Environmental Grief - Psychologically, how we can cope with the destruction of nature

A slightly different post this week - moving away from the patch to look at a more general subject

We are in the midst of a mass extinction. These are rare events in the Earth's history, the last one wiped out the dinosaurs. This one is the result of human activity.

For a person, with even the slightest concern for the natural world, the reality which confronts them is one of extinction, destruction and devastation. To take a random, recent batch of headlines from the environmental coalface - 'huge fall in African elephant population as poaching crisis continues', ‘the home of the endangered Iberian lynx is under threat’, '40% of UK species show strong or moderate declines.

A baleful picture is paraded across our television screens, newspapers and social media feeds. We’re watching a catalogue of catastrophe - a dreadful litany describing a disappearing world.

A word that sums this up is 'loss'. We are losing things we love - they are going day by day. The normal reaction to a profound sense of loss is grief and the course of grief is often described as going through 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

The assumption here is that there is a single event to which we have a grief response and as “time heals every wound” it’s something we recover from. Environmental grief is unfortunately rather different. As soon as we come to terms with a world without such and such a thing, we are confronted with a further piece of bad news. In some ways it’s worse than bad news though, wars are shocking but they tend to end. Terrible conflicts can be resolved, sworn enemies can become the greatest of friends. Species that go extinct stay extinct.

How is it possible to deal with this? Psychologically how do we cope with what can be a depressing sense of things getting worse?

The fact is we do cope - we carry on.

Some of the approaches to this could be characterised as ‘putting things in perspective’. This might, by some, be construed as a prospectus for caring less. I think the opposite is true and was well described in a recent article in Scientific American called ‘Facing Down Environmental Grief’, which asked ‘Is a traumatic sense of loss freezing action against climate change?’

For me it’s a case of avoiding a headlong rush to despair which often results in a, bury your head in the sand, attitude. It becomes all too much to bear, so you switch off – a case of fingers in the ears – ‘la, la, la, I can’t hear you’. Despair, in turn, leads to disengagement and inaction. Watching The Great British Bake Off becomes soothingly preferable to reading about the latest environmental catastrophe.

I'm going to look at some of the approaches to this issue – coping strategies that keep desperation in check. Yes, possibly at times, donning the rose tinted spectacles, but at least these are things you can see through, unlike the blackout mask of despair – the total darkness of ignorance.

See the positive
To go back for a minute to my gloomy headline – ‘40% of UK species show strong or moderate declines’. What a depressing picture this is - not far off half of British species on the wane. However, I missed out the second part of the headline – ‘whereas just over 30% show strong or moderate increases.’ Now, not quite the empty pint glass of despondency, more like the half full glass of consolation (30% of species will be stable). Granted, this situation is far from good, there are no two ways about it, a lot of British wildlife is in a parlous state, but there are positive nuggets to be found amongst the doom and gloom.

Little Egret
My greatest wildlife passion is birdwatching and I often bemoan the sorry fortunes of much loved birds – Wood warbler, Skylark, Lapwing. However, I also delight in the recent upswing in the numbers of some formerly rare birds - Red Kites, Buzzard and Raven.

These latter three species are doing well because they’re no longer subject to the persecution of old. This now more enlightened attitude is, in itself a positive, and we can take heart from the success stories – the habitats preserved, the dwindling species brought back from the brink and the environmental treaties enacted. Yes, there are forces for good in the world – let’s celebrate them.

So by way of an antidote to the earlier gloomy headlines, here are a few more recent positive stories – ‘Europe’s key animals making a comeback’, 'New York City Air Quality Cleanest in Decades', 'Our 2016 RSPB reserve survey reveals another record breaking year for Bitterns'.

Accept change
Not only is change happening, the rate of change is accelerating, we see it in almost every aspect of our lives – cultural, technological and environmental. Homo sapiens has evolved to deal with a certain amount of change, however the rapid transformations we see today are unprecedented in our species’ history.

Rapid change is often cited as a cause of stress. While it may be difficult to actually embrace change, perhaps an attitude of a little more acceptance is a way of being kinder to ourselves. Does this mean sitting back, unconcerned while bad things happen – absolutely not. It means being better able to remain engaged, and to return to my theme, not allowing despair to make us look the other way.

I was recently treated to the amazing site of a congregation of 120 Little egrets and 6 Great white egrets on the Conwy Estuary, not just a ‘heron priested shore’ more the massed ranks of an entire, white clad, holy order. These are now frequently seen species which, just a couple of decades ago, would have been regarded as great rarities.

This, however, is a gain with quite a sting in its tail. The increase in the populations of some water birds is almost certainly the result of climate change. A number of species are now able to survive in Britain due our milder winters.

Very little in nature is constant, a state of flux is more the norm. However rapid climate change will result in a global reordering that has few precedents in the history of the earth. There will be winners and losers as species adapt, or indeed fail to adapt, to a warming world. It’s likely that the number of losers will far exceed the winners.

My point here comes back to allowing ourselves some crumbs of comfort - it’s, psychologically, the more healthy thing to do. So, if we mourn the loss of one of the losers, we’ve earned the right to toast the fortunes of the winners.

Be aware of Declinism
Declinism is the fairly universal human trait that predisposes us to view the past in a favourable light and the future with pessimism – one of many cognitive bias’s that influence the way we think. It's the common saying of the older generation 'things were better in my day'. This cry is heard today as it was in the days of Ancient Rome, it was probably even grunted by the aged cavewoman!

But what if things actually are getting worse, then surely declinism is no longer a delusion, but an entirely rational response? This is true, however, I'm simply pointing out, that this way of thinking may make things appear even worse than they actually are – something to, at least, watch out for in ourselves. 

Change our perception of what nature is.
Some geologists contend that the current age of human activity is changing the Earth so profoundly that it warrants its own name – the Athropocene. Whatever we call it, it’s clear that mother nature is covered with the greasy fingerprints of our activity wherever we care to look. Nowhere on Earth remains as a pristine, pre-human garden of Eden.

Absolutely and unequivocally we should do our utmost to preserve what remains of the Earth’s natural wonders – it’s vital that we do. Tremendously sad as their passing may be, nature in some form or other will endure. We’re back to the question of how we deal with change. If we love and care about nature – the Anthropocene world is, by definition, the one we care about.

A slight shift in perception, perhaps, allows us to marvel at a forest regenerating after felling, an abandoned factory overgrown with mosses and ferns or a former quarry, now host to nesting Peregrines. In most peoples’ eyes these ‘manscapes’ would come a poor second to the supposed wildernesses which parade across our TV screens in the latest Attenborough epic.

These parts of the ‘Living Planet’ are often what we think of when we think of ‘real’ nature – we expect the full Technicolour, surround sound version, complete with Serengeti megafauna or vibrant rainforest. Well, we’re much less likely to see these places ‘in the flesh’, than to see our backyard, wildlife companions. As well as rightly grieving for the disappearance of these wild places, we can take the odd comforting crumb from the way that nature continues, and indeed flourishes, right under our feet.

To put it bluntly the Anthropocene age is upon us - this is irreversible and inevitable. We can remain in an angst-ridden state, constantly railing against its depredations. Alternatively, and if only for the sake of mental health, we can accept the reality of a globe, everywhere sullied by man's footprints and perhaps even learn to love it.

Celebrate human progress
To focus for a moment on the purely human realm, I believe that things are improving. Admittedly, this view can be a very hard sell during what is, in some ways, a dismal decade. Human progress, however, is very much two steps forward one step back.

Yes, there are immense challenges and setbacks, but look at the gains. Once deadly diseases are being eradicated, child mortality is being reduced, people are living longer and are better fed. Superiority is no longer conferred upon someone simply for being a white, heterosexual, male – we are more civilised and peaceful than ever before.

Some may view the last claim as being highly debatable, pointing to the slew of recent headlines describing wars, terrorism and all manner of barbarities. The important thing to remember is that we are massively more informed about these events than former generations. Events on a par with modern day horrors would have previously gone unreported. That the world is becoming an ever more peaceful place is well described in Steven Pinker’s excellent book ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’.

This alone provides some measure of consolation, but to return the focus back to the natural world – we can also celebrate the fact that here too there is progress. The obvious caveat looms large at this point – humans are a uniquely destructive species, that may well destroy whole swathes of life on the planet – as caveats go that’s a big one!

Consider though that recent generations are the first to outlaw cruelty to animals, the first to protect wild places, the first to enact environmental legislation. That animals might have rights, which weren’t even afforded to women or non-whites, would have been seen as a self-evidently crackpot notion. Now the idea that animals are conscious, and should be treated as such, is so mainstream that respected scientists, such as Steven Hawking, feel able to signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness – which attests to the fact.

Yes, we’re highly skilled at laying waste to the planet – to soiling our own backyard. The Homo sapien intellect, conferred upon us by evolution is very much a double edged sword. The brains that enabled us to dominate and indeed blight the planet, are the same ones that allow us to think about the repercussions of our actions. The same ones that can see the virtue in a more enlightened view of the earth and our fellow creatures. The same ones that might, at the eleventh hour, have the ingenuity and the will to bring about a measure of ecological salvation.

Take a long view
After around 3 billion years everything will become extinct. The sun will expand and warm, ultimately resulting in the Earth’s inability to support life. After a further 4 billion years the Earth will be absorbed by the Sun - our home planet will no longer exist.

Everything we now hold dear - the forests, the oceans, the species, the man-made wonders, the people, will be just the trace of a memory - the rumour of a whisper - a brief flash of life in the long cosmic night.

So again this raises a question – if everything will eventually, become extinct why bother about it happening during our lifetime? Well my answer would be, we only have the one lifetime – our brief moment on the stage – during that time things we care deeply about are as important as important gets.

It’s up to us to decide what makes the cut in our personal list of priorities. During our time on Earth you could almost say our ‘job’ is to find meaning - to decide on what matters.

This long view, as with other ways of putting things in perspective, are things we can tell ourselves, a mental slight of hand even. So in the middle of the night – we have a soothing balm to keep despair at bay – and so we are able to fight on.

The dinosaurs were witness to a mass extinction, as are we. Unlike the dinosaurs we can see it coming, unlike the dinosaurs we can do something about it.

Do Something
I've been dealing with pyschological responses to environmental destruction. The things that can actually be done are for another blog post. However it's worth mentioning that taking an action of some sort is one of the most effective ways of combating grief. When it comes to feeling better about the world, doing something knocks sitting back, right into that proverbial cocked hat.

This may seem daunting at first - ‘how can I stave off mass extinction?!’ Well single-handedly you can’t - a few, particularly heroic people, put themselves on the environmental ‘front-line’, or are influential enough to be listed amongst the Guardian's '50 people who could save the planet'.

However, to use that over-worked cliché - everyone can make a difference. Make a difference to the planet, yes, but just as importantly for the topic I dealt with here, make a difference to themselves.

From taking part in a piece of ‘citizen science’ all the way to addressing a UN conference. From enthusing others to bravely confronting illegal activity. From simply enjoying and finding out about nature, all the way to writing a classic book such as Silent Spring.

From the small scale and personal to the global and history-making – everybody is on a level playing field in terms of the positive effect on themselves.

Get this


  1. What a brilliant post Phil, very thought provoking indeed. If you haven't read it already I think you would like Wild Hope by Andrew Balmford. In his book he recognises the huge accleration in extinction rates (which you have touched upon), caused by human activities, but he tries to balance this by detailing the growing numbers of successful conservation actions in recent years throughout the world. So like you he is using these examples to deal with this ecological doom and gloom, and try and change our psychological response to it all.



    1. Very kind Seamus, I hadn't actually heard of that book, but it sounds like something I should read. Thats for pointing me in the direction of it. Cheers Phil

  2. A great read as always Phil, I absolutely agree there has to be some attention paid to the positives, of which there are some out there. The alternative is completely depressing, and all too easy to feel entirely overwhelmed by. I look forward to your post on some of the things we can all do to do our bit.

    1. Cheers Jan...that's why I wrote it really - to avoid falling into a pit of despair - although there are some days when that pit is easier to fall into - today for example :(

    2. Yep, it's really not a good day today.

  3. Phil, what a great read and very thought provoking. There are positives and we must try not to be too overwhelmed by the negatives. We can all do our bit, but I wish more people would take notice of what is around them and cherish and take enjoyment from it.

    1. Thanks a lot Denise - glad you liked the post. A wholly positive development would be if the next generation were to be a lot more engaged with nature. It's mixed picture on that score - greens, environmentalists tend to be young, on the other hand we hear all these stories about children now being able to identify Pokenmons more readily than birds.

  4. My take is that with continued biodiversity loss, we are losing beauty in the world. I also think the lost species should be recognized, in the way we recognize, and celebrate, a loved one at their funeral. This was my goal in my book, "Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals: An Extinction Reader" that readers might be interested in. More info here: http://danielhudon.com/now-available-brief-eulogies-lost-animals/

  5. A very sad read for sad times but hope is a powerful force .

  6. Phil,
    Thank you so much for your beautifully-written piece. It mirrors so much of what I feel and think about our life, our world, our molecules and the constant recycling of all of these. The dinosaurs not only saw one extinction, but two. The proto-dinosaurs were pretty much wiped out when Pangea started to split apart and magma flowed out of all the thinned crust. It took many millions of years for the very large sauropods, what we think of as the classic long-necked dinos to take the stage, diversify, and to grow to 50 tons in size. They then had the stage until 65mya. After they went extinct, a furry little rat-like burrowing mammal evolved to write blogs and one-act plays. Loss of species allows the flourishing of new species. We humans don't know how to take the long view as we have been around for such a tiny blurp of a moment. Life will go on. It might not be with the species we know and love, but it will go on until the sun gobbles our rocks. I agree, that we are much better partners of the earth by not wallowing in the depths of depression. I am heartened by all the young people studying environmental science, and agree with you that there is a lot of good news that can easily get buried under the sadness. Carry on.

  7. I often wonder , prehaps as a counterpoint to dispair ; as to how many times has this occurred in the life of the universe. We only judge time from a limited human perspective, to not recognise this limitation is further proof of our arrogance ...


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