Climate change grief is climate change magic
Updated: Mar 30
The scariest thing I learned while in graduate school studying environmental science wasn’t about the methane traps in the Arctic, which are predicted to start bursting and releasing huge and powerful warming bubbles into the atmosphere, accelerating the warming of the planet within the next few years; it wasn’t about the huge numbers of people living destabilized lives because of climate change, because of civil unrest, or because of forced migrations due to lack of water or a climate that can no longer sustain food-growing, or because their island homelands are being flooded year after year after year while sea levels rise making their water and farmland unusable because of desalination; it wasn’t about the numbers of species going extinct every day because of human actions (the number is estimated at 150); it wasn’t about the link between modern health issues - from cancer to depression - and the vast array of environmental problems (plastic in our environment, or air pollution in our environment, or all kinds of toxic and polluting chemicals found in the water we drink and the food we eat); it wasn’t about how quickly water resources were being lost or polluted or poorly managed in places with terrifyingly high populations and how quickly those resources were predicted to “run out”; it wasn’t about how corporations so blatantly don’t give a fuck, government doesn’t give a fuck, those with the money and capacity to shift our trajectory not only don’t give a fuck but have known for decades and have kept it a secret, have stubbornly and sociopathically chosen to keep us headed toward apocalypse.
The scariest thing I learned while in graduate school was when I was reading a paper about climate trauma, since that is what it is when we think about and experience climate change – it is trauma, on a number of levels – and that paper prompted me to look up definitions and explanations of trauma and I realized, rather suddenly, that I exhibited signs of childhood trauma.
I had known for quite a few years that I “suffered from depression and anxiety.” But that was just it: I “suffered” from it. I never thought that there was a reason for the persistent feelings of overwhelm, emptiness and discomfort I felt. I thought there was something “wrong” with me. I thought I wasn’t strong or resilient or clever enough to sort myself out and “get better.”
In fact, what I learned in grad school that scared me was that these things that had felt like part of my personality, things I felt helplessly frustrated with on a near-constant basis, these were the symptoms of someone who had experienced trauma.
I didn’t “have” anxiety and depression. Those were words Western science had given to a very normal adaptive response to experiences in my past.
This scared me first because it meant I had been living for quite a few years with a total misunderstanding of myself and my emotional world. More than that, it scared me because I finally understood, with huge grief, WHY “no one cares about climate change.”
I felt motivated to write a masters thesis on the relationship between emotion and the “issue” of climate change because I didn’t understand how people could know how serious the situation was and NOT dramatically altar their lives. I wanted to understand what it was that was driving people to ignore or dismiss the reality that climate change, in combination with many other incredibly serious environmental issues, was going to destroy all we know and feel is certain in the shockingly near future.
I didn’t get it. People say they know and they care. And yet, they are still having babies and buying houses and going to their corporate jobs and talking about vacationing in the Caribbean and having babies. I understand, we live in America and we are being shielded from it for a short time, but we all know what’s coming, right? We all know this way of living is “unsustainable” and things must change dramatically, unimaginably, unprecedentedly, not just immediately but like…ten years ago? But why are we all still acting, in our day to day lives, as if that’s not the truth?
When I started to read about trauma, I understood. And that’s what scared me the most.
Because if I had the symptoms of a traumatized person, it didn’t take me long to realize that a huge majority of people alive today are traumatized. The reported numbers are something like: 18% of the US population has an anxiety disorder and over 17 million people experience a major depressive episode each year. This doesn’t include other disorders like ADHD or bipolar disorder, which can be partially explained as being adaptive responses to trauma, not simply humans naturally having “something wrong with their brains.”
And these are just the reported numbers. This is not including chronic illness, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, insomnia, and stress-related heart diseases – all of which have been linked to childhood trauma. All of which, additionally, create a pattern of stressful living, which affect a person’s ability to be resilient, to be adaptive, to be compassionate, to be capable of enduring further trauma with emotional intelligence.
What I realized was that…we are a population of humans with a lot of trauma and not only is it not being named as such, it is not being healed. And here we are headed into a period of extreme climate and environmental disruption (in fact we are already in it), and there are very few of us who are emotionally prepared to recognize, process and cope with such emotional stressors.
What scared me the most was realizing that talking about carbon dioxide levels and finding a way to switch to alternative energy models and arguing about the implications of the Green New Deal is not what humans need to be talking about. Humans really need to talk about their own trauma.
A person unaware of the way past trauma is presently impacting their life is inhibited in a variety of ways: cognitively, physically, obviously emotionally. We are a population inhibited by the pain we live with and do not understand.
Which is why we can’t really think about climate change, let alone try to “do something” about it. What happens, as the academic literature explains, is that our unconscious defense mechanisms are activated and trigger in our brains one of a variety of avoidance techniques to prevent ourselves from actually engaging with the severity of the situation.
This is called disavowal. It’s a thing humans can do where we intellectually recognize something as true and simultaneously put it in a box where we ignore and suppress it because it’s way too terrifying to actually face. So people say, “humans are smart, we will come up with a solution,” or they say, “technology is very advanced, we will come up with something before it’s too late,” or they say, “I don’t think it’s actually as bad as they say it is, I haven’t noticed a big difference” or they say, “I don’t see it on the news very often, it can’t be such a big deal,” or they say “The fucking oil companies, they are so selfish and corrupt, and the politicians will never do anything about it.”
These are all disavowal statements. They either downplay the severity of the situation or they focus on blaming, which switches the conversation altogether.
In the literature, they say that the knowledge of climate change is “just too overwhelming” for people to handle. I think I might disagree. I think I might say, instead, “people haven’t been given the opportunity to recognize and heal their own grief, so their nervous systems, NATURALLY, are protecting them from further harm.”
We don’t want to talk about climate change because we can’t even talk about the grief and pain that is already causing us to be so ill. How are we supposed to face the enormity of millions of climate refugees, disappearing water, disappearing non-human creatures, declining food resources, and all the rest?
I can’t be bothered, I’m already living in my own personal hell.
To me, that’s what climate change disavowal is really saying. And I feel OK saying that because I was there. Many days, I am still there.
I still regularly project and blame, so I don’t have to feel the grief. I still go out with my boyfriend and play pinball and pretend like the reality where bars with pinball and craft beer are going to exist in ten years. I still pretend that when I look at my boyfriend and feel such big love for him, that that love feels safe and stable instead of like it’s about to be taken away by the insane chaos that climate change is starting to bring to the United States.
This is my chosen life's work and I still struggle to fully accept what is being asked of us. The Earth can not hold all our unspoken grief any longer, She needs us to help Her hold Hers as well.
What I learned studying climate change was that as an unconsciously traumatized person myself, the most urgent action I can take in the face of climate change is to let myself grieve my own past, my own pain.
I don't have space for the Earth's pain or for others' pain when I haven't dealt with my own. I don't have space to bravely and honestly face the difficulties that are here and that will continue to show up when I am not willing to do that for myself.
The scariest thing I learned while studying climate change was that the Earth was showing me what She needs through showing me myself.
But the most beautiful thing I learned while studying climate change was that the Earth was showing me myself by showing me the resilience and regenerative power She holds. We are in this together, Her and I.
If I have space to hurt and rage for the destruction of Earth, I have space to do that for myself. And if I believe the Earth is worth grieving, worth healing, I start by grieving for and healing myself.
Climate change is so much more than the biophysical stuff. It's the emotional and spiritual stuff, more than anything. So when it comes to "saving the Earth," She has a pretty simple message for the humans: "heal yourself and you heal me."
And doesn't that feel like a much more gentle and genuine way to move forward?