Fearing the Subject of Study: The Climate Crisis and the Environmental Historian

The world we have constructed appears to be hurtling towards disaster, if not outright oblivion. Terms such as “global warming,” “Anthropocene,” “record temperatures,” and “mass extinction” have become commonplace, all signaling impending environmental catastrophes.[1] The detrimental effects of the climate crisis will only augment as it progresses, and while the focus is typically on the physical health and safety implications of the climate crisis, the mental and emotional burdens it imposes on individuals and communities are often overlooked. Yet, feelings of anxiety, grief, guilt, anger, and despair, have all been proven to arise in response to environmental degradation. Especially younger individuals are reportedly prone to such emotions and distress.[2] They do not only experience, comprehend, and witness a contemporary environmental decline, but will in the future increasingly endure the consequences of climate change. How will these developments shape the field of environmental history, where historians are asked not only to operate within climate crisis conditions but also to uncover the often frustrating ways in which they came about? This piece reflects on the impact of the climate crisis on environmental historians and considers the potential role educators in the discipline can play to provide support for those affected and immobilized by feelings of distress. 

Especially because of the depressing nature of the field, environmental historians should feel pressured to take precautions. Environmental histories are often declensionist tales. Put differently, they tend to be narratives of environmental degradation. Tina Adcock goes as far as to label declensionism as the “closest thing that environmental history has to a grand narrative.”[3] In his 1993 ASEH presidential address, William Cronon similarly identified “declensionism” as a significant challenge within the field of environmental history. “There’s something odd about an academic subject that seems to require such an antidote to despair,” he stated.[4] Arguing that declensionism appeared to offer neither personal nor political utility, Cronon urged environmental historians to adopt a more optimistic tone. This appears closely tied to discussions about the potential role of “hope” in the movement that seeks to comfort feelings of climate distress.[5]

In the 21st century, efforts to loosen the grip of declensionism on the field have been gaining momentum and this automatically, albeit perhaps unintentionally, has become the most apparent approach to rising feelings of environmental anxiety and distress. Many have tried to generate narratives of hope as forces of change. Graeme Wynn, for instance, argues for a movement that frames hopeful strategies, as “critique and resistance, married with a quest for alternative possibilities, will serve us better than a doleful narrative of decline.”[6] He consequently unpacks various figures in history who have created exactly such ecologies of hope. The call for “hope” resonates with various other environmental historians like Tina Loo and John Richards.[7] Richards believes it is far too easy to “underestimate the resilience of ecosystems” and argues that we “should not present human-induced environmental change as an unrelieved tragedy of remorseless ecological degradation and accelerating damage.”[8] While acknowledging the challenges posed by capitalism, consumerism, and ecological degradation, environmental historians have been recognizing the power of optimistic storytelling to inspire action.

However, while it is no doubt helpful to fully explore the dynamic of positives and negatives that continuously surrounds us, simply telling more nuanced tales might not be enough to warrant the mental health of those operating within the field of environmental history. Academic institutions are gradually acknowledging the need for greater mental health support for historians and aspiring historians. They often characterize the distress associated with climate change as a variant of anxiety, a mental condition defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat.”[9] Specifically, mainstream media and the field of psychology have popularized the term “eco-anxiety,” describing it as a “chronic fear of environmental doom,” according to the APA.[10] Consequently, challenges stemming from environmental distress are frequently relegated to wellness hubs and health centers. The University of Waterloo, for instance, has a very comprehensive webpage as part of its Campus Wellness initiatives. They suggest talking about your feelings, making small but meaningful contributions to your community, taking a social media break, and taking up journaling and working on self-compassion.[11] However, is it not overtly reductive to categorize individuals’ experiences of environmental distress as mere manifestations of anxiety or disorders? Such sentiments may more accurately reflect a profound and legitimate response to the alarming and very real environmental degradation that individuals feel powerless to mitigate single-handedly. These feelings are often rooted in well-founded concerns, supported by evidence, and driven by a deep sense of moral responsibility and emotional investment in the preservation of our planet.

If so, that would require an alternative, broader approach, the start of which can already be found in various research publications and initiatives. Rather than solely emphasizing individual self-care, there is a growing trend toward integrating educational modules that specifically address feelings of ecological distress. For example, the University of Calgary has developed a dedicated course on “ecological grief,” while research at the University of British Columbia (UBC) advocates for an easily accessible asynchronous online course on the topic for all students.[12] In addition, the UBC report supports more funding and resources for community-engaged learning initiatives that empower students to bring impactful initiatives to fruition within the framework of their studies.[13] Community engagement has been proven beneficial for those struggling with feelings of ecological sadness or despair. However, numerous experts caution against solely focusing on action as a remedy for eco-anxiety, as this approach can potentially result in burnout or foster unrealistic perceptions regarding the true impact of individual actions.[14] As alternatives, feminist historian Donna J. Haraway emphasizes the need to embrace the struggles of dying and living together in eco-systems, and the edited collection of anthropological studies, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, tries to push people to live with both the beautiful and the uncomfortable of the Anthropocene.[15] More concretely, the University of Victoria launched “Living With Climate Change,” a comprehensive program featuring various campus events and learning opportunities. These include roundtable discussions, reflective workshops, storytelling sessions, community mapping activities, and a field trip, all aimed at fostering understanding and engagement with the challenges posed by climate change.[16] Environmental historians could adapt such initiatives to their own classrooms and research practices by integrating similar modules into their curriculum, facilitating discussions on ecological grief, and fostering community-engaged research projects that encourage active participation in addressing environmental challenges.

To establish a coherent overview of initiatives undertaken by individual environmental historians, more research is required. However, it is and will be crucial to confront the mental health challenges posed by the climate crisis and to develop strategies to cope with, and adapt to, its significant psychological and psychosocial burdens. The discipline of environmental history should not merely rely on university wellness hubs and health and counseling centers to address the mental effects of its participants. While acknowledging that more research is needed, it is evident that some progress is being made and the willingness to include concerns in educational models is growing, among environmental historians as well. How should the discipline of environmental history grow to include this sensitive topic? Can it adopt a more systemic approach that truly fosters resilient individuals and communities capable of navigating the climate crisis effectively? 

Perhaps the initiatives you or your university are taking can help others to cope with this matter. Leave a comment below. 

[1] Graeme Wynn, “Framing an Ecology of Hope,” Environmental History 25 (2020): 3.

[2] Panu Pihkala, “Eco-Anxiety and Environmental Education,” Sustainability 12 (2020): 6-7. 

[3] Tina Adcock, “Declining Declensionism: Toward a Critical Hopeful Environmental History,” NiCHE (2017).

[4] William Cronon, “The Uses of Environmental History,” Environmental History Review 17, no. 3 (1993): 1-2.

[5] Panu Pihkala, “Environmental Education After Sustainability: Hope in the Midst of Tragedy,” Global Discourse 7, no. 1 (2017): 109–127; M. Ojala, “Hope and Anticipation in Education for a Sustainable Future,” Futures 94 (2017): 76–84; M. Ojala, “Hope and Climate Change: The Importance of Hope for Environmental Engagement Among Young People,” Environmental Education Resources 18, no. 5 (2012): 625-642.

[6] Wynn, “Framing an Ecology of Hope,” 3.

[7] Tina Loo, “Hope in the Barrenlands: Northern Development and Sustainability’s Canadian History,” in Ice Blink: Navigating Northern Environmental History, ed. S. Bocking and B. Martin (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017), 252.

[8] John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 13. 

[9] “Anxiety,” American Psychological Association, accessed April 4, 2024. 

[10] Melody Schreiber, “Addressing Climate Change Concerns in Practice,” American Psychological Association, Monitor on Psychology 52, no. 2 (2021). 

[11] “Eco-Grief and Eco-Anxiety,” University of Waterloo, accessed March 17, 2024.   

[12] “Ecological Grief and Climate Anxiety Wellness Toolkit,” University of Calgary, accessed April 4, 2024; Jenalee Kluttz, “Climate Change and Mental Health: A Systematic Approach to Action in Post-Secondary Education,” UBC, August 2020, 3. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Panu Pihkala, “Eco-Anxiety and Environmental Education,” 15.

[15] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[16] Anna MacLaurin, “Addressing Climate Anxiety,” Uvic News, January 20, 2023. 

*Cover image: Freepick

[*Cover image description: A person wearing a teal T-shirt with grey, stormy clouds swirling around their head.]

Edited by Trang Dang; reviewed by Genie Yoo.