Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
An emerging cohort of therapists and artists are developing novel ways to help people process the anxiety and helplessness triggered by “climate grief.”
One evening last summer, at a loft event in Brooklyn, attendees were asked to set down their drinks, lie on the floor, and close their eyes. As the recorded hums of cicadas and crickets filled the room, two women walked around brushing flowers against the cheeks of the supine people. Afterwards, participants took turns visiting an altar, which was lit by candles and piled with ripe fruit, hunks of honeycomb, and a heap of dead insects.
Part group therapy, part performance art, and part party, the gathering had a pointed goal: to make people feel something about climate change. That is the work of Nocturnal Medicine, a two-year-old project by a pair of New York City landscape architects. Through live events, online installations, and self-published texts, founders Larissa Belcic and Michelle Shofet act as elicitors of and guides to the difficult feelings created by climate change.
“There is no infrastructure in our society to process the emotional responses coming up around the changes that are happening constantly and every day,” Shofet said on a phone call. “We’re bombarded with them and we might feel bad, but we don’t have a set practice for holding the feelings and letting ourselves process them.”
The Brooklyn soirée was designed to be such a practice, in this case a confrontation of the climate-abetted phenomenon of catastrophic insect population decline. By prodding people onto the floor, washing them in a sensory bath of pollinator stuff, and inviting them towards an open-casket viewing of arthropods, Shofet and Belcic hoped to send participants over an arc of nostalgia, discomfort, confusion, and grief—but as part of a gentle, shared experience.
And it does seem to do something. Some visitors laugh or cry; some move silently through the process. But almost everyone at least starts talking about climate change. “A lot of people have come up after and told me, ‘Oh, I didn't even know how badly I needed this,’” said Belcic.
Ian Crowe, a 31-year-old product designer who attended a second Nocturnal Medicine event held at a plant nursery in L.A., said he felt a catharsis afterwards. “It felt like I was attending earth’s funeral.”
An eco-conscious ritual for outer-borough creatives may sound a bit like a Portlandia sketch, particularly when many millions of global citizens are far more directly impacted by the droughts, storms, and human conflicts that the heating planet has already contributed to. But the drumbeat of doom still takes a psychic toll on those watching from the sidelines. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association on the mental health effects of climate change found that “gradual, long-term changes in climate can ... surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.” Growing shares of the American public report experiencing negative emotions about the issue: The 2019 edition of an annual survey by Yale University found 46 percent of Americans said they feel “outraged,” 45 percent said they feel “afraid,” and 66 percent said they feel “worried” about climate change, a ten percent point increase since 2014. More than half also reported feeling “helpless.”
Fear and paralysis might be normal reactions to vast, terrifying threats, but few of us explore the depths of the feelings themselves. After hearing of the latest climate horror—mass species die-offs, blackened forests, apocalyptic global temperature forecasts—overwhelmed news consumers might shake their heads and move on with their lives, while activists hammer onward with political action. At either end of the engagement spectrum, the emotional cocktail that comes with watching the world burn is often left untouched, said Renee Lertzman, a research psychologist and author specializing in environmental communications. That’s partly because this is such a new phenomenon.
“It’s not like the kind of anger, sadness, and grief that we normally think about when someone passes away,” Lertzman said. “This is a whole different category: There’s an actual loss and sadness when you hear about a billion animals killed in a wildfire, plus an anticipatory loss. We’re already grieving what we understand is going to be gone, based on science’s predictions.”
Lertzman argues that our inability to process these latent feelings has consequences for the planet. Without reflection and mourning, people can become inhibited from taking meaningful action: After all, behaviors like denial, disassociation, and even paralysis that arise in the face of climate change all stem from real feelings about it. This is a problem on the individual level, as well as for governments, NGOs, and other organizations urging people to alter behaviors or advocate for change, often relying on frightening imagery and statistics to instigate action.
“They’re jumping over the ‘pause,’ where people need to be able to say, ‘What the fuck; I need to process this,’” Lertzman said. “Folks need to figure out what this stuff means and how they feel, and the quickest way to get there is to get people talking and relating to each other.”
Attention towards the affective dimensions of climate change is expanding, alongside the scale of the global crisis. Google search interest for the term “climate grief” has tripled since 2018, and a growing cohort of psychologists, therapists, and amateur practitioners is working on it.
Apart from Nocturnal Medicine, another project offering an artistic response to environmental trauma is Kate Schapira’s climate anxiety counseling booth. Every summer since 2014, the Brown University poet and lecturer has set up a Peanuts-style advisory table in a local public square, and tries to talk through the climate angst of the strangers who walk up. The goal is to break down big fears into concrete questions and bite-sized actions, which can be as small as Googling what happens if my daughter’s apartment floods? or how will seniors evacuate? “I give people little cards written with prescriptions, because for a lot of people, there is a too-muchness to this problem,” Schapira said. “Climate change affects everything that there is, so how are you supposed to think about that?”
An organization called We Heal For All offers a self-care-themed approach to climate resilience. Liz Moyer, a former climate policy and sustainable development professional, started a series of “climate circles” when she found her own psyche heavily taxed by fighting for the planet. Now, once a month, she opens a 90-minute video group chat to a mixture of NGO workers, activists, and anyone else who wants to talk about how their hearts are faring in the face of climate change. “In our society, there are many opportunities to talk about science, advocacy, and strategy,” she said. “My intention is to offer something complementary. It’s a place to come into our bodies and our hearts, share from that place, and hold space for each other.”
All of these practitioners said that they view the act of emotional processing as a requisite for meaningful activism. Perhaps the eco-horror pageantry of Extinction Rebellion, an international climate activist group known for die-ins, face paint, and elaborately costumed protests, is an example of what can happen when attunement to pathos turns into action.
Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” in 2005 to describe the grief triggered by environmental loss or destruction. It may be a new phenomenon for wealthy people in wealthy nations, but it’s familiar to indigenous communities whose lands were long ago seized by colonizers or degraded by resource extraction. Thanks to global climate change, Albrecht writes, “we face a pandemic of solastalgia.” And yet, treating this outbreak is likely to be just as inequitable as everything else associated with this era’s disbursement of resources, as the emerging field of climate grief counseling already shows: While poor communities around the world are most affected by the ravages of global warming, they are also least likely to have the time or funds to access therapy or other interventions.
That curative gap can delay critical preparations and community actions, experts argue. For example, Colette Pichon Battle, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, frequently talks about how the lasting trauma of Hurricane Katrina continues to act as a barrier to political mobilization against climate change among communities of color in Louisiana. “We’re not like some other communities where something bad is happening, and the response is, ‘Let’s all galvanize,’” Pichon Battle said in an interview in 2014. “We’re actually in a different place: ‘Something bad is happening, let’s deal with everyone’s trauma first.’” In a 2019 TED talk, she called for more resources for healing the psychological trauma experienced by climate survivors.
For their part, Belcic and Shofet would like to find ways to extend their work outside their familiar network of creative professionals; they’re currently making inroads with the New York City rave scene to see how climate grief might intersect with the euphoria of dance. Meanwhile, they’re gathering anecdotal evidence of how their offbeat climate ceremonies, filled with sounds, sights, touches, and tastes, can jump-start healing for those who attend.
“When people show up, they are sometimes uncomfortable or they don’t know how to act,” said Belcic. “There’s a hesitancy to be serious and sink in or even just access what they think or feel about this topic. But I think it helps to watch other people open up. Then they’re able to start talking. It helps give other people permission to feel something.”