Around the world, people have lost—and continue to lose—places in nature they have grown up with, depended on, and loved. They are experiencing eco-grief: the emotional heartbreak and mourning that comes when we lose the natural environment around us.
The idea of ecological grief is not new. In 1940, the environmentalist Aldo Leopold was using the term to describe the emotional pain of environmental loss. But as the climate crisis worsens, eco-grief is becoming more widespread with research suggesting it is a growing global mental health phenomenon. From Malawi to Ecuador, individuals are overwhelmed with sadness and anxiety as they see their landscapes transform. They don’t know what to expect in the years to come.
Eco-grief can manifest itself as anxiety or PTSD. Sometimes eco-grief emerges post-disaster—after a fire has destroyed a forest or a flood has washed away crops. In other instances, this pain is born out of watching the environment slowly change—of seeing coral reefs get whiter or ice sheets grow smaller.
This year, nearly 60% of people aged 16 to 25 from 10 countries said they feel worried about the climate crisis with 45% saying it affects their daily mental health. This new research suggests the anxiety is born out of seeing inadequate action by governments and adults. Eco-grief, however, is not just a condition for the young; older generations, particularly in Indigenous cultures, have expressed deep sadness and distress over the climate crisis eroding their environmental knowledge.
“When people find out eco-grief is a thing that has been studied, they are relieved.”
For communities whose cultures are tied to the land, eco-grief can involve mourning the end of a way of life—of saying goodbye to traditions that have been passed on for generations. Changes to the environment can also transform how people identify. “There is such deep pride, self-worth, and self-esteem that comes with working with the land,” said Ashlee Cunsolo, an ecological grief expert who has worked with Indigenous communities in the Arctic to better understand their mental health impacts from climate change. “When that’s not possible, people start asking complex existential questions about who they are.”
Because eco-grief affects cultures differently, some scholars say the term is too all-encompassing and fails to acknowledge that the climate crisis affects marginalized communities more intensely. “These emotions around environmental losses are embedded in very particular social and economic histories,” said Garret Barnwell, a clinical psychologist and psychology practitioner.
Yet many scholars agree that giving ecological distress a name remains powerful. “When people find out eco-grief is a thing that has been studied, they are relieved,” Cunsolo said. Like with other mental health conditions, people suffering from eco-grief often feel shame. “To be able to name it, to bring attention to it, validates it.”
Cunsolo believes grieving ecological loss is an important and healthy response. “We only grieve what we love,” she said. “We are only scared to lose what matters.”
That fear—and that grieving—is spread across the world.
The Shire River, Malawi
When Charity Wanja, 21, was growing up in the southern district of Chikwawa, Malawi, she watched life orbit around the Shire River that ran through her hometown.
The Shire River, which stretches 250 miles from Lake Malawi to Mozambique, brings water to subsistence farmers in southern Malawi, a country where such farmers make up 80% of the population.
For Wanja, though, the river provided something more than water for irrigation. It was a place for celebration. Growing up, Wanja and her family made regular trips to a spot along the river bank to celebrate birthdays, weddings, or other special occasions.
“It was a really special, beautiful place,” she said. “There were flowers growing, monkeys swinging from the trees.”
Wanja’s favorite memory was when she went there for her sister’s 26th birthday in 2011. Wanja remembers making red and yellow flower crowns and taking photos of a monkey trying to steal food, which included nsima, a cornmeal porridge that’s a staple in any meal. “It was where our family memories were made.”
Then in 2015, devastating floods hit the region, sweeping away all the trees and fertile soil. When the water receded, Wanja and her family went to visit their adored spot. When they arrived, they saw that what had once been a fertile piece of land was now covered in sand. The flowers and trees had washed away in the floods; the animals were now gone. “It’s just dirt,” Wanja said.
“I’ve never gone back to visit since,” she said. “I just feel sad and angry, especially when I hear stories from my mother about the old days when there were no floods or droughts.”
Wanja fears this will not be the last plot of land she loses. “I’m scared that the other places close to my heart will also become extinct,” she said. “Where will we go then?”
Seagrass Meadows, Turkey
Arzucan Askin, 26, first discovered her love for the sea when she was 5 years old. Every summer, Askin would go to Özdere, Turkey, a coastal town where she would spend her days trying to swim down to the seagrass meadows near her family’s home. “That’s where everything for me started,” she said. “My love for the ocean, my inspiration to become a scientist.”
Askin first made it down to the seagrass meadows when she was only 7 years old. She was so young, she couldn’t find a dive mask that fit properly. As the years passed, Askin began holding her breath for longer, giving her the opportunity to explore the meadows. She would play in the seagrass, look for giant pinna nobilis shells, and collect glass bottles caught in the grass. “It was a place of pure exploration,” she said. “It was a magical wonderland.”
Askin’s early days of exploring the ocean inspired her to pursue a career as a conservation scientist and diver. But as her expertise in this ecosystem has grown, the meadows near her family’s home have shrunk. Patches have died off because the waters are getting warmer. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “It was a place that was critical in inspiring my passion.”
Seagrass is needed for fighting climate change: It sequesters more carbon than many plants on land. Globally, seagrass ecosystems may store more than 21 billion tons of carbon. “If we lose seagrass meadows, we lose the lungs of the Mediterranean,” Askin said.
Askin is determined to put the underwater world on people’s radars; she’s now training to become an underwater filmmaker. “Most people will never see a seagrass meadow,” she said. “If you know something is threatened, you can take action. But what happens when people don’t know about it?”
“We are constantly aware that there is this big thing happening called climate change. Every community has its trauma.”
Snowy Mountains, Australia
When Lorraine Packett, 64, was 5 years old, her family volunteered to help build a ski lodge in the alpine village of Thredbo in the Snowy Mountains of southeastern Australia. Throughout her life, this small ski village became an enduring source of joy for Packett and her family.
In her early days, the snowy hills of Thredbo were a playground for Packett. “As children, we’d toboggan in the valley—climb up, slide down—careful not to slide into the Snowy River,” she recalled. As she got older, Packett learned to ski. “I never looked back,” she said. “I’d ski from when lifts opened to when lifts closed.” When Packett had children of her own, she made sure Thredbo was a part of their upbringing, teaching them to ski before they learned to read.
“They were cold and tired but energized by the sense of cold wind and changing light,” she said.
As temperatures have warmed over the years, however, the amount of snow in Thredbo has significantly decreased. The duration of snowpack in the southeastern Australian mountain range has decreased by 18.5 days since 1954. Although the ski lodge is doing its part to minimize its carbon footprint—becoming the first ski resort in the country to be 100% powered by renewable energy—it has not been able to escape the impacts of global heating.
For Packett, the weather at Thredbo is becoming unrecognizable. When Packett was younger, the snow would pile so high that one year, her family was stuck in their trailer on the side of the road overnight because a blizzard prevented them from driving. Now, the ski resort relies on snow-making machines to get through the season. Packett even had to evacuate Thredbo in 2003 due to bushfires. “I wonder what will happen to my connection with the Snowy Mountains,” she said. “Will my children want to persevere?”
Sarayaku School, Ecuador
Nowadays, Nina Gualinga, 28, is a climate activist and Indigenous rights defender, but she developed her vision to fight for her people and her land as a child in her hometown of Sarayaku, Ecuador.
Gualinga is part of the Kichwa-speaking community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Growing up, she went to an Indigenous school that, along with teaching basics like math and grammar, also taught students traditional sacred songs, dances, and Indigenous ways and knowledge. The school was across the way from Gualinga’s grandparents’ house.
“That school was so important for my life not just to learn all the regular things one learns in school, but to sit down with elders and listen to their stories and their songs,” she said. “The school taught us to question the system and think critically.”
The school was lost in 2020. As Ecuador declared a state of emergency because of the pandemic, a massive flood from the Bobonaza River simultaneously swept through Gualinga’s community.
“The flood destroyed everything in its way,” Gualinga said. “We lost our grandparents’ home where I grew up. We lost the bridge that connected the whole community—and we lost the school.”
For Gualinga, that loss was devastating. “Keeping that school alive and the spirit of that school alive is extremely important to me,” she said. “[My child] won’t be able to go there.” The school has since been rebuilt far from the Bobonaza River to ensure it isn’t affected by future flooding, but the new school is quite a distance from where people’s homes are, making it harder for many children to access it.
When Gualinga was younger, no one worried about flooding. Now, communities check the river levels when it rains on an hourly basis.
“I thought in some way that because we were doing our part and protecting the Amazon Rainforest, we wouldn’t also be hit by climate change,” she said. “It’s so unfair.”
“We are constantly aware that there is this big thing happening called climate change,” Gualinga went on. “Every community has its trauma.”
Correction, 12/9/21, 10:15 am ET: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Garret Barnwell’s name.