Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Environmental grief

Environmental grief:
What is eco-grief, its causes and consequences, and what can be done?


Figure 1. Bushfire smoke covering the NSW east coast, January 2020

In 2004, researcher Kriss Kervorkian coined the term ‘environmental grief’. Kervorkian defined the term as a grief reaction from environmental loss of ecosystems caused by natural or man-made events (Wardell, 2019). Moreover, in 2018, social scientists Cunsolo and Ellis defined the broader term of ‘ecological grief’, defined when “people experience climate grief when they notice or anticipate the loss of ‘species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change” (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018, p. 1).

In a world characterised by complex global environmental disasters such as increased sea levels, droughts and major weather events, how people react to and feel about the future of the globe is a growing area of interest (Ojala et al., 2021). Since 2010, a larger percentage of the global population are experiencing first-hand acute weather events that are directly related to the degradation of ecosystems (Clayton et al., 2017) (See Figure 1.). Global climate change is likely to have significant negative effects on psychological wellbeing, with localised and/or immediate consequences (Doherty and Clayton, 2011). Moreover, the current and anticipated changes to the environment, have a significant impact on an individual’s emotions, and can lead to experiences of grief for what has been lost and will be lost

Learning Outcomes

After reading this chapter, the following learning outcomes will have been addressed:

  1. Accurately define what grief and environmental grief is
  2. Understand the main theoretical frameworks underpinning environmental grief
  3. Explore the differing responses to environmental grief and how it can be utilised to engage in pro-environmental behaviours


Figure 2. Woman crying into tissue

In 1917, Freud published his influential essay on mourning and melancholia. Written over several years, the essay argues that when mourning, a person is dealing with the grief of losing a specific object and is taking place in the conscious mind. On the other hand, when in a state of melancholia, a person is grieving for a loss they are unable to comprehend, and thus takes place in the subconscious mind (Freud, 1917). In 1968, researcher Averill extended Freud’s definitions, defining grief, as a set of psychological and physiological reactions of biological origin that are adaptive in function and strive to ensure survival (Averill, 1968).

Researchers have attempted to define the complexity of grief, such as an initial period of numbness leading to depression and then reorganisation and recovery. Other researchers, however, recognise the fluidity of grief and how it can alter between individuals, cultural groups, and societies (Zisook and Shear). The state of grief is thus a complicated state often interchangeable with mourning, anguish, guilt and anxiety and can be expressed through crying, loss of appetite, fatigue and bodily aches (Brinkmann, 2017) (see Figure 2.).

Functional neuroanatomy of griefEdit

In an effort to understand the biological effects of grief on the human body, Gundel and colleagues conducted a study examining functional neuroanatomy in eight grieving women. In the study grief was elicited through photographs of the deceased, combined with words specific to the death, and was measured using a self-report scale (0-10) as well as results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Gundel et al., 2003). Results indicated that verbally induced grief was associated with significant activity in the posterior cingulate gyrus and the precuneus, both of which are involved in linking emotional responses to behaviour and actions (Van der Werff et al., 2012). Moreover, results from grief induced through photographs showed significant activity again in the posterior cingulate gyrus and precuneus as well as dorsal pons, which are located in the brainstem and influence emotion through modulation of dopaminergic signalling (Venkatraman et al., 2017). Furthermore, while the study did not discuss how environmental loss may influence biological grieving processes, it does illustrate individual responses to induced grief and could be compared to a persons’[grammar?] reaction when looking and hearing about environmental disaster and loss.

Modern day definitions of grief now focus on a prolonged and intense emotional reaction to loss that reduces individual functionality (Kaya-Demir and Cirakoglu, 2021). Moreover, there is also emphasis on how grief reactions can be affected by many different variables, and are felt as a unique emotion with each individual. However, in order to understand modern definitions of grief, one must explore historical studies and theoretical frameworks.


1 In Gundel's study, verbally induced grief was associated with activity in the posterior cingulate gyrus and bilateral precunneus


2 According to Freud, when a person deals with the grief of losing a specific object, the grief takes place in the unconscious mind


3 Modern day definitions of grief tend to focus on how reactions can be affected by many different variables


Theoretical frameworksEdit

While earlier theories of grief do not overtly discuss environmental grief, they often contain highly useful insights that theories of environmental grief can be built upon (Panu, 2020).

John Bowlby (1973)Edit

To revise the psychoanalytic theories of grief put forward by Freud, John Bowlby (1973) began to observe how a child reacts when separated from their mother. Bowlby saw the psychological response to the trauma of separation as something biologically programmed, hypothesising that grief is a biological phenomenon that is passed down through generations. Bowlby categorised the grief he observed into four stages: numbness and yearning, searching and anger, disorganisation and despair, and reorganisation. Through his research, Bowlby emphasised the internal world of grief and mourning that is shaped by the extent to which attachment behaviour has been regarded sympathetically in childhood (Earle et al., 2009). Limitations of Bowlby’s attachment theory, however, are his failures in recognising the influences of a individuals experience with grief such as social class, ethnicity, culture and personal development.

Kubler-Ross (1969)Edit

Perhaps one of the most significant theories of grief emerged from the Kubler-Ross model of grief that encompasses five stages of grief defined as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Kubler-Ross, 2005). As a psychiatrist and researcher, Kubler-Ross was interested in how people respond to grief, basing her work off of the interactions she had with terminally ill patients and then adapting the model as a way of thinking about grief in general (Bolden, 2007). The five stages outlined below were originally thought to be experienced in a specific order, and aimed to help people understand and put into context what they were feeling (Cassell, 2021).

While the Kubler-Ross model is still widely used, it has been criticised for placing emotions in compartments, and for placing too much emphasis on a typical pattern of grief and loss, disallowing individual differences in emotion (Tyrrell et al., 2022). Nevertheless, the model may assist in helping to predict how an individual responds to loss such as the loss of healthy ecosystems and environments.  

William Worden (1968)Edit

In his 1982 book Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Professional, researcher William Worden wrote that there are four tasks of mourning which apply to all grievers. The third task “the adjustment to a new environment” discusses three types of adjustments which challenge the mourner. The first adjustment is for the mourner to ask themselves what changes has the death brought that affects the functioning of daily life. The second asks how the death has affected the person’s self-definition such as self-esteem and self-efficacy, and the third asks how the death has changed the person’s basic assumptions about the world (Stillion and Attig, 2014). Worden depicted the process as ‘relearning the world’, and emphasised the role that grief plays in assisting an individual to adjust to a new environment (Attig, 2014).

Place attachment theoryEdit

Research on the emotional and physical relationship between individuals and the environment is important in understanding human responses to climate change (Wright, 2012). Place attachment theory (Altman and Low, 1992) is one such contribution, emphasising the importance of acquired meaning arising from the behavioural and cognitive connection between individuals and their physical environment (Brown et al., 2012). Furthermore, the theory suggests that overtime[spelling?], individual’s[grammar?] form attachments to their home and the environment, facilitating stability and identity (Devine-Wright et al., 2015). However, environmental and societal changes from climate change are threatening this attachment, resulting in an increase of societal displacement and feelings of grief. In 2011, researchers Scannell and Gifford identified that having strong place attachment is a positive predictor of how likely an individual is to engage in pro-environmental behaviour and how likely they are to feel a sense of grief when that attachment is threatened[Provide more detail]. Therefore, the theoretical model of place attachment theory may help in understanding environmental grief, and how it may evolve over time.

Consequences of environmental griefEdit

Increasing awareness of the degrading effects of climate change have been highlighted by media, scientists, and research during the 21st centurye (Cunsolo et al, 2020). The 2021 report on health and climate change: Code Red for a Healthy Future stated that the ongoing risks posed by extreme climatic events and the insecurity related to food and water are causing a disproportionate disadvantage to vulnerable population groups (Romanello et al 2021). This inequality unfairly affects developing nations and those reliant on agriculture and stable weather for survival (Sanghi and Mendelsohn, 2008).  Moreover, in response to global warming, researchers are increasingly initiating efforts to understand the implications it has on individual and societal mental health (Palinkas and Wong, 2020). Some researchers have identified that the grief associated with environmental degradation can manifest in feelings of loss, powerlessness, and inadequacy (Doherty and Clayton, 2011). This has led to increasing acute and chronic mental health illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety (Cunsolo et al 2020). On the other hand, acute awareness of environmental degradation has also led to greater motivation of pro-environmental behaviours such as such as recycling, reduction in chemical use, plant-based eating, re-treeing landscapes, investment in solar energy and reducing food miles[factual?]. Moreover, Comtesse[factual?] discusses that there are often positive psychological adaptations to environmental grief, giving some groups of people a sense of hope and encouragement (Comtesse et al., 2021).

Case studyEdit

Figure 3. Climate Change protest in Sydney, Australia
Darren is a wheat farmer in rural NSW. Recently his land has been deeply affected by flooding and loss of vegetation. He describes that he had developed a relationship with his land and that in his farms diminishment, he feels diminishment within himself. He says that he can barely look at the fields that used to be covered in wheat, and that when he goes out, all he can see is what once was. Darren is still stunned by the lost landscape and blames himself for not being climate ready. His thoughts circle around the loss and its consequences for himself and his family. He experiences sadness, bitterness, deep anxiety and guilt. He does not know who he is without his farm. He is withdrawn from the people he cares about he holds no sense of purpose for the future.

Adapted from the case study by Comtesse et al., 2021)

Is anger helpful?Edit

In 2021, Stanley and colleagues conducted a study looking at how negative emotions towards the environment and climate change could predict an individual’s engagement with climate change solutions. The study examined how participants rated the extent that climate change makes them feel depressed, anxious and angry on a sliding scale from 0 (not at all) to 100 (a great deal). Participants were then asked which emotion they experienced most often when thinking about climate change, and how often in the last year they engaged in a series of both individual and collective pro-environmental behaviours from 0 (never) to 100 (at every opportunity). Results showed that experiencing environmental anger better predicted mental health outcomes as well as greater engagement in pro environmental behaviours. Furthermore, the results showed that participants who recorded feeling angry were found to be more likely to participate in collective climate action (see Figure 3), versus participants who recorded feeling anxious and depressed. These findings, therefore, suggest that feeling anger towards environmental loss may actually help in recognising the importance of addressing individual behaviours as part of collective action, whilst preserving mental health (Stanley et al., 2021).

What can be done[grammar?]Edit

Below are some options as to what can be done about environmental grief:

Collective and individual action

The Good Grief network is a non-profit organisation that brings people together to discuss collective grief, environmental distress and other emotional responses that arise in reaction to planetary crisis. The network creates spaces to gather in communities across the globe and process painful feelings and commit to meaningful action (Good Grief Network 2022).

Furthermore, Cusolo and colleagues suggest that symptoms of environmental grief and anxiety may be alleviated though social prescribing of activities that support environmental health such as gardening or volunteering at a beach clean-up day (Cunsolo et al., 2020).

For individual action, activities such as composting, recycling more frequently and partaking in plastic free months has also been found to alleviate signs of environmental grief (Powers and Engstrom, 2020). However, it is also recommended that for individuals who have been impacted by acute weather events, seeking professional psychological help may be beneficial in the longer term (Agonston et al., 2022).


The connection between environmental degradation and its consequences on mental health is far from reaching a clear conclusion. As a term first coined in the early 2000s and then expanded upon in 2018, environmental grief is a complex concept that encompasses the emotional experience of losing, noticing or anticipating the loss of the environment due to acute or chronic environmental damage (Cunsolo and Ellis, 2018). Acute climate events have been linked to emotions such as anxiety, depression post-traumatic stress disorder, and continue to effect vulnerable populations across the globe. Theoretical frameworks of grief from researchers such as Bowlby, Kubler-Ross and Worden have been helpful in identifying environmental grief, as well as serving as a foundations from which further, more specific theories such as place attachment can be built upon. Research has also suggested that how angry an individual is towards climate change and environmental degradation can predict how likely that individual is to engage in pro-environmental behaviours, with higher levels of climate related anger correlating with higher levels of collective action (Stanley et al., 2021). As climate change continues to become more prominent on a global scale, it would be beneficial for further research to continue to investigate how individuals respond to environmental loss. In particular, studies looking at what types of environmental disasters cause the most grief would assist in being able to predict what sort of psychological interventions will have the most beneficial outcomes.

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit

Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss [Move into references]

How to turn climate anxiety into action (TedTalk)