Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake

Students studying the emotional toll of environmental loss faced a wave of vitriol.

 

Jennifer Atkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a senior lecturer at the University of Washington, Bothell, where she teaches courses on environmental humanities and American literature. She is also the author of Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy, and Everyday Practice.


We live in an era of profound ecological disruption, with reports on climate change, habitat destruction, depleted oceans and mass extinction piling up by the day. Yet an important part of the climate story is commonly overlooked: the emotional toll of ongoing environmental loss.

I’ve watched students at the University of Washington struggle with the depressing realities of our ecological crisis for nearly 10 years. That’s why I 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.

Photographer Chris Jordan dealt with feelings of depression and grief while documenting the lethal effects of plastic debris on Midway Atoll.
Chris Jordan / USFWS

Here’s just one reaction: “Do the students roll out nap mats and curl up in the fetal position with their blankies and pacifiers while listening to her lectures?”

Given our polarized political climate and the way it’s infected environmental issues, perhaps the hostility directed at me wasn’t that surprising. But I was amazed at the derision heaped on today’s students. They were mocked as “wimpy” and “coddled” babies, told to “grow up,” and caricatured over and over as “snowflakes.”

The irony of such charges runs deep. Facing the hard truths of our climate crisis takes steady courage and a certain amount of grit. Today’s students are reaching maturity at a moment when the scale of environmental disruption boggles the mind: increasing wildfires, rising seas and collapsing glaciers, vanishing forests and displaced communities. And remember that much worse is on the way.

Denial — carefully looking the other way — is a normal response to challenges this overwhelming. But unlike many of us, the young people I’ve met who are preparing for environmental careers are choosing not to look away. They know that the work ahead will require them to confront even more suffering and loss, and they are right to seek ways to channel their distress into action. Emerging efforts by colleges and community groups to provide tools for managing that distress can hardly be dismissed as the equivalent of a group hug. 

My class is more like boot camp, preparing students for the long, hard fight ahead.

Granted, a college course on ecological grief is bound to strike some as odd. When we think about climate change, we usually picture its effects on the physical landscape. But research shows that climate disruption is also having a profound emotional impact. For some, the daily news alone is enough to cause sadness and anxiety. For more and more people, environmental ills are experienced as a part of daily life, whether they work outdoors in record heat, experience frequent droughts and floods, or spend summers choking on the wildfire smoke that increasingly blankets the Western states.

To make things worse, the impacts of climate change are coming down hardest on the most vulnerable populations — people who may already suffer from inadequate access to affordable food, shelter, health care and safe drinking water. Indigenous communities with cultural roots in the natural world have a particularly high risk of experiencing trauma from environmental loss in their homelands. Some of my students come from these backgrounds.

Many of us are familiar with the stages of mourning following the loss of human life — denial, guilt, anger, depression and, ultimately, acceptance — but we don’t really have a vocabulary for the loss of our natural world. Only recently have climate activists and mental health professionals started using terms like climate depression, eco-grief and pre-traumatic stress. This is the distress that can occur when your daily work is to talk about and plan for an increasingly ominous future.

Left out of all the snide and hostile remarks directed at me and my students was the image featured in the Seattle Times story on this class. It showed a dead albatross, its open belly overflowing with plastic trash. The photo was from a series by photographer Chris Jordan, who spent years documenting the mass die-off of these magnificent birds. Some he held in his hands as they gasped their final breath after ingesting Pacific Ocean plastic. Jordan’s work exposing the consequences of our consumer culture required him to look suffering and death in the face. It’s not work for the faint of heart, and Jordan has spoken publicly about the emotional toll of his work.

Direct engagement with today’s biggest challenges is, nevertheless, the path many of today’s students are choosing to follow. That doesn’t make them snowflakes. It makes them badasses.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.