than you’ll ever need on the topic.
Susan Clayton, a climate psychologist, has done significant work here. You can find a long list of related publications and research at: https://wooster.edu/bio/sclayton/. One of the key research projects which Clayton was a part of is a global survey on climate anxiety in children. The Findings section reports:
“Respondents across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). More than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. More than 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change (e.g., 75% said that they think the future is frightening and 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet).”
Clayton has also developed a measure of climate change anxiety that can be used by therapists to assess clients. When those with high scores on anxiety subscales arise, “We suggest this signals that clinical psychologists and other therapists should be attentive to the way in which their clients are being affected by climate change, and think about ways to address climate change anxiety among their clients.” If you are curious about more on measurements, check out the Hogg Eco-Anxiety Scale. There may be others as well.
The most recent data I received was during a presentation on a newly completed study on Vicarious Trauma in Conservation. The author uses the American Psychological Association’s definition of vicarious trauma as “the emotional residue of exposure to traumatic stories and experiences of others through work; witnessing fear, pain and terror that others have experienced: a preoccupation with horrific stories told to the profession.” The final report isn’t out yet, but some data points were presented. The survey included 375 respondents with 47 nationalities. Respondents’ vicarious trauma levels were moderate (46.2%) to high (47.7%). In a conversation with the author, she said she was more shocked by the direct trauma stories provided in open-ended questions than the vicarious (second-hand) trauma results she reported. I told her I was not at all surprised. I’ve both heard about and experienced many.
While not scientific, in several of my workshops, I ask participants “On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being ‘I feel hopeless’ and 10 being ‘I feel hopeful,’ how hopeful do you feel about your work in conservation most days?” I have collected almost 300 data points on this question. Just over a quarter rate their work fairly hopeful (scored 8-10), not quite 1/3 are right above the neutral point (score of 6-7), just over ¼ have started to lose hope (scored 4-5). The remaining 1/6 have fallen into hopelessness (score of 1-3). I asked this question at a presentation on wellness (in general) at a meeting of wildlife professionals and the scale ran from a low of three to a high of nine (with 31 people reporting). Just over half of the participants fell in what I call the tipping zone – a score of five or six.
The Problem with Denying Our Grief
A recent slew of articles, news pieces and political banter regarding ecogrief has, I fear, shut down a government employee’s ability to bring their whole selves to work. In fact, a government employee colleague recently equated this to the witch hunts of the past, and I agree. It feels like an attack on any kind of caring, feelings, sensitivity, support, humility, or compassion – all aspects of the feminine.
While the workshop under scrutiny does touch on the topic of ecogrief and what it is briefly, we spend much of our time normalizing all the emotions that arise from the hard work of habitat and species recovery, ocean clean-up, and other, sometimes hopeless, work. We also talk about the direct traumatic experiences including natural disasters in their work areas.
What’s missing from the news stories is that we spend most of our time talking about resilience practices that individuals and teams can put in place to help navigate whatever struggle they are in with work. These apply to ecogrief and any other emotional struggle including burnout. I’ve written and talked about these practices in several places, so I won’t repeat them here. Contact me with interest.
When people are expected to hop on the hamster wheel or productivity line and refused spaces to process experiences and emotions, there is potential for extreme consequences. One such story is about a woman in charge of protecting a national monument who died by suicide, in part, from the results of politics over people and planet. As the story states (link below) –
“I can’t face what appears to be required to continue to live in my world,” the meticulous 46-year-old wrote in May in a suicide note. “Most of all, I cannot leave Carrizo, a place where I finally found a home and a place I love dearly.”
I won’t be surprised if more people begin exiting the field under conditions of not being able to bring their whole selves to work. In fact, I was asked by a wildlife graduate program to offer self-care workshops to the entire staff and graduates, partially because of a staff suicide. When I asked them the question about hopelessness, both groups responded across the board, with several people in a hopeless state (less than a score of 4).
The Work Must Continue
This situation calls for even more emphasis on healing. As they say, hurting people hurt people, which is behind this series of attacks. This may be a temporary roadblock, and I won’t let it stop me from doing the well-being and capacity-building work I do, primarily inside the field of conservation.
As a result of this controversy, I have taken an even stronger lens of resiliency to my work, and that’s a good thing. I still intend to normalize all feelings and leave space for them to be processed. I am also acknowledging possible generational differences in these emotions and how to navigate this as well. In an article set to come out next month, I suggest older generations truly listen to younger generations as our experiences with environmental degradation are very different.
I am using the setback and my anger and frustration around it as a call to expand my work. I am also going to refresh existing workshops with a healing lens. More to come.
On June 16th, my partner Bre Cahoy and I are offering a workshop for the counseling community called Encouragement, Hope & Resilience in the Midst of a Climate Crisis. We are offering it through Adler Graduate School. Even if you are not a counselor, you are welcome to attend, although our focus is on implications for counseling work. You can find the description and registration link here: https://www.eventbrite.com/signin/?referrer=%2Fmyevent%3Feid%3D632862066477.
A different agency has asked for my company’s trauma-informed offering. They aren’t letting this setback get in the way of what is needed for the future of conservation leadership either.
There is some usefulness to this political story. Some colleagues recently conducted a workshop on nonviolent communication (NVC) and humility in climate work and used one of the news pieces to apply NVC strategies to talk about a sensitive topic like climate change and ecogrief where parties can be emotionally charged. I was glad to hear it could be a useful case study as we work to improve our ways of communicating for a better future for all.
“As we seek this healing, let us do so with the knowledge that oneness is not sameness. It is the transcendence of our differences and the weaving of our diverse expressions into a tapestry that is harmonized and aligned with common purpose.”
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me regarding this topic or any of my other topics geared toward healing-centered conservation communities. I have many workshops with an emphasis to move from mechanistic to more humanistic workplaces. In addition, some workshops are meant to help people develop a closer relationship with nature. I also provide individual coaching. Please note, however, that I am not a counselor. If you consider yourself in a fairly hopeless or helpless condition, I recommend a therapist instead. Please use my Contacts Page to connect.
- Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, E. Mayall, E., van Susteren, L. (2021). A global survey of climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change. Lancet Planetary Health.
- Leopold, A. (2020). A sand county almanac. Oxford University Press.
Windle, P. (1992). The Ecology of Grief. BioScience, 42(5), 363–366. https://doi.org/10.2307/1311783.
Written by Michelle Doerr with no assistance from AI.