Have you cried yet? No? Don’t worry, you will. Maybe it will be a news story about the last ice in a glacier, the last living coral on a reef, or the extinction of a bird you have never seen and never will. Perhaps a TV report, or even a tweet, will finally make you weep: one about deforestation, wildfires and the scorched and flooded world your children’s children will inherit – a world that is already a reality for many in the Global South.
There is a word for this grief that is bearing down on humanity: “solastalgia”. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to describe “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides… is under immediate assault”, it has in the past few years become a way to talk about the acute psychological pain associated with the environmental losses of climate change.
If grief has seven stages, as the self-help books say, then after the initial shock of realising what’s to come is denial. Despite writing about nature for a living, most of the time I still push the worst of it away in case I fall into despair. I do not know how to carry on living my life and doing my work in the light of environmental destruction. If I am honest, there is a selfish, entitled part of me that does not want to experience the hard feelings because I want to have a nice life, a happy life.
At its very worst, of course, denial does not mean a day-to-day unwillingness to think about climate change, but a denial of its existence and of its human cause. The people most insistent that the climate crisis is a fiction are those who are probably least equipped to deal with the terror it evokes.
Maybe you have progressed from denial to anger, consumed by rage at the corporations and individuals whose choices got us here. Or you are bargaining: “If I go vegan, if I stop buying new clothes, if I join Extinction Rebellion, maybe I can have the old world back.”
Many – perhaps most – of the conservationists and climate scientists with whom I have had contact are stuck in a state of depression (the fifth stage of the grieving process), when the true scale of the cataclysm is clear. Some activists and scientists have pushed through that and are developing and testing ecological solutions to prevent further climate change – though the best-case scenario is only mitigation of the cataclysm. We cannot rebuild glaciers or get microplastics back out of the environment, and we will be unable to reverse most species loss.
The final stage of grief is true acceptance of what has happened, but that seems a long way off for most of us.
Last year I was invited to talk about nature writing at a psychotherapy conference focusing on climate change. Speaker after speaker described an increase in the numbers of people coming into therapy to discuss feelings of sadness, fear, anger, deep anxiety, guilt, and even shame about their lifestyle choices. This should not be surprising, I suppose; it would be odd, given our new reality, if these emotions were not coming up in consulting rooms at all.
Jungian analyst Martha Crawford is collecting strangers’ dreams about the climate crisis through social media and publishing them at climatedreams.com. Many dreams, she told me, feature “a kind of breakthrough of denial. The dreams seem to produce images that suddenly ‘convince’ people to be afraid – implying that these fears are repressed or compartmentalised during the day.”
But what can we do with our solastalgia, other than dream about it? Where do we put our grief and anxiety about the dreadful alterations taking place in the natural world we first fell in love with as children, and which most of us – when we take the time to feel it – continue to love deeply all our adult lives?
Kate Schapira, an American poet and activist, has for some years now been offering “climate anxiety counselling” for five cents from a booth she sets up on the streets in her home state of Rhode Island, documenting the conversations and donating all proceeds to a local environmental charity. She helps passers-by become conscious of their sadness, so that it can be processed and perhaps become something more healthy and generative.
“I’d like people to notice what they are feeling and what the feeling is ‘asking’ them to do,” she told the Revelator, an environmental news website. “So with climate change, what is that demand? To me, it’s twofold: that we prepare to mourn together (for species, places, cultures, people and the futures we thought we’d have); and that we imagine… the structures that would allow us to live well enough without hurting ourselves and each other, and without helping the people currently hurting us.”
If we are unwilling to embark on the painful work of mourning, we get stuck in denial and become resentful, repressed and paralysed, unable to move on or be of any use. It is as though fear of our own heartbreak is making many of us powerless, just at the moment when the world needs us most.
But we have a word for this pain now and naming things is key to experiencing them. Take a deep breath and sit with it for five minutes, if you can. Are you feeling your solastalgia yet?
This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state