I’m a retired science teacher of 28 years. I remember observing Earth Day with my students for the first time in 1974. Our textbooks, together with many in the scientific community spoke of negative environmental issues for the 21st century if certain global challenges weren’t confronted. Predictions included species extinction, destruction of ecosystems, over-population, air and water pollution, etc. Climate change was not a predominant topic of conversation back then.
I remember recording select nature programs on my home VCR to share with my science classes. “National Geographic” and “Nova” had some of the best and endangered Earth was often the topic.
Questionaires showed that most students didn’t generally choose to watch nature programs at home. They enjoyed viewing them on school time, however. During discussion after a video about elephants, for example, I might play the devil’s advocate. “Most of us have never seen an African Elephant in the wild and may never do so, why should we care whether they cease to exist or not?” Although 12- to 14-year-olds are generally less cynical than their adult counterparts, they are abstract thinkers. As anticipated, many got upset with me for even asking such a question. Most had a difficult time putting their feelings into words, but somehow knew it was a bad thing.
Perhaps Native American Chief Seattle (1786–1866) eloquently stated how most of us felt: “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.”
Is it possible to miss a plant or animal in a rain forest we didn’t know existed, a black-footed ferret that was once common on our Western plains or the sound of a Meadow Lark one has never heard?
Biophilia: a hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature (Merriam-Webster).
The Biophilia Hypothesis suggests that there may be an instinctive bond between humans and other living systems [instilled by God and/or evolutionary forces]. It describes a visceral connection humans consciously or subconsciously seek with other life forms.
Arguably, our technological advancements together with increased time spent in cities, buildings and vehicles may be reinforcing a passiveness many seem to have for plants, animals and natural areas. Might the expression “out of sight, out of mind” be literally true as regards our relationship with the environment? Or, is there an inherent psychological grief associated with the perceived degradation of our earthly home?
Is having to accept that we are each a micro-participant in the environmental direction our planet may be heading causing many of us to experience an underlying anxiety? Is there really such a thing as ‘environmental grief’? Interestingly, a first step in the grieving process is often a form of denial. Can one feel so individually helpless that repression has become our default method of coping? Do we find ourselves anxiously arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship in order to preserve a modicum of inner peace? It takes a rare and brave mindset to pursue what needs done in the face of perceived hopelessness. Will mankind’s innate affection for nature manifest itself in time to make a meaningful difference?
According to legend, Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. Struck by her beauty, the Greek god Apollo provided her with the gift of prophecy. However, when Cassandra refused Apollo’s romantic advances, he placed a curse on her, ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. Cassandra still had the gift of prophecy, but frustratingly, she could neither alter nor convince others of her predictions. [This myth is sometimes referred to as Cassandra’s Curse.]
As a professional counselor, “Environmental Grief” puts a name to a feeling an increasing number of my clients and I have had for a long time. It can be an overwhelming frustration (curse) when one perceives the earth is in trouble and relatively few will reaffirm or even care to listen. Unfortunately it is a form of grief not commonly acknowledged by society and therefore not readily deemed worthy of emotional support by others.
*By the way, according to National Geographic, “Ivory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years…” [That’s about 90 per day]. By some estimates, elephants have decreased by 62% over the last decade alone and could be extinct by the end of the next decade.
Lou Lile, M.A. B.S. LPC, is a retired science teacher and a professional counselor.