Marshall at el. 2019. Reef Grief: investigating the relationship between place meanings and place change on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Featured Image: Dead live oaks from salt water intrusion outside the levee South of New Orleans, Source: Author
Depression is something many humans have to battle over the course of their lifetimes, me included. One of my biggest triggers is pessimism related to political inactivity on climate change and the likely outcomes predicted for the ecosystems and cultures of my beloved Gulf Coast. Many people are familiar with Louisiana’s disappearing coast (see here) and coastal parish’s never ending fight with rising water (see recent Hurricane Barry). For me it brings extreme sadness to think that I would be economically irresponsible to settle in a place which I consider home. Sometimes I find myself wondering if other people face similar feelings of despair, slowly watching their treasured ecosystems and resources fall into the ocean, burn up in fire, or simply disappear. It turns out that I am not alone. The phenomenon is called ecological grief and psychologists are just starting to investigate the increasing prevalence of this emotion as climate change takes its toll on a growing amount of resources that we know and love.
A new word for a familiar feeling
Ecological grief. Haven’t heard of it? You are not alone. Regular ole grief is a universal human response experienced after the loss of someone or something. Ecological grief, only recently coined by researchers (Cunsolo & Ellis 2018), describes the feeling of loss that is associated with the disappearance of a natural resource or an ecosystem. However, the concept is not new. Ever heard the phrase “Well back in my day…” from an elder family member? For me it is always my dad talking about the massive amount of coastal development that has occurred along the Gulf Coast of Alabama where he grew up hunting and fishing. Usually this change is gradual and has been historically dismissed as economic progress and something that people just have to get over in order to allow for economic growth. Many ecologists and natural resource enthusiasts have written extensively about the subject of landscape change and the depression that it can bring about (see Aldo Leopold 1953, Windle 1992, Head and Harada 2017). It is only recently, during the age of climate change, that psychologists have taken notice of this emotional distress on a much wider distribution of the population.
The different shapes and sizes of ecological grief in the age of climate change
There are many different forms of emotion that fall under the umbrella of ecological grief. For instance, there is the stress and anxiety of losing a house after a flood or a fire. Not only have you lost something that you have worked your entire life to achieve but you may have lost the community that you know and love as was the case for many New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina (see Wright and Storr 2016). This is an example of an acute loss and can take the form of post-traumatic stress. Because the frequency of acute natural disasters are predicted to increase, we can expect a larger amount of people facing these types of mental health challenges.
Ecological grief is also felt through the sense of a loss of place when a landscape slowly changes over time. This type is less understood and can be suffered in isolation due to its lack of acuteness and ill defined nature. Examples range from what a farmer or fisher may feel as climate change turns fields to dirt or development trashes a river (see research on remote Australian farming communities by Ellis et al. 2017). It can also include the unprecedented climatic changes that indigenous communities are facing and the loss of culture that is associated with these changes (see research by Cunsolo et al. 2012, 2015). Although these types of emotions are not new, the unprecedented speed of environmental changes, the severity of change, and the spatial extent of people affected has brought much more attention to this issue. Thus, in order to treat people for this type of mental stress, much more information about how it affects various groups of people is greatly needed.
Connection type affects degree of grief
In a new paper in the journal Sustainability Science, Nadine Marshall of James Cook University and others aim to better understand how ecological grief affects groups of people with different values by analyzing how the decline in the health of the Great Barrier Reef affects people’s emotions.
The study used data from surveys of local residents, tourists, fishers, and tourism operators to determine the abundance of ecological grief among those surveyed and evaluate how degree of grief was related to place attachment of the Great Barrier Reef. Degree of grief was assessed by 1-10 ranking of the statement “Thinking about coral bleaching makes me feel depressed.” Place attachment was quantified by asking survey respondents to identify on a scale of 1-10 seven prompts that best describe that person’s feelings about the Great Barrier Reef. These included, Identity, “The Great Barrier Reef is part of my identity”; Pride, “I feel proud that the Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area”; Place, “I love that I have visited the Great Barrier Reef”; Aesthetic, “The aesthetic beauty of the Great Barrier Reef is outstanding”; Biodiversity, “I value the Great Barrier Reef because it supports a variety of life, such as fish and corals”; Lifestyle, “I value the Great Barrier Reef because it supports a desirable and active way of life.”
In the study, ecological grief was found to be highest among residents and tourists and lowest for fishers. Around half of all residents, tourists, and tourism operators scored their grief as “high” (8, 9, 10/10) while only a quarter of fishers reported this quantity of grief. This is somewhat surprising as most research indicates those that depend on a natural resource for their livelihood are among the most vulnerable to ecological grief. This might be explained by the fact that fishers have yet to suffer loss of revenue or decreased fishing success from reef health decline.
Across all groups, those who scored aesthetics highest, reported the lowest degrees of reef grief. This might be explained by the fact that those who still see the reef as beautiful are ignorant to what the reef used to look like prior to ecosystem decline or they were only brought to undamaged sites. Those individuals that scored biodiversity and pride high on their Great Barrier Reef place attachment had higher degrees of reef grief within the resident and tourist groups. People with high reef grief most likely have a deeper understanding of the ecology of the reef and the threats of bleaching to biodiversity. This fits into what we know about depression suffered by ecologists who are entrenched in their study systems.
It is clear from this research that your personal values influence the degree to which ecological decline affects your emotional state. Most research indicates that those who are intimately connected to a particular ecosystem or natural resource are most vulnerable to ecological grief. However, this study shows that not only the connection but the type of connection impacts the degree of vulnerability to negative emotions stemming from ecosystem declines. This can be compared to the difference between losing a family member and losing a family member on which you are completely dependent.
These findings not only have important implications for predicting populations vulnerable to climate change induced grief but they also highlight the fact that the types of connections people have with ecosystems and resources are vital for convincing people of the importance of our natural world. The likelihood of supporting political movement on climate change increases with deeper understanding of ecosystem function or emotional attachment to a landscape. For me, this evidence has increased my motivation to overcome my ecological funk by focusing more on outreach and finding comfort in the fact that I am not alone in my feelings.
Marshall at el. 2019. Reef Grief: investigating the relationship between place meanings and place change on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00666-z
Cunsolo & Ellis. 2018. Ecological Grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change 8, 275-281. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2
Leopold. 1953. A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There.
Windle. 1992. The Ecology Of Grief. BioScience 42(5), 363-366. DOI: 10.2307/1311783
Head & Harada. 2017. Keeping the heart a long way from the brain: The emotional labour of climate scientists. Emotion, Space and Society 24, 34-41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2017.07.005
Wright & Storr. 2009. “There’s no place like New Orleans”: Sense of Place and Community Recovery in the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Journal of Urban Affairs 31(5), 615-634. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9906.2009.00479.x
Ellis & Albrecht. 2017. Climate change threats to family farmers’ sense of place and mental wellbeing: A case study from the Western Australian Wheatbelt. Social Science and Medicine 175, 161-168. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.01.009
Cunsolo et al. 2012. “From this place and of this place:” climate change, sense of place, and health in Nunatsiavut, Canada. Social Science and Medicine 75, 538-547. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.03.043
Cunsolo et al. 2015. Examining relationships between climate change and mental health in the Circumpolar North. Regional Environmental Change 15(1), 169-182. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-014-0630-z