Jennifer Atkinson publishes in Resilience


IAS faculty member Jennifer Atkinson's article, titled "Climate Grief: Our Greatest Ally?" explores the hidden benefit of dark emotions in response to our climate crisis. With growing attention to the mental health impacts of climate change -- and increasing popularity of terms like "eco-anxiety" and "climate grief" -- a constant stream of "five step" articles and support groups are offering tips to cope with that despair. But, as Atkinson asks, what if our focus on "overcoming" eco-grief leads us to seek solutions to the wrong problem? 

Atkinson's article outlines her experience working with students at UWB who've expressed increasing levels of hopelessness in the face of climate injustice during the past ten years. As she writes:

As a climate educator I wanted to directly address this despair, so in 2017 I created a seminar that helps students navigate the emotional toll of our climate crisis. Those who enrolled said they were seeking relief from their distress. I wanted that too.

But something unexpected happened along the way. I had always thought of grief as a bad thing, a dark state to avoid or overcome as quickly as possible. I thought that feeling grief was like giving in to a preventable illness, or that once it took hold I might fall into a bottomless hole of despair. Like the students who signed up for my class, I was hoping to extinguish my pain for all this suffering.

Then it dawned on me that maybe we were seeking solutions to the wrong problem. We all wanted to fix the way we felt so we could go back to feeling happy. But grief isn’t something to be fixed, because it’s not dysfunctional. It’s a healthy and necessary process we have to undergo in order to heal.

In fact, grief can be a valuable source of wisdom and compassion as we move into an uncertain climate future. This may sound controversial in a moment when environmentalists are urging us to focus on hope, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Grief may even turn out to be our best ally in this age of climate crisis.

Atkinson goes on to outline three reasons for this claim, including grief's capacity to help us process loss and overcome collective denial; its ability to disrupt hierarchies and artificial boundaries between lives that matter and lives that don’t; and its power to reaffirm our sense of attachment to what we love. The article also highlights some key strategies shared on her podcast Facing It, which offers practical strategies for navigating the fear and despair that can arise in the face of the "broken record record-breaking" that defines our age of climate consequences. 

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