By Alexandra Rose
Images are flashing across my computer screen of the California sky blazed with a haunting orange glow. Ice that was once impenetrable in Greenland is now melting beyond a point of no return. Partisan politics and having the most divisive and dangerous president in modern history has made it so that basic environmental protections have been rolled back. Systemic racism has made it so that people of color are the most impacted by environmental pollution. They are more likely to die from COVID-19 due to air pollution already compromising their lungs.
Of course, sustainability professionals and environmental scientists have known that these catastrophes were coming for several decades now. It is difficult as a sustainability professional to see the Earth on fire (literally and figuratively) and a lack of action or concern amongst others to stop this crisis. Eco-anxiety and environmental grief is on the rise, especially for those working on the frontlines of climate change. As sustainability professionals, how do we take care of our mental health so that we can channel our efforts towards putting out the flames of the climate crisis?
The Boston Area Sustainability Group’s (BASG) virtual event on Sept. 8th, “Staying Strong While Everything Falls Apart: Navigating Grief and Hope About the Environment” sought to answer this question and provide support for sustainability professionals on how to develop psycho-social resilience during a time of crisis. Speakers Susanne Moser, a renowned scholar and consultant who focuses on climate change adaptation and psycho-social resilience; Reverend Fred Small, one of the world’s leading climate change religious leaders; and Rabiah Nur, an indigenous healer, ceremonialist, and activist who co-designed the Honoring Our Sacred Waters initiative, provided diverse perspectives to help participants reflect on and navigate their feelings of grief during these uncertain and transformative times.
As a recent college graduate who’s looking to make her way into the sustainability field, I often fluctuate between moments of empowerment and despair. Of course, one of the reasons I want to be a sustainability professional is to stop the worst effects of climate change and ensure a livable future for generations to come. However, what also inspires me is the belief that if we can dismantle our dysfunctional systems and create more symbiotic relationships between nature and people, we can ensure clean air, water, and food for all. Call me naive, but maybe we can finally create an equitable future and it will be the norm, rather than just utopic vision.
Despite this optimism, I also suffer from immense anxiety about the future. It can be hard for me to find the motivation to keep fighting. I recently went to a climate change presentation, which showed graphs proving we’re on our way to exceeding the 2 degree celsius limit and that even if we do everything in our power to stop the worst case scenario, it might happen anyway. This made me wonder “What’s the point of what I’m doing? What’s the point of anything?” If you follow this train down too far, you’ll wind up in the depths of despair, which will lead to inaction. Obviously, this isn’t the answer, but it’s easier said than done to remain hopeful when being exposed to frightening information that people in power aren’t taking seriously. Attending this particular networking session was great for me because I got to connect with like-minded individuals who are also struggling to have hope.
Susanne Moser says that the primary challenge climate change will pose is that there will be rapid and constant change, immense uncertainty and surprises, and traumatic disruptions to daily life. While there is a lot of talk about how climate change will change our planet and life as we know it, the mental health impacts of climate change aren’t talked about nearly as much. Additionally, compounding pre-existing stressors, such as racism, poverty, and inadequate infrastructure only makes the mental health challenges of climate change worse. Eco-anxiety is on the rise and we’re starting to see headlines such as “My eco-anxiety has stopped me from having children” appear in our newspapers. While it’s great that eco-anxiety is being talked about more, Moser argues that not enough people are talking about creating psycho-social resilience for professionals like us on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
“…Think about for a moment that this weatherman who is having to talk about Hurricane Sandy and his family is back home probably in New York City being impacted at that very moment. ….Think about what it’s like to come home after you’ve gone through the ruins of Paradise, California. …Imagine you are a scientist in Alaska who is seeing far more rapid changes than anywhere else really in the United States. And you basically have the foresight, you know already what’s waiting for the rest of the people in the lower 48.”
Her organization, The Adaptive Mind Project, did a study on adaptation professionals, which shows that 80% have experienced burnout with their work. She hopes that the Adaptive Mind Project will give “…climate resilience professionals and community leaders everywhere working on the frontlines of climate change the psychological skills, capacities, and peer and institutional support to effectively and compassionately face the challenges of a rapidly, continually, sometimes traumatically and profoundly changing world.”
Moser has already compiled a list of resources, which you can find on the BASG website, on developing resilience in the face of climate change. This includes resources for reconnecting with nature, nourishing our mind-body-souls, being present with our emotions, and communicating with others about what’s happening with Earth. Moser believes that we have to build psycho-social resilience skills into professional development and graduate programs, so that workers on the frontlines can deal with the mental health challenges that accompany their work.
In order to create more emotional resilience, we must face our grief. Reverend Fred Small says on this topic that if “…we try to avoid our grief and the sometimes uncomfortable emotions it brings up, the wounds of loss may scab over, but they cannot fully heal. For those of us committed to movements for environment and climate justice, the unhealed wounds of loss can lead to or exacerbate burnout and depression and render our activism less powerful, because unprocessed pain makes it harder to speak, think, and act effectively.”
Reverend Small asked us to reflect on the questions, “What have you lost – or do you fear losing – to climate change?” and, “As you contemplate this loss, what feelings come up for you?” A bell rings and I sit in silent reflection. I’m lucky in that I haven’t lost much, but I have many fears related to climate change. I fear the big things; loss of my home, family, and natural environment; an early death; the bees dying; famine; and the little things. Oddly, it’s losing the little things due to climate change that I think about the most. The loss of the four seasons; not being able to enjoy the sweetness of maple syrup or the tartness of a cherry again; feeling confident enough in a future where it’s safe to have and raise children; not being able to visit Miami because it could be underwater. When I sleep, I often have nightmares that it’s snowing in August or that it’s 90 degrees in January. And I can’t chalk it up as a ludicrous nightmare because it could come true someday.
Reverend Small then asks us, “As you contemplate the climate crisis, what gives you hope, courage, or joy?” Answers began flooding the chat box on Zoom, “the coming generation will not be like the last one,” “fact that systems are meant to regenerate if we let it,” “Greta Thuberg,” “doing this work together with others,” and, “helping others.” What perhaps gave me the most hope was a visual painted by a participant that brought me back to why I love life and why our planet is worth fighting for, “Joy is standing in a river, being near wild animals, being in very quiet places, riding my bike, contemplative movement, watching the sky, being hugged.” While it’s important to recognize the urgency of this crisis and work to quickly create solutions, we also need to be mindful of our mental health as sustainability professionals by building resilience, emotional strength, and taking the time to connect with the Earth.” Additionally, if we are mindful when we’re connecting with nature, we will be able to remind ourselves what we’re fighting for. Reverend Fred Small then thanks us all for, “…. being present to the wounds of the Earth and the wounds of injustice. Thank you for caring, thank you for feeling. It means you’re alive.”
Rabiah Nur, an indigenous healer and ceremonialist believes that we should treat nature as a gift and remind ourselves that we are a part of nature, rather than separate from it. Nur believes that we are no more important than a rock, tree, or water. She says that, “You have to get out of your ego about how you’re going to save the Earth. It will take a tremendous amount of stress and burden off of you. The Earth is a sentient being; she will take care of herself.” Perhaps if we can work with Mother Nature rather than against her, and stand up for her in our lives, we can trust that nature will heal itself.
Nur also says that we should create a symbiotic relationship with the land by asking Mother what she needs and to always give back when we take something from her. “When I talk to the plants I never take anything without asking permission from that plant. I always give water or offer something back..” She suggests that when you feel overwhelmed with life to go and, “…stand out in the wind and just say, bless me brother and sister wind, I need some clearing. Just wash over, brush me off, take some of this away from me because I need that cleansing.”
As inhabitants of this beautiful planet, we must, according to Nur, reflect on how we walk on this Earth. She says that this means we need to be “…as concerned about other people’s children as you are your own. To not value animals more than you value people because one rises and falls with the other. ….everything you do impacts everything else. We don’t live in a vacuum. Everything I do, every breath I take, impacts everybody. It goes out and it becomes a part of everything.”
Despite the ticking clock we’re fighting against, we need to enjoy our lives on Earth now. So go outside, take a breath, open your arms, and let the wind comfort your soul. And then channel your grief, fears, and hope into your work, so that there’s a chance that we can have a thriving planet for all.