Understanding Ecological Grief and the Reality of Ecocide

Forest in Germany

Written by Vidhi Ramnarain. Comments and edits by Dr. Tina Venema, Dr. Susanne Knittel and Dr. Daan van Uhm.

Ecological grief shows that ecocide is not just an environmental issue but also a psychological one.

Rising sea levels, coastal land erosion, oil spills, typhoons, or hurricanes – it can be distressing to hear about these events, and even more when you are directly affected. The impact of climate-related losses has been felt for years by people living in the developing countries and by indigenous people, but they are now becoming a lived experience for more people worldwide. Climate-related losses can trigger strong emotional responses such as sadness, despair, helplessness, or a loss of identity. New research is now examining the emotional and psychological toll that these losses have on people, especially those whose livelihoods depend on a functioning ecosystem. These emotions encompass the collective experience of ecological grief.

What is ecological grief?

In their recent Nature publication, Ashlee Cunsolo, and Neville Ellis, from their research in Northern Canada and the Australian Wheatbelt respectively, define ecological grief as the pain, sadness or suffering people feel due to the (anticipated) loss of an ecosystem. While grief is well established when it comes to deaths of loved ones, it is rarely acknowledged in the context of ecological losses. The lack of acknowledgement is important as it helps to create understanding when people who are affected by loss of their ecosystem appear to “give up” instead of fight injustice or immediate start to rebuild their lives.

The concept of ecological grief encompasses three types of losses; the first is loss of the physical environment that severely disrupts peoples day-to-day life (e.g., hurricane Katrina destroyed many houses, schools, places of work). The second loss relates to “the way of living with nature” and affects multiple generations as the cultural education is severely disrupted. This second type tends to affect peoples’ sense of self, i.e. their identity and is most prominent amongst individuals who live close with nature. For example, Sandra Pannell described how aboriginal people in Australia experience deep distress amidst the ecological degradation of the colonization of their land. The third type of loss consists of anticipated future loss. This phenomenon is currently often observed amongst young western individuals in which anticipatory grief further intensifies feelings of ecoanxiety.

Ecological losses are now gradually being recognized as a source of grief.

While hurricanes and earthquakes might be causally responsible for the losses that are suffered, they cannot be held morally responsible. This is different for when human actions lead to the destruction of the environment (e.g. deforestation, mining, oil spills). In an effort to stop the human destruction of ecosystems, the call to make it punishable by international criminal law is becoming more pronounced. The criminalization of ecocide would mean that we view nature in equal regard as humanity when it comes to rights. This requires a mind shift in Western industrialized countries from a cerebral connection with nature (e.g., what can nature give us) to a more spiritual emotional connection to nature (i.e., letting go of the dichotomy between nature and humans).

The appreciation for ecological grief might give people in western industrialized countries an opening to reconnect with nature on an emotional rather than cognitive level. Ecological losses are now gradually being recognized as a source of grief. Pannu Pihkala, a distinguished researcher in environmental matters from the University of Helsinki suggests that anticipatory ecological mourning can help individuals and their community to prepare and adjust to changes. Some examples of ecological grief rituals includes engaging with loss through practices such as films, museums, or memorial days. These practices have associations with the loss, which eventually help individuals come to terms with the loss. People are already mourning their land and in Iceland, a plaque was placed to remember the 700 year old Ok Glacier loss. The symbolism often accompanying in coping with grief can help to install a shared value-system which in turn can have implications for codes of conduct and law. Ecological grief might therefore even be instrumental in the process to criminalize ecological destruction, i.e. ecocide, to prevent ecological losses from happening in the first place.

Ecological grief shows that ecocide is not just an environmental issue but also a psychological one. Given the urgency of the matter, it is pivotal to understand the profound psychological effects of ecocide. By recognizing ecological grief and this shared vulnerability as a response to ecological loss, we can increase the relevance of ecocide for a wider group of people. Ecological grief reminds us that ecocide may not be an abstract concept or a distant ecological problem anymore. Quite simply, it allows us to become closer to nature, perceive and acknowledge the loss in front of us as we find ways to communicate our grief to support each other. Through this collective grieving process, we can form new stories, share ideas and collaborate with each other to come up with better solutions to stop ecocide. Today, by giving voices to experiences and feelings as they emerge during this unprecedented, shared reality it might not just be cathartic but form the starting point for action and response.

Conceptualizing Ecocide is one of the signature projects that are part of the strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability.