Column: Environmental studies student tackles ‘Ecological Grief’

by Jacob Wenghofer, columnist

Climate change is quite easily one of the most pressing issues of our time, and one which has inflamed the passion of youth around the world, as shown by the recent climate change strikes led by elementary and high school students.

Much like our parents and grandparents, who grew up in the shadow of nuclear war, many young people today find themselves anxious about the future of a world in which climate change is a reality, and this anxiety will undoubtedly do much to shape this and future generations.

It is precisely these feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty that are the topic of Madison Cooper’s undergraduate thesis.

Madison Cooper is a fourth-year environmental studies student who is currently writing an honours paper on ecological grief, which refers to feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, despair, fear, or disassociation brought on by knowledge of the effects of climate change.

“My thesis is going to look at grief reactions in students, to see if students in environmental programs, specifically within the school of the environment, experience elevated levels of ecological grief” Cooper said.

“The reason I started this was because I had fellow classmates make comments about how this was depressing, and how our classes were just all negative. I decided to look into it.”

Her main research tool is a survey. This survey is to be filled out by both environmental studies and history students, with the latter acting as a control group. The survey consists of thirty seven questions, covering a wide range of topics from belief in man-made climate change, to personal guilt about one’s role in causing it.

Some of the questions asked respondents to state their level of agreement with statements such as “I experience a loss of purpose when thinking about climate change” and “I experience ‘burnouts’ after periods of studying climate change.” These questions were just a few among many which cut to the heart of the impact of climate change on the mental well-being of students.

Cooper said that the survey is designed to focus on three main emotional reactions: eco-anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.

Around forty students in total have answered her questionnaire so far, and she hopes that more will do so in order to increase her sample size and the quality of her data.

Although she has not yet had analyzed the data, Cooper believes that her hypothesis of environmental studies students suffering from greater ecological grief will prove to be correct, in part because she has personally spoken to people who have expressed feelings of grief.

“Some people have talked to me about it and expressed that they had been feeling this way, I’ve heard more responses like that than the latter. I have yet to talk to somebody that says they aren’t bothered by it.”

Despite this, she also expects to see anxiety, hopelessness, and other emotions appear in both environmental studies and history students.

One obstacle that Cooper has struggled to overcome in her research is the dismissal of the concept of ecological grief. Cooper said that she has encountered several people who do not believe that studying climate change could have negative mental health effects.

However, she remains confident that this issue is beginning to make waves.

“I think that as this [gains] more media attention, even if it’s not using the term ecological grief… I think people are starting to believe in it more.”

When asked about her experiences with climate change deniers, Cooper answered that she believes that denial is itself a form of grief, stemming from a refusal to confront the seriousness of the situation and a sense of helplessness.

Despite her study focusing on the here and now, Cooper also offered her thoughts on how this issue will need to be handled in the future to protect the mental health of students.

“Eventually, as this progresses, because we all know these issues are going continue to get worse, there’s going to need to be more space within the actual curriculum to talk about ecological grief, to talk about climate change through the lens of emotional reactions.”

Cooper also expressed her belief in a silver lining to this upsetting phenomenon. Cooper said that she hopes these initial feelings of depression and despair may be quickly translated into action, and motivate students to demand greater efforts to curtail climate change.

If the recent movements among global youth for greater climate action are any indication of the future, this hope may be well placed.