As I strolled through the streets of New England this past break, I started to think of a future there. I lost myself in a daydream where I had a career that I loved, I had started a family and didn’t have a care in the world. As I waded through piles of leaves covering the sidewalk, my future seemed to be as vibrant as their changing colors. That is, until I remembered the latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — which predicted that we could witness a major environmental catastrophe that includes massive food shortages, droughts, wildfires and more in as early as 22 years. For context, that’s 2040 — which means that I won’t need to worry about a midlife crisis, because I probably won’t make it to midlife. The future I was daydreaming about began to fall faster than the leaves around me.
This report wasn’t news to me. I was born in 1999 and grew up learning about the dangers of climate change through photos of polar bears and melting ice. I’ve heard it debated countless times in various arenas. I’ve taken my share of environmental studies classes and am active in environmental groups on campus.
I have even experienced it first hand, growing up in a period of extreme drought in Montana. The physical world around me has been deteriorating my entire life — I should be used to it by now. But since the report’s release, it feels real. I feel like I’m watching a ticking doomsday clock that only I can see.
Since then, I’ve become hypervigilant. I started to keep track of all of the resources I use in a day. I recounted every time I had ever used a natural resource (did I really have to take a plane home last winter break?). I beat myself up over benefitting from a school that is heavily invested in fossil fuels. Recognizing how my choices contribute directly to climate change gave me anxiety. Amid this anxiety, I felt grief about the environment that I was slowly losing. What was the point in caring about the future when it looked so grim? What was I doing, imagining a life in some New England town when I should be preparing for what seems like the end of the world? What’s the point in even trying to stop climate change when everything seems so far gone? I was used to climate change affecting me physically, not mentally.
On the way back to Yale, I finally broke and told my friend that I’d been feeling hopeless about the future of our planet. I expected to be alone in my thoughts — what person in their right mind gets anxious about the heating of the planet?
To think about nature — the source of feelings such as happiness and hope — as a source of grief, is rarely discussed. When I heard that my friend was also dealing with similar emotions, I was shocked that I wasn’t alone, that other people were just as anxious. This anxiety has a proper name — ecological grief. Ecological grief is defined as “the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.” It has been linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety and stress disorders.
Grief is an emotion that shows us what true sorrow feels like. It shows us what it feels like to lose something, to be left hopeless. It’s easy for us as Yale students to hide behind our ivy walls and forget how our climate is drastically changing, potentially preventing us from reaching our late 40s. We can distract ourselves with extracurriculars. We can justify our University’s investments in the fossil fuel industry because it “pays for our education.” We are complicit in the fact that climate change won’t hit us as hard as it will hit more vulnerable populations: indigenous peoples and developing countries.
However, grief also shows us what we value. When I realized that I was dealing with ecological grief, the importance of the environment was put into perspective for me. There are things that we will lose because of climate change and more grief that will come because of that loss. Yet it’s grief that can save us.
The IPCC report caused grief, yes, but it also provided a blueprint for what needs to be done. The work will be hard, but it is necessary. I no longer want to hide behind these ivy walls. Rather, I’m ready to use my grief to protect the future of the planet, our collective future. I’m ready to assess what I can do to mitigate climate change — whether its following a vegetarian or vegan diet or producing less waste. I’m also ready to push for broader institutional change, such as fossil fuel divestment.
I hope other Yale students will join me in this fight. I hope that we will realize that even ivy walls can’t protect us from the rising tides.
Gabriella Blatt is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .