Knowledge gaps and climate grief

15 November 2020

by Helen

Photo credit CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the days shorten, the weather bleakens and the length of time spent outdoors reduces, I’ve taken the opportunity to enrol on some online courses to fill the gaps in my knowledge about climate change and sustainability issues.

Last month I took part in a 4-week MOOC run by the University of Exeter called Climate Change: The Science. I learned about how the earth’s climate has been changing for millennia, but never as rapidly as in the last 200 years, and that it’s unclear whether the species which currently exist on our planet (including ours) will be able to survive such a significant change in planetary conditions.

I also learned how important the oceans and the cryosphere (glaciers, ice sheets, permafrost, etc.) are for our planet and that if the seas reach a tipping point in terms of acidification and warming, there may be no going back and we’ll end up with a planet uninhabitable for life forms as we know them.

As if that wasn’t depressing enough, I also watched a couple of recent David Attenborough documentaries, including Extinction: The Facts (this clip explains how our destruction of nature is helping the spread of pandemics) and that pushed me over the edge once and for all. I became overwhelmed with such grief and despair about the way we’re treating our planet and each other, that I was paralysed and just sat around like a zombie for a couple of days. When I reached out to my network for help, I found that others had experienced the same emotional turmoil, often lasting weeks, months or even years.

Recovering from my eco-anxiety made me even more determined to do something about the situation we find ourselves in. It makes no sense to sit wringing our hands and saying there’s nothing we can do. We all have the power to make change, starting with ourselves, about how we choose to live and work, what we choose to buy and consume, and how we choose to communicate and be with each other. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.”

For me, that means striving to live in harmony with nature, being mindful of my lifestyle and consumption habits, and speaking (or more crucially, listening to) people every day. Am I succeeding? I’ve no idea, but I feel I’m doing my best. And in order to continue to improve, I need to continue to fill the gaps in my knowledge about how I can best live in harmony with nature and be mindful of my lifestyle choices. There’s no point blogging about living an eco-friendly life if I find that half of what I’m doing is actually having the opposite effect of what I intend. Beware the solution.

To that end, I enrolled on a 7-week course run by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation all about the circular economy. I’m only in Week 3, but what I’ve discovered so far is that we can learn so much from nature about designing systems in which waste or pollution simply don’t feature, and products and materials are kept in constant use. We need to stop thinking about reducing and recycling (i.e. being less bad) and start rethinking our whole models (actually doing good). The book Cradle to Cradle by McDonough & Braungart explains this concept in more detail.

I’m feeling more positive about the situation now, which is not to say I’ve taken a relaxed stance. I’m still talking, acting and learning. And the latest episode of the BBC’s What Planet Are We On? podcast gave me a large dose of hope and optimism for the future. It’s well worth listening to for a pick-me-up (especially the last 5 minutes).

What steps can you take now?

  • Do the best you can to live in harmony with nature and to be mindful of your lifestyle choices.
  • Plug the gaps in your knowledge around key themes by doing short (or even long) courses.
  • If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed about the situation, talk to trusted friends.

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