Today I have prepared for you something very special: an interview with environmentalist, writer, and mother Lindsay Coulter, about eco anxiety and eco grief. I’m hoping that you find it useful in your own climate activism.
I also want to say, please know that if you are dealing with eco anxiety and eco grief, those feelings are valid and real. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s normal, and expected, to feel a certain degree of eco anxiety or eco grief after learning more about the state of our planet. (Of course, please do seek professional help if you’re finding it difficult to cope.) So what do we do? That’s what Lindsay and I discussed in the interview.
Who is Lindsay Coulter?
Lindsay Coulter seeks to inspire others to claim sane leadership and find better ways to be in this world together using skills of compassion and insight. To prepare for climate chaos and ecocide she believes in creating good human society wherever we are, with what we have.
Expertise: A green living expert for more than a decade, environmental leader and coach, community organizer, facilitator, media spokesperson, social media maven, courageous conversation starter
Credentials: University of Alberta B.Sc. in zoology, Margaret Wheatley’s Warrior for the Human Spirit training, Stanford University Compassion Cultivation Training, Gabor Mate’s Compassionate Inquiry certificate
Passion: Forest and nature school creator (epiclearningcentre.org), naturalist, horse rider, gardener, soul activism, community catalyst e.g., compassion circles, neighbourhood block parties, and volunteer Lead Steward for Saanich Parks
It seems to me that more and more people are dealing with eco-anxiety and ecological grief. Do you find this to be true as well?
I notice people “perk up” when they hear the term eco-grief. We’re naming something they previously haven’t had the words for. Luckily, naming something brings it into our consciousness; makes it real.
The level of ecocide we’re experiencing is crushing the human spirit. It begs the question, ‘how much can we know and without burning out?’ Is it actually possible to be aware of and process what’s happening in every corner of the Earth?
I receive questions about children having climate change nightmares. People also ask me if they should buy a home, upgrade a home, or even have another child.
Most of us don’t have the tools to cope with our despair and outrage. Yet, Joanna Macy asks, “How can we tackle the mess we’re in if we consider it too depressing to think about?” Climate anxiety or grief groups are becoming the new self care.
How would you define the concepts “eco anxiety” and “eco grief”?
‘Grief’ is being torn from what you love. Many of us are realizing we’re not separate from each other, nor from this wondrous Earth. It makes sense that we are overwhelmed with loss. “The eco-crisis is rubbing our noses into the basic fact we continue to ignore: we’re all one” says David R. Loy.
Author Toko-pa Turner explains that “grief is healing in motion.” And there’s deep longing to reconcile the life we wanted with where we’ve ended up.
Grief is also relational—we’re supposed to grieve in community, as Shauna Janz explains. It also takes courage—it’s for the brave.
If you are experiencing eco-grief, they key is not to become numb. The world doesn’t need more despairing, angry, and fearful people. There are ways to awaken to the suffering of the world and have the courage to be in it. And despite society telling us to “hold it together,” emotions are part of the human experience and tell us what to pay attention to! Emotions are essential to reason. Emotions can also be transformed. Luckily, we can choose our responses.
Could you please talk a little about your journey, and warriors for the human spirit?
In 2015 I was referred to Margaret J. Wheatley, and her training to build new capacities for leaders. Since then I have trained to be a Warrior for the Human Spirit. It has changed my life and the way I see the world.
“Warriors for the Human Spirit are leaders, activists, and citizens who want to make a meaningful contribution in this time of increasing assaults on the human spirit and all life. To serve well, to be effective with their energy and influence, they train with discipline and devotion to refrain from fear and aggression and to embody the best human qualities of generosity, insight, and compassion.”
It’s a call for a new kind of activism. We need to let go of the idea of doing something to make a difference. Instead, it’s about exploring the work you can’t not do, which may make a difference but that’s not why you do it.
We focus on creating a good human society, wherever you are, wherever you can, with the resources that you have available to you.
What about “hope”? Should we, and can we, have hope?
It is dangerous to use hope as your number one motivator. Some say we are hope, it’s not something to grasp for. Alan Sloane says, “our basic nature is to be open therefore there’s no need for hope.” I think people are fearful that if they’re not hopeful, they are despairing. Yet, what if the opposite of hope isn’t despair, but it’s grief? I also like Gabor Mate take, which is that hope isn’t living in the present moment. In the present moment there is no fear, either. Margaret Wheatley challenged me to consider that fear is the price of hope.
Instead, I’ve practised being comfortable with uncertainty and working on a stable mind to be present. Climate chaos doesn’t really care if you’re an optimist or a pessimist.
What changed for me was reading this quote by Vaclav Haval: “Hope is a dimension of the soul…an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”
I also stopped trying to “save the world.” (This doesn’t go over well with most people.) Why? Thomas Merton, the famed Christian mystic, once said, “Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not results perhaps opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people…In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
Some believe we’re in a spiritual crisis, as much as an eco-crisis. I’ve been challenged to find faith or spiritual ground to stand on during these chaotic times.
I’d suggest people also make the distinction between resilience, which we hear a lot about lately and perseverance. Resilience is the capacity to keep bouncing back after trauma. It’s a coping strategy. While, perseverance speaks more to staying on the path and to keep going forward. Many activists are seeking and realizing the power of contemplative practices like meditation to ground our activism. What they may not have anticipated is their work transforming into a spiritual path and recognizing the importance of not allowing their inner life to atrophy.
What are your thoughts on people who aim to be happy all the time, or avoid the conversations of eco anxiety or eco grief as they are seen as “negative”?
It’s not surprising. Our culture says “hold it together!” We shouldn’t try to be happy all the time. In fact, sadness is trustworthy. We need to not honour the wisdom of our emotions. Not many people want to talk about their feelings and not many people know how to be with someone who’s expressing feelings. We usually want to fix and advise and don’t know how to practice compassion and empathy.
I like the quote: ‘It was like this: you were happy, then you were sad, then happy again, then not,” by poet Jane Hirshfield.
For someone who is struggling with eco-anxiety, could you provide a few action items, or even resources, that might help?
WHAT YOU CAN DO (to hold onto yourself)
- Look up the Tree of Contemplative Practices: We all need a daily practice (breath, meditation, journalling, dance, storytelling, etc.)
- Gratitude journal: Gratitude is a social emotion; it points to what’s already there. It solidifies our relationship with the living mystery, plus enhances our resilience. It also helps us to face hard information. (For example: jot three things down before bed, when the mind is most suggestive.)
- Birthday witnessing: On your birthday, notice what is happening in nature. Journal what you see—flowers blooming, birdsong, the smells of fall, clear winter skies. Just connect with what is happening in our world to remember that life wants life; experience the awe, mystery and wonder of nature. See that there’s something bigger than yourself which can help stop the profound disconnection we have with the natural world.
- Build community: Need your neighbours more. For example: create a welcome basket for new neighbours, host a block party or clothing swap, start a soup club, get a grant for a road mural, or participate in local invasive species removal!
- Be mindful of social media use, which can sometimes feel like swimming with sharks. Try these tips to stay present and be more mindful:
- Be less reactive.
- Be less distracted.
- Make time for conversation (offline).
- Share less.
- Stay open and curious.
- Find ways to be together. Get outside. Process emotions (offline).
- Get your Vitamin “N” for Nature: Too much time away from it causes harm. Find a sit spot, create an Earth altar, or simply go for a walk. Maybe restore or rewild nature spaces at home or in your community? Toko-pa Turner shares, “restore a world that is dying and in disrepair to make beauty where ugliness has set in.”
- PLAY! It takes care of the heart and it’s for emotion, giving the brain a chance to process emotions. Play also optimizes agency. Humour, lightness, and play increase our capacity to deal with suffering. Get more play and make space for humour in your life!
- Look up the Good Grief Network. They’ve created a 10-step program to help process despair and eco-anxiety. You can download their toolkit, use their resources and even start a group of your very own. And seek out healing circles, and other courageous conversation workshops in your area. Another example, is to check out Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects. You can build your capacity to deal with suffering and persevere.
- The Place Beyond Hope and Fear https://berkana.org/berkana_articles/the-place-beyond-hope-and-fear/
- We Need Courage, Not Hope, to Face Climate https://onbeing.org/blog/kate-marvel-we-need-courage-not-hope-to-face-climate-change/?fbclid=IwAR1XQetDTFl0FpXTpdrvNhuiJHU7Ymzy0-dE9ZiT00fylbd_qwxxDWUGSGg
Photos of Lindsay Coulter courtesy of Lindsay Coulter.