By Megan Robinson Global News
Published October 7, 2023
11 min read
Something happened this summer, we all felt it. Day after day, new images emerged of the tropics and the Arctic on fire, devastating floods, droughts and people fleeing their homes. If you didn’t already feel consumed with dread, it certainly felt like a tipping point.
One warm Saturday night, this feeling was top of mind for hundreds of people. They descended on public space, under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, for a new kind of urban ritual.
Addressing the crowd, Larissa Belcic and Michelle Shofet took a moment to present a guide to the evening ahead.
“We’re going to be going on a journey that is part meditation, part festival, part dance, part play,” Belcic said.
Belcic and Shofet are artists and designers known as Nocturnal Medicine, a U.S.-based non-profit design studio creating experiences and installations with a purpose: to help people process the climate crisis.
“We’re working on creating the kinds of social and cultural infrastructure that we need in order to address emotional and spiritual aspects of climate change,” Belcic told Global News in a sit-down interview for The New Reality.
The event, called ‘Earth Dreams: A Summer Party for Grief & Love’ hosted by Toronto not-for-profit The Bentway, aimed to allow people to acknowledge their feelings and emotions amid the dark truths of the moment in time. It was Nocturnal Medicine’s largest outdoor event and the first outside the U.S.
Creating a connection to nature in an urban setting is part of Nocturnal Medicine’s work. Its designs use natural materials from the site of installations and offer a tangible opportunity to touch, smell and taste the earth’s offerings in a big city, where it’s easy to feel distant from the destruction of the climate crisis.
But not long before the event, Eastern Canada and the U.S. were blanketed in smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning provinces away, part of what would become a record-breaking summer of climate destruction. For millions of people across the planet, climate reality was in focus.
“We’re talking about forest fires. We’re talking about droughts and deaths. These are heavy topics. They’re really big. They’re really painful. Nobody wants to look at them. And there are hard limits to how that form of ingesting information can penetrate through you,” Shofet says.
In that space, under one of Toronto’s busiest highways and surrounded by towering concrete buildings, they gave people a chance to reflect on and unwind from the terrifying truths of our time.
It’s part of a conversation we’re collectively starting to have, not about what to do about climate change, but about what climate change is doing to us.
“We see it in the news, we see the smoke, we’re breathing in the smoke, and yet we don’t live in a society that is reflecting these changes. And that’s really twisted, actually,” Shofet says.
Nocturnal Medicine first weaved climate grief and anxiety into its work in 2018, the same year Ashlee Cunsolo and a colleague introduced a new English term in an academic journal: “ecological grief.”
“There are so many people experiencing so many emotional changes and we need new terminology to understand what is happening now,” Cunsolo told Global News’ The New Reality in a sit-down interview in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L.
In the research, published in Nature Climate Change, Cunsolo and Neville Ellis “argue that grief is a natural and legitimate response to ecological loss, and one that may become more common as climate impacts worsen.”
Cunsolo is the vice-provost of the Labrador campus of Memorial University and the founding dean of the School of Arctic and Subarctic Studies. She has spent decades researching how changes to our environmental world are intrinsically linked with changes in our mental and emotional health.
“The emotions of this summer, I think, have been so complex for people. You see how much people actually care, but how much people have suffered and how much has been lost,” Cunsolo says. “Whether people were directly affected and evacuated or people who have been watching, like, you can really see it, this almost collective grief.”
Ecological — or eco — grief isn’t a new idea. Indigenous Peoples have spoken about it for years.
“Whether it’s an individual animal, whether it’s an ecosystem, a habitat, a body of water, a forest, large scale climate shifts, anything that is changing around us, that is causing an emotional reaction, particularly grief,” Cunsolo says.
“If you can name something that resonates with people, then that takes it from the individual to the collective and can actually be a very empowering thing for someone who’s experiencing the sadness and the loss and the grief around climate change.”
She’s had hundreds of conversations with people who rely on changing seasons. They open up to Cunsolo about how they feel as they witness their homes change. Those discussions are often outside and almost always in places where people feel connected to nature.
“Not just here in Labrador but people I’ve worked with all over, there’s this visceral feeling that you have when you see your home change or when you see things shifting in ways that don’t make sense or that don’t match your identity. The pain, the trauma, the loss, the sadness, the fear, the worry about future generations, all of that is interconnected,” Cunsolo says.
“When I talk to people about what they really need within everything that they’re experiencing, people will always say, ‘I just want someone to hear me. I just want to be heard and I want it to be taken seriously.’”
Those lived experiences are happening faster than research can keep pace. Labrador is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet and the ways of life, long passed from one generation to the next, are changing.
“When people were able to talk about the changes, it was always linked to, you know, ‘the sea ice has declined’ or ‘the weather has changed’ or ‘the animals have moved and here’s how it makes me feel,’” Cunsolo says. “People here for decades have been experiencing what in other parts of the world people are still thinking is a future impact.”
We’re mourning what we’ve lost and what we are losing as the climate crisis tightens its grip on the planet. Like many concepts in mental health, eco-grief is a way to understand real feelings.
“It’s a rational and normal and reasonable response to feel badly about it, because people will start to feel that like, ‘Oh, I’m just silly.’ Like there’s something about us that is not allowing us to go, ‘It’s OK that I feel this way. And of course I would feel this way. And this is actually a really healthy response,’” Cunsolo says.
In many colonial views, there is a hierarchy to life on this planet: nature exists separately from – or beneath — human beings. But for Indigenous Peoples, we are part of the natural world. These feelings of loss are inevitable.
“There isn’t that binary of environment, ecology, ecosystem is over there, and I’m over here and I’m grieving this thing over here,” Deborah McGregor says. “It’s like you’re part of that, you’re part of that natural world. The grief is intensely personal.”
McGregor is Anishinaabe from Whitefish River First Nation, a community along the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario. She’s an associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous environmental justice.
“Some people talk about how climate change is really communication of the earth to us saying, ‘This is what happens when you do this,’” she says.
McGregor spends about half her time in Whitefish River First Nation. She says she’s noticed there has been more talk about how people feel with regard to the impacts of the climate crisis in recent years.
“They’re probably not calling it eco-grief because it’s just grief, it’s loss, it’s intergenerational trauma. It’s trauma to the natural world itself,” McGregor says.
Eco-grief is another symptom of the climate crisis. Naming it in the way Cunsolo has gives us all a starting point to begin to manage how we feel.
“When you get bombarded with news all the time of a crisis narrative, crisis narrative, crisis narrative, it’s really hard to get excited about what’s going to happen 50 years from now. What am I going to be able to do?” McGregor says. “Eco-grief names what people are feeling. I think it’s an important concept, especially for young people, because now they need to see a future.”
When McGregor is speaking with her adult son about the future, they frame the climate crisis and eco-grief through an Indigenous lens: in stories passed on through generations.
“We go back to even the initial back creation, destruction and recreation story. So there’s destruction and usually that destruction comes because people are misbehaving very badly to each other and the natural world, which I guess we could say is happening now,” she says with a small laugh.
“It’s almost like what people are calling ‘crisis’ and ‘disaster.’ Why are we so surprised? Of course that’s going to happen by what’s happening to the earth.”
Cunsolo is also a mother. Her youngest just turned 14 years old and is vocal about the impact the climate crisis will have on his future.
“He’ll talk all the time about the emotional legacy that our generation has left. Before it used to be the talk about ‘you’ve left a climate crisis,’ which we absolutely have, but now it’s like my generation has left an emotional burden and an emotional crisis on them. And I find that shift really heartbreaking,” she says.
In the western world, grief and loss aren’t often spoken about openly. When faced with constant climate-fuelled destruction, our home changing before us, Cunsolo says it’s been described to her as a grief without end — everywhere people look, there is something to grieve.
“There’s no space to heal because it’s still unfolding right now. Every day is a new grief. Every day is cascading. But when is the healing time? And maybe that’s not a gift we’re going to be given right now. Maybe there will be no healing time for quite some time,” she says.
“How do we settle in? How do we accept that maybe this is where we’re at?”
It’s been five years since Cunsolo’s research naming ecological grief was published. While human emotion is often overlooked in climate discussions and climate action, she says it won’t be too long before we start seeing efforts dedicated to helping people go through this.
“We’re seeing it in national assessments, whether it’s by Health Canada or Natural Resources Canada, people are starting to see the importance and starting to realize that this is a serious global issue,” Cunsolo says.
Developing climate policy in Canada to include mental and emotional health is something people are grappling with, she says. Accounting for people suffering in ways we don’t necessarily see is a challenge and grief manifests itself in everyone differently.
“Sometimes you do need other types of supports and counselling support is hugely important in these times of crisis. Having strong family and friend networks, having collectives of people that understand what you’re going through and that want to make a difference,” Cunsolo says.
McGregor spends as much time as she can outdoors, tending to her pollinator garden, growing her own food and riding her bike, regardless of the weather in Toronto. It’s one of the ways she takes care of herself and the earth.
“I think about what I can do every day that I think is going to be less of a burden on the natural world,” she says. “Those are some of the things that I feel like I can kind of fit into my life that makes me feel like I’m contributing to life as opposed to taking away.”
We all love the earth, our home — it’s the narrative that runs through McGregor’s stories and Cunsolo’s research. Our grief is rooted in love as we witness our home changing in irreversible ways.
“I have felt more devastated this summer than I have in a long time, and simultaneously more inspired and motivated. And you see what people love and what they love is worth fighting for,” Cunsolo says.
When she thinks about ecological grief, she thinks about the other side: love, joy and resilience.
When she can, Cunsolo also spends time outside, hiking with her partner or walking her dog. She tries to find the beauty in her surroundings, taking in moments of wonder and awe.
“Even if it’s something really small or something catches my eye or the way the sunlight comes off leaves. There is something underneath it all that is this reminder of our capacity to feel and our capacity to love and our capacity to be human.”