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.

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

5 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

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