Writer Deborah Tomkins chairs Bristol Climate Writers, who meet to critique their poetry, science or nature writing, short stories or novels. She shares their discussion on ‘climate grief’ and how psychological responses to climate change influence their writing.
2,880 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes
I’m grateful to artist Perrin Ireland, who has agreed for us to use drawings from her Climate Grief graphic story to complement Deborah’s text.
This August, I came across The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, an article by climate scientist Peter Kalmus. He writes about the profound climate grief he sometimes experiences, which he says makes sense to him and is helpful in focusing his mind, but also a crippling anxiety, which is less helpful. I forwarded the article to Bristol Climate Writers, inviting comments.
Our online discussion veered off in several different directions, so I’ll try and pull together some of the threads.
Climate grief and hope
First to respond was fellow ClimateCultures member David Thorpe, who didn’t find the article helpful. For him, the important question is why some people care and some don’t — is it down to personality type? “It was common knowledge in the 60s about deforestation, air pollution, antibiotics overprescription — in the Daily Express, for God’s sake. We knew in the 70s about climate change.” Society was supposed to change and adapt to take account of these serious issues, but that never happened. If it’s down to personality, David feels, this makes him angry; that our fate can be sealed by a majority who don’t care.
Peter Sutton agreed: “It’s a fair point about personality types – it’s kind of like knowing that gaining weight is bad for your health but this one cream cake can’t be bad, can it? We are generally, as a society, as a species (?), bad at thinking long-term…”
Later, David asked: “Are certain types more likely to think long-term — and they’re in the minority? Is this behaviour characteristic necessarily connected to what levels in Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Need’ have been satisfied?”
Abraham Maslow states that our most basic needs have to be satisfied first (food, sleep, safety), before the needs for love and companionship, self-esteem, and finally self-actualisation or creativity. The question here is: can certain personality types look beyond these personal needs to global or societal needs, perhaps far in the future (as climate change has been perceived to be)? Some artists work at a perilous level of neglect of at least some of the more fundamental needs, yet still produce great art.
Caroline New was less sure about the robustness of the concepts of personality type and Maslow’s hierarchy, regarding their explanatory power. She preferred to reframe the question in terms of social positions and early experiences.
Caroline agrees that climate disengagement is partly fuelled by the psychological difficulty of taking on the reality of climate change; however, she believes that feelings of climate grief and dread are not inevitable responses, but are re-runs of what we felt as infants, before the age where they could be cognitively recorded as memories. This makes them harder to process and heal from. Climate change brings it all up: the powerlessness, the overwhelm, the impossibility of understanding a massive, out-of-control reality. Caroline mentioned experiencing the same feelings of grief, dread and fear when visiting Auschwitz or Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. Yet these events have already happened.
For Caroline this means that “If we realise that our childhood sufferings make us vulnerable, we can separate today’s reality from those old injuries, and welcome the fact that we have the chance … to join with others … to take action in the present that will affect what happens to humanity for thousands of years.”
Psychologies of change
Others framed the answers in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Peter Barker said: “Some of the psychological reactions described in the article sound like PTSD, which can affect activists who work tirelessly on issues they really care about.”
Peter B believes that while campaigners are encouraged to focus on the important positive benefits of a low carbon economy, this fails to communicate effectively. He believes that humans are programmed to respond to threats and cautionary tales. “News is usually about trouble, danger, threats. Things we need to know about to survive. I think a clear picture is required to say, ‘This is what’s coming unless we get our shit together.’ I know it may turn some people off but the current message simply isn’t working.” He added that to tackle cognitive dissonance — the phenomenon of simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas — we need to be even clearer about cause and effect.
Emma Turnbull responded with thoughts about cognitive dissonance. The belief that “carrying on business-as-usual is viable; we can act without consequence”, is familiar, comforting, inherited and reinforced through generations. It conflicts with the other belief that “climate change is real and we need to radically change our lives”, which is an invitation to the unknown and to some harsh realisations and shakes our sense of security and societal structures. But she added that although this “second belief is like waking up in hell … it offers personal growth opportunities and collective evolution.”
Emma added: “I think it is useful at some level to acknowledge the potential losses from leaving behind the old systems and beliefs that have served us before now, because it helps to understand what needs to be replaced in new systems and culture e.g. emotional needs, personal purpose and value, and ritual or life course.”
She also mentioned PTSD, but in terms of society rather than the individual. “I think climate issues are deeply related to PTSD on a global level. Having an ambient sense of danger on a daily basis which is so powerful and seemingly beyond the power of an individual to correct, how can that not impact us all? When people are traumatised they have different reactions to it and can freeze when there’s a danger that there are no signs of escape from; dissociation allows them to zone out in a fog of denial. From researching the subject of trauma, I’d say that the way to help people move out of trauma and into a position of healing/action is to help them build emotional resources and a sense of safety. This is where I’d say positive narratives have a helpful role alongside more sobering storytelling.”
For my part, I referred to feelings of climate grief and powerlessness, and the power of communication. “The more people talk about climate change, and admit their feelings of grief and helplessness, maybe this gives permission to other people to acknowledge these feelings too … I think we can draw on other social movements such as civil rights, homosexuality, etc — people talking and writing and acting — for some kind of roadmap … Depression can be a result of knowing something is terrible but not being able to do anything about it. So, in the West we have an epidemic of depression and other mental ill-health … could it have something to do with helplessness in the face of planetary destruction?”
Lesley Richardson quoted Denise Baden at the University of Southampton, who runs greenstories.org. “Denise argues that disaster movies etc haven’t worked — they cause us to bury our heads — while positive stories inspire and help us imagine the future we want via heroes and role models.”
Emma Giffard agreed that “Humans are hardwired to respond to threats but are much more able to respond to short-term immediate threats than distant ones”, recommending an article on the Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change.
Emma G also recommended Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, a free online course on the psychology. Only about 10% of ‘denialists’ are actually truly denying the science, while behind the other 90% there are other factors which relate to internal values.
David and Caroline also discussed mindsets, which influence expectations and behaviour. David wondered about how to change mindsets, citing placebo and nocebo effects. We know little about these effects, he said, but he’s keen on the use of shame, which has been effective with “paedophilia, drink-driving, smoking and seat-belt wearing, alongside evidence, public discussion/education around the long-term consequences … and legislation. Shame is a powerful peer-group influencer. Shaming frequent fliers, for example, could work in a similar way, but to work it needs a certain critical mass. Reaching that takes a long time. We’re getting there with plastics use.”
Caroline agreed there’s a place for shame, but as a major political mechanism it’s double-edged, since it draws on social disapproval and low self-esteem. She thought concepts of justice — “We have the right to require our government to formulate policies that protect us and future generations — and exemplary hopeful actions — see Plan B Earth” — are a better way forward.
Writing for change
Finally, we touched on how these complex issues inform our writing, particularly in fiction. What is our motivation in writing about climate change, or our approach? How do the responses of hope vs grief play out in character and plot? What do we want to achieve — if anything?
Peter B: “For me, the main motivation to write about climate change is to produce action. To alert, alarm even, people into responding. It may be fiction but it’s a way of engaging your reader’s imagination to the realities we are, or soon will be, facing, to avoid sleepwalking into disaster. If nothing else, at least we can be awake when it all goes tits up. I don’t write about climate change, but a world in which it is happening with my characters living and dealing with disintegrating systems — ecological, economic and social. The central plots revolve around my characters trying, in their own different ways, to survive (grief) or effect major change (hope).”
David: “From a narrative point of view, addressing the issues of feelings of powerlessness or apathy in the face of something as huge as climate change, one must remember that most people do not make a dramatic change in their lives until they have to. A convincing narrative would explore the significance and nature of this tipping point … Additionally, I would wish to explore this idea — for which there is some scientific evidence — that a certain level of stress in an emergency seems to paralyse most people … but there is a significant minority who are energised … and can take charge and try to rescue the situation.”
Emma T: “I want to inspire hope and action through positive visions of sustainable futures. I like to share with others the magic and healing I experience through deeply connecting with nature and contribute stories that reconnect us with the land. I also write to explore the trauma that is at the heart of and driving issues like climate change.”
Peter S: “I’m currently reading You are not human, by Simon Lancaster, which is all about metaphor; and he mentions this study, Metaphors for the War (or Race) against Climate Change, which investigates how language — and specifically the metaphors we use — affects how people perceive climate change. I’ve always drawn inspiration from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and as writers we should be hyperaware of what language we use, especially when our writing is a political act (but then, isn’t all writing a political act?)”
Emma G: “My novel is basically all about the cognitive dissonance required to be fully cognisant of environmental issues and still function as a modern human — it’s basically about the intersection between climate change and ecocide and mental health. Just need someone to publish it, that’s all …”
And I too write in order to explore that cognitive dissonance. My second novel (unpublished) explores the deep climate grief and pain experienced by someone who understands all too clearly what’s happening to the planet, yet is surrounded by people who belittle her anxieties and believe she’s mentally ill because of her ‘extreme’ beliefs. Writing it has helped consolidate my own position, alleviated some of my climate loneliness, and encouraged me to keep campaigning and writing – the only sane response. Seeking publication…
Find out more
Bristol Climate Writers meet monthly in central Bristol, for discussion and critique, and to plan public workshops. There are roughly twenty members, writing poetry, science, nature, short stories or novels. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter, where you can follow @BrisClimWrit and @tomkins_deborah
Peter Kalmus’ article, The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, appeared in Yes! Journalism for people building a better world (9th August 2018): “Sometimes a wave of climate grief breaks over me. It happens unexpectedly, perhaps during a book talk, or while on the phone with a congressional representative. In a millisecond, without warning, I’ll feel my throat clench, my eyes sting, and my stomach drop as though the Earth below me is falling away. During these moments, I feel with excruciating clarity everything that we’re losing — but also connection and love for those things.” You can follow Peter on Twitter: @ClimateHuman and PeterKalmus.net.
Other resources mentioned in this post include:
Brian Kateman’s article, Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change, appeared on Columbia University’s State of the Planet site (9th January 2012).
Simon Lancaster’s book, You are not Human, is published by Biteback Publishing (2018).
Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ was described in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. There is a useful guide to the original concept and recent developments, by Saul McLeod at Simply Psychology (updated 2018).
Greenstories.org was a short story competition organised by the University of Southampton in 2018, and the anthology of winning stories, Resurrection Trust, will be published in 2019. The site has a section of useful story ideas and resources.
Finally, you might like to read a couple of other articles and an illustrated story relating to climate grief, which I discovered while bringing Deborah’s post to the site:
Jennifer Atkinson’s article, Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake, which appeared in High Country News (29th May 2018). Atkinson teaches environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, and after watching her students “struggle with the depressing realities of our ecological crisis for nearly 10 years … decided to offer a new seminar on ‘Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety.’ When registration opened, every seat filled. But after the local media began reporting on the class, a flood of derisive emails and phone calls poured into my office, and the newspaper comment sections filled up with responses mocking today’s ‘absurd. college courses and the students who attend them.” Despite this, “direct engagement with today’s biggest challenges is, nevertheless, the path many of today’s students are choosing to follow.”
Writer Meehan Crist’s Besides, I’ll be dead is her review in London Review of Books (22nd February 2018) of Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World. Crist raises a psychological paradigm of ‘ambiguous loss’, introduced in the 1970s by Pauline Boss when studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action. Boss “coined the term to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding. Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. … Grief is stalled by uncertainty.”
The illustrations throughout this ClimateCultures post come from the graphic story Climate Grief, The emotional reality of global warming, by artist Perrin Ireland. Perrin works with scientists, policy analysts, and environmentalists to tell their science stories through animations, visual essays, and infographics. You can find the full story and more of her work at www.experrinment.com
And the passage from Joanna Macey that Perrin quotes in her story come from Macey’s lifelong activism in The Work that Reconnects, which began in the 1970s as “despair and empowerment” work, evolved in Deep Ecology and has become a network.