Beyond Climate Grief

book cover imageBeyond Climate Grief

Jonica Newby

NewSouth, 2021

Jonica Newby, best known as a presenter for the ABC’s science show Catalyst, fell into depression a few years ago when the fate of her beloved alpine landscape in a warming world suddenly hit home.

After a break to rebalance she decided to use her skills to “science the shit out of it” to work her way back towards normality. As she did so, she met many climate scientists who were struggling with the same grief at the inexorable loss of their own special places, and with psychologists who could explain how best to deal with the emotional burden.

She began writing in October 2019 and was soon forced by the horrific bushfires of that summer to expand her project to include managing immediate trauma. This book is the result. To be clear, it is not about climate change or climate science (Newby knows, and we know, enough about that already) but about how we can best cope with the ongoing and seemingly inevitable collapse of the natural world we love.  

Key insights and strategies

Newby begins by identifying the emotions as primary drivers of all we do and think, tracing them all the way back to primitive organisms attracted to anything beneficial and feeling aversion to anything dangerous. She also pins down just what kind of grief climate change brings upon us. It is “anticipatory” and “disenfranchised” grief, both terms reflecting the fact that it is grief for a loss we have not yet suffered. She likens it to the grief we feel when someone close to us is diagnosed with a terminal illness.

From there, Newby proceeds through the classical stages of grief, from denial to acceptance, showing how each of them may be processed most effectively. At the same time, she looks at how our emotional responses can support (or undermine) our practical responses to the crisis which brought on our grief. The aversive emotions (anger, fear, hate) are shown to be useful in the short term but destructive or unsustainable in the longer term, so she turns to the positive emotions (love, community, courage, compassion) as the foundation we need.

If all of this sounds far too abstract, as it may, it’s only because it summarises a book in a few hundred words. Beyond Climate Grief as a whole is challenging at times but warm and very human, as each of these points is brought to life through conversations with experts, everyday heroes and the author’s own family.

The need is great

This is a timely book, as so many of us struggle to live well in the face of climate change. Newby’s solutions celebrate a kind of determined, willed, optimism as the best possible attitude to carry us onwards. As she says, “the only way to live a good and happy life under the weight of this fearsome knowledge is do what you can to create the future you choose.”

Further reading

11 thoughts on “Beyond Climate Grief”

  1. Solastalgia is another way of framing climate grief:

    The idea of solastalgia came out of a stripped landscape, that of the Australian droughts of the early aughts. They provided direct evidence of the mental health consequences of climate change. The effects were most acute among indigenous groups, scientists who confront climate change directly, and farmers whose land has been destroyed. In 2006, Nick Higginbotham, a scholar of public health also at Newcastle University, developed with his colleagues a quantitative measurement of “the bio-psycho-social cost of ecosystem disturbance” called the Environmental Distress Scale, or EDS. They defined solastalgia as a response typical of “contexts where one’s physical environment (home) is transformed by forces that undermine identity, well-being, and control.”

    More on Nautilus – https://nautil.us/issue/52/the-hive/how-we-cope-with-the-end-of-nature

  2. Another meditation on climate grief, this time from climate scientist Joelle Gergis:

    …Australia’s Black Summer was a terrifying preview of a future that no longer feels impossibly far away. We’ve experienced, first-hand, how unprecedented extremes can play out more abruptly and ferociously than anyone thought possible. Climate disruption is now a part of the lived experience of every Australian…

    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/oct/15/the-great-unravelling-i-never-thought-id-live-to-see-the-horror-of-planetary-collapse

  3. Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet (2021) by Thich Nhat Hanh is a very worthwhile book in this context: wise, gentle and encouraging, like everything else of his that I know.

    He argues that the only way to have a sustained positive effect on the world is to work from a position of universal compassion, and the way to reach that position is mindfulness practice. Further, that no-one can do it alone and that, to be most effective, we need to form or join communities consciously working for change.

    None of this is particularly specific to saving the planet, and in fact environmental activism as such is hardly mentioned in the middle half of the book. But if our hypothetical general reader takes it all in and applies it, they will be a better and happier person by the end of it, having painlessly absorbed a solid course of Engaged Zen. And then, we hope, they are ready to go on saving the planet.

    More (mainly about the Buddhist aspects) at https://www.malcolmtattersall.com.au/words/zen-and-saving-the-planet/

  4. Tumut teenagers touched by Black Summer bushfires create art for Burning Generation exhibition

    “You’d think that bushfires would have been a wake-up call, even now you see the fires in Hawaii and in Greece,” [a participant] said. “Why are people not seeing this and seeing this as a sign that something needs to happen? [My art] shows the vulnerability of the Earth at the moment, there’s no way for it to protect itself and so we need to be the one to protect it.”

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-08-20/burning-generation-rural-teen-bushfire-art-exhibition-tumut/102735700

  5. The best cure for climate anxiety and grief is collective action, according to this study. Its bonus is that it makes our communities more resilient to disasters – extreme weather events and other challenges: https://www.theguardian.com/wellness/2023/nov/16/climate-anxiety-tips and, similarly, planning and being proactive helps us to deal with natural disasters: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-11-25/mental-health-tips-psychologically-prepare-natural-disasters/103069022

  6. Search for a tool to quantify pollution distress
    Environmental scientist [from Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA)] Mark Taylor said while the psychological harm of pollution events was well known, there was no “standardised tool” to measure it.
    “The act says the EPA is to protect people and human health and the environment from pollution, but the human health part is hard to nail down,” Professor Taylor said.
    The EPA is now working alongside the University of Adelaide to develop a tool to capture the psychological effect of a large-scale pollution event.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-01-31/victoria-epa-melb-industrial-pollution-fire-flood-mental-health/103402774

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