How environmental degradation is causing a new kind of grief among young people

A child born today may never see a glacier, coral reef, or black rhino. Loss of species, ecosystems, and habitats are intensifying as anthropogenic climate change grows more prominent. In response to this tragedy, many individuals are facing a new kind of grief: ecological grief. Ecological grief is the phenomenon when people feel intense grief and emotional suffering in response to the effects of climate change. It can be especially strong in individuals deeply connected to nature, whether physically or spiritually.

Ecological Grief

Climate change poses many threats to humans. Rising oceans, food shortages, and increased temperatures are impacts we will face as climate change takes control over our planet–but climate change is also affecting wildlife in a great magnitude. We are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, where we are losing species to extinction every day. Coral reefs are dying, and rainforests are shrinking in size. With all this loss comes grief. As we destroy nature, we lose any respite or comfort in it.

A deep sadness washes over oneself when seeing a decimated rainforest or stranded animal. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge the innocent life that is taken away by our environmental irresponsibility. Ecological grief stems from a deep connection and respect from nature. The response reflects compassion for nature and guilt for our actions. This response is valid, just as one grieves over the loss of a family member. Social media and hyper connectivity have connected individuals to the suffering of wildlife, even if they are physically distant from it.

The connection between climate change and psychological distress only reveals our fundamental roots in nature. We suffer depression, anxiety, grief, and detachment as we see the natural world die around us– and die from our doing.

“Generation climate change” refers to all the generations that will grow up in a world affected by climate change. Millennials and Generation Z will be adults when the worst impacts arise, and Generation Alpha and later will spend their entire lives in a world of intense environmental damage. Children born today will only know the Earth under climate change. Young children are especially vulnerable to the grief associated with ecological damages. Anticipation of destruction that may come, or that has occurred, deeply impacts young people as they sort through their emotions.

Ecological grief is difficult to mitigate as it reflects our intrinsic connection to nature, as well as our emotional response to our species’ impact. Understanding and acknowledging our emotions can help us process the intense transformation of our planet. The severity of the environmental degradation we face warrants emotional distress, and the loss of wildlife warrants.

However, we cannot let grief keep us immobile. We still have the opportunity to mitigate climate change and reduce the destructive effects on nature. Positivity, hope, and collective action can save species from the brink of extinction. It is okay to mourn our losses, but we have not lost everything.