In this extra post, Glen explores eco-anxiety as he brings together some of the questions and challenges we face and integrates them into the latest work from key workers in this field. Glen Cousquer, Lecturer and Programme Coordinator in One Health↗️ and Conservation Medicine↗️ explains how we can turn into this challenge and develop a curious, compassionate and courageous approach to eco-anxiety. This post is a sequel to last week’s post on emotional literacy and anxiety↗️.
To be alive today, at this moment in the history of life on earth, is to be both entangled, and in relationship, with a complex collection of interconnected crises. More and more of us are feeling the urgency of these crises; our students in particular, are aware that the world they are inheriting is in grave peril, as the web of living systems unravels.
Psychologists and mental health professionals have been warning for some time about the growing number of people who feel overwhelmed by the scientific reality of ecological breakdown. Whether we are scientists, teachers, researchers or students watching the alarming trends or reading, as I did earlier this week, just how bad our food systems are for birdlife, biodiversity and the planet (Rigal et al., 2023↗️) … we are all finding ourselves challenged to live with a near-constant sense of imminent danger coupled with an awareness that we are part of the problem and have yet to become part of the solution. This is eco-anxiety! It is like living with a tiger in your front room. And it is a challenge we are largely unprepared for because we have not yet integrated the necessary emotional and spiritually literacy needed to work with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) into our curricula. In this short blog, I want to explore how we turn into the challenge and develop a curious, compassionate and courageous approach to eco-anxiety.
We all have some experience of what it can be like to come home to an emergency situation when we cross the threshold of our front doors and return to our families and the familiar. The familiar is reassuring, it is known to us, relatively stable and predictable. This is our home. And when a crisis arises we take action to restore balance.
The Greek root of home is Oikos, meaning house, dwelling place or habitation. It is the root of the word ecosystem and ecology, reflecting that our home is here on Earth, the planet that gifts us life. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, two wonderful Dutch film makers gathered testimonies from indigenous wisdom traditions across the globe as part of the Rooted Messages↗️project. These messages are worth listening to and savouring together with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Ten Love Letters to the Earth↗️ for they beautifully capture how we have fallen out of love with and become disconnected from life. Here is Te Ngaehe Wanikau of the Maori people:
“It is about connection … between us and the cosmos, between us and every single thing in the environment, and us to each other. We know that to go back to what we were prior to COVID-19 would only be a testimony to our collective stupidity. Be the generation who said, “No enough.” We’re not lost anymore, we’re finding our way home”.
What does it mean to find our way home? For many of us whose work is informed by systems sciences and who recognise the interconnection of all things, this means letting go of the false notion of a separate solo self. This is the mental model that has arisen during the Industrial Growth Society (Macy and Brown, 2014↗️); this is humanity as a consumptive and voracious consumer. Dan Siegel (2023)↗️ who has pioneered the field of interpersonal neurobiology argues that the pandemics* we see emerging around us today are caused by a limited and limiting view of the self. This, he argues, is the pandemic of the solo self.
Waking up, coming home, to the crises we face thus requires us to educate for a self-transcending, extended and expansive version of the self. This is consistent with education for flourishing with seeking to identify the gift we have to offer the world. As Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013, p.130)↗️ writes in Braiding Sweetgrass:
“… when the individuals flourish, so does the whole. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world”.
To discover this pearl, we need to facilitate inner journeys and to support our students in turning into the pain. In their classic text Active Hope↗️, Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy note that an oyster, in response to trauma grows a pearl and that:
“In rising to the challenge of playing our best role, we discover something precious that both enriches our lives and contributes to our world”.
This great turning requires us to develop the intelligence of the heart, to envelop our grief, our pain and all the traumas we carry and that characterise eco-anxiety, with compassion. This represents a shift from trauma denial into trauma awareness and thence into trauma integration. It also requires a conscious choice for we are very good at avoiding and denying the pain we feel. This numbing is a characteristic of the consumer-society we are part of and that keeps us doped up and asleep so that we are not even awake in our own bodies. We need to come home to our bodies to our feelings to the grief we carry for the ecocide that is happening all around us and that we are part of. Until we do so, we will remain lost. The poet David Wagoner reminds us of the need to treat wherever we are as a powerful stranger:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven,
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Finding ourselves therefore calls on curiosity as a first way of knowing what we have become estranged from. Finding ourselves also calls on compassion for it requires us to envelop the pain we carry inside and all our traumas and allow these to resolve themselves. In order to heal we need to feel. It is this that allows us to become more fully integrated and prepared for the VUCA journey ahead. It also requires courage for we must choose to do this work. As Joanna Macy (2014, p.3)↗️ writes:
“We’ve come so far. The life that is in us has survived so many millennia of trials and evolved through so many challenges, and there is so much promise still to unfold – yet we can lose it all as the web of living systems unravels. Yahweh’s words through Moses now bear a literal truth: “I have set before you life and death; therefore choose life””.
It may well be that, as in Life of Pi, we find ourselves in a lifeboat with a tiger. We will need to exercise our curiosity, compassion and courage, if we are to survive and survive together.
Macy, J. & Brown, M. (2014). Coming back to life. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publication.
Macy, J. and Johnston, C. (2022). Active hope: How to face the mess we are in with unexpected resilience and creative power. New World Library.
Rigal, S., Dakos, V., Alonso, H., Auniņš, A., Benkő, Z., Brotons, L., Chodkiewicz, T., Chylarecki, P., de Carli, E., Del Moral, J. C., Domşa, C., Escandell, V., Fontaine, B., Foppen, R., Gregory, R., Harris, S., Herrando, S., Husby, M., Ieronymidou, C., Jiguet, F. and Devictor, V. (2023). Farmland practices are driving bird population decline across Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 120(21), e2216573120. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2216573120
Siegel, D. (2023). IntraConnected: MWe (Me + We) as the integration of self, identity, and Belonging. New York: W. W. Norton & Company
Wall Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teaching of plants. Milkweed.
For those wanting to explore resources that can support us in supporting students and the wider community in strengthening relationships, nurturing resilience and reconnecting, the following resources from The Work That Reconnects↗️, Capacitar International↗️ and the Climate Psychology Alliance↗️ are recommended. If you want to learn more about these or attend a weekly Capacitar Wellbeing↗️class, here at the University of Edinburgh (online and in person), please get in touch with the author.
*What can be called pandemics are so-called because they involve all people and affect all of humanity and are also impacting on other species.
Glen Cousquer is a recipient of the 2022 RCVS Compassion Award↗️ for his work on embedding compassion into teaching and learning and campus culture. He is a recipient of the 2021 EUSA Outstanding Commitment to Social Justice and Sustainability Award↗️ and the 2020 Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Awards↗️ in recognition of his work on sustainability across the University, including the embedding of deep listening and sustainability into postgraduate training courses for healthcare professionals.
Glen’s research into the health and welfare of pack animals on expedition and across the global mountain tourism industry led to the development of new industry standards and the development of multispecies awareness-based Action Research methodologies to help deliver emergent futures. This work has informed the development of dialogical approaches to establishing communities of practice and inquiry, change theory, and practice for sustainability, as well as more recent work on ecological pilgrimage that has led to the publication of a new guidebook on the Way of St Cuthbert↗️. Since February 2018, he has been lecturing on and coordinating the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at The University of Edinburgh.