Holding the Weight of the World: Working with Eco-Grief & Eco-Anxiety

We have forgotten who we are.

We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos

We have become estranged from the movements of the earth

We have turned our backs on the cycles of life

We have forgotten who we are.

We have sought only our own security

We have exploited simply for our own ends

We have distorted our knowledge

We have abused our power.

We have forgotten who we are.

Now the land is barren

And the waters are poisoned

And the air is polluted.

We have forgotten who we are.

Now the forests are dying

And the creatures are disappearing

And humans are despairing.

We have forgotten who we are.

We ask forgiveness

We ask for the gift of remembering

We ask for the strength to change.

We have forgotten who we are.

- UN Environmental Sabbath Program

The Rage of Love

Earth is our only home, our nourishment, our every breath of being human. We are only as able, capable and powerful to the extent of Earth’s glory. Our collective well-being is completely, infinitely, and eternally dependent on Her well-being. As I gaze upon Her body being abused, exploited, dishonored, destroyed and consumed, I am filled with rage, sadness and fear. How have we forgotten this fundamental truth that our own human existence is at the mercy of the way we wield our hands, the ways we tend, protect and nourish that which feeds us? This is our only home, our only place of belonging. Yet we continue to choose the path of destruction.

We can see that She rages with Her fires; She cries out with Her floods; She hollers, screams in agony with Her winds, She is exhausted, depleted and suffering as we continue to take from Her, dishonor Her, and harm Her. What will happen if we continue to pollute the air that gives us life, extract and contaminate the ground that feeds us, and poison the waters that quench our thirst? Will we choose to change our human story? Change our ways of being, relating and living? Will we change our behavior? Will we wake the fuck up?

Some days I am filled with anxiety, despair and hopelessness by the collective's unwillingness to prioritize Earth, to see Her, and to protect Her. I want to scream bulldozers that continue to kill trees for development; I want to burn down the capitalistic, greedy corporations; I want to create obstacles on every highway to stop all the harm from continuing, I want to destroy plastic producing distributors, and scream at every person who kills an animal while driving without a moment to stop. And then there are other days. Other days when I can find faith in our human story, I see incredible collective power, resilience and devotion to care, to love, to defend, to cherish, to guard, and to change. There are so many among us - movements, land stewards, water protectors, organizers, facilitators, system disruptors and land conservers who mobilize, educate and commit to systemic change for ecological restoration.

The reality is that we are at the threshold of rupture being beyond repairable. The earth’s biosphere is being depleted and harmed more rapidly than She can heal and repair by natural processes. This is the bottom line health challenge that we all face. Earth’s autoimmune system is threatened with irreparable damage. We might as well place ourselves on the endangered species list because our home, our only place of belonging is dying and so are we.

This is the crying voice of eco-anxiety, or ecological grief.

“The wellbeing of the ecosystem of the planet is a prior condition for the well being of humans. We cannot have well being on a sick planet, not even with our medical science. So long as we continue to generate more toxins that the planet can absorb and transform, the members of the Earth community will become ill. Human health is derivative. Planetary health is primary.” - Howard Clinebell from Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth

What is Eco-Anxiety & Eco-Grief?

Anxiety is our bodies natural response to stress. It's a feeling of fear or apprehension about what's to come. It's a survival-based response that can increase your heart rate, constrict your muscles, make you sweat, accelerate your breathing and can take over as a sense of urgency, worry, and preoccupation. It's important to remember that anxiety is a natural, human response to real or perceived threats that prepare the nervous system to respond with fight or flight.

Eco-anxiety is a term that captures a very unique manifestation of anxiety given the times in which we live, specifically related to climate collapse and Earth devastation. It acknowledges and gives voice to the pain of disconnection that is particular to this current stage in the human story and our relationship to the rest of the living biosphere. Humans are interdependent with the whole of the planet, which means that whatever happens to the greater body of Earth happens to us, whether we are able to feel it or not.

Those who are conscious of the violence against Earth often feel the despair deeply in their bodies, and this can often be expressed through grief - a very healthy way to process pain, fear, and anxiety. It's important to note that just because some people are unaware or not yet ready to confront what is happening, does not mean that they are not impacted. Living under Industrial Growth Society is inherently traumatizing and disconnecting, which means that it takes a certain capacity, resilience, and inner resourcing to lean into the despair without letting it swallow you whole. As a result of cultural trauma (oppression and violence of capitalism, colonization, heteropatriarchy, etc.), many people develop maladaptive coping strategies that keep them from feeling the extent of the pain.

There is a growing awareness of the ecological crisis because it's gotten to a point of such severity it's no longer easy to ignore or deny: extreme weather changes and an increase of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and destruction of homes, wildlife, and habitats. There are documentaries, newscasts, and dire pronouncements by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reporting global warming, melting ice-caps, overpopulation, and worldwide economic and systemic collapse. As our awareness grows of our human impacts towards Mother Earth and the threat She/we are under, so does our anxiety, depression, guilt, shame and grief.

In his book, Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth, Howard Clinebell states that:

"Grief is an often hidden component of the reality based feelings triggered by the day by day evidence of our deteriorating environment. Sensitive people often feel such ecological losses very personally. Such grief feelings for our earth home, mingled with ecological anger and guilt, are appropriate for all of us today. In addition to environmental losses close at hand, these feelings are triggered by:

  • The loss of green, clean, healthy places near where people live

  • The continuing losses of the richness of biodiversity

  • The crowding and loss of green space caused by exploding populations

  • The extinction of plants with as yet undiscovered pharmaceutical healing powers

  • And the painful loss of dreams- for a healthy world for oneself and one’s children and grandchildren"

I would also add the following:

  • Emergency evacuations as a result of extreme climate events

  • Being displaced by climate-related natural disasters

  • Not being able to breathe fresh air

  • Loss of cherished places where there were once memories

  • Fear and sadness for those who don't have the privilege to leave unsafe places

He goes on to say that....

"Many earth-literate people also feel considerable anticipatory grief about expected future losses in nature. Anticipatory grief is especially prevalent in children and adolescents as they become aware of the increasingly threatened future of the natural world in which they will live... The hopeful sid