• Art & Science Research Group


Updated: Nov 1, 2020

By Students

We recently welcomed special guests Gillian Ruch and Rebecca Nestor from the Climate Psychology Alliance. They spoke to us about climate grief and about the role that psychology plays in helping us to process climate change.

"As psychologists we are perhaps the cream in the biscuit or the jam in your sandwich between science and art. "

Key words and concepts that were discussed: Defenses (Splitting, Projection, Disavowal, Distancing), Energy drain, Numbness, Sadness, Guilt, Rage, Betrayal, Trauma, Abuse, Change, Crisis, Grief, Bearing witness to it with each other, Emotional Solidarity, Allowing Eco-Anxiety, Facing up to reality.

The lecture was followed by an experimental session where we explored our own feelings on the subject:



" When the climate grief specialists asked us to choose an object in nature as a starting point to express how we feel about climate change, I first thought about a chestnut: In my nursery school there was chestnut trees. Every autumn, when the spiked husks were falling on the ground, opening up on shiny and burgundy brand new chestnuts, I became obsessed. My pockets were overflowing and they were everywhere in my house. On the way to school, in the playground, I hunted these objects so much that I probably developed a specific chestnut zone in my brain and so that even today, when I see one, this zone lights up and part of me absolutely wants to pick them up. I met a chestnut tree here in Bergen, and the effect quickly came back. With it, it shares of nostalgia to which I am overly sensitive. Nostalgia is the feeling that haunts me at every piece of alarming news, from my intimate scale to the whole planet.

In my barely 22 years of life, I can feel precisely how my summers and winters change fast, and that I will never live again the winters of my 6 years old. And yet this privileged feeling is only a symptom of a monstrous loss implementing everywhere, making me even nostalgic of the present, of what we still have. A few days ago, I read that some scientists are starting to think about the eventuality of dimming the sun, so that the inferno that is heating up here below stays fresh enough for us to endure it, physically. The light pollution already made me mourn my nights, now I'm scared to have to mourn my days."


"I don't dare to have children, in fact repeating that at least I won’t have children is usually my way of calming down and dealing with crisis reports. Rebecca said, “If we always defend ourselves against the difficulty we end up numb, and eventually the defense mechanisms we have been relying on start to crumble.” My defenses are not working at all anymore, I feel I have nothing to rely on, no stable ground. I’ve felt unable to distance myself from what concerns me but today the ‘overload’ was explained in a factual and calm and caring setting. To be offered the space to share how you feel, to hear them describe how research finds trauma work relevant for climate anxiety and ecological grief too, left me feeling that my experiences were validated."


"As a scientist studying climate changes I often feel like I am on the frontline of the climate problems we face as a society. And though at a first glance I contribute a piece of knowledge that may be used to help solve a part of the climate issues, I feel quite torn about my own impact sometimes. As so many climate scientists, I focus on just a very tiny part of the big puzzle that makes up the climate system on Earth. Furthermore, as scientists we are taught to be objective and just focus on the science – leave the rest to politics. But as an individual I sometimes struggle with this role. Will I make enough impact with this little thing I am doing, or should I maybe be more active in the public space? Studies take a long time, but action already needs to be taken now. I am afraid I that am not doing everything in my power to combat our problems."


"I found that talking to others openly and honestly about feelings of guilt was a very valuable and therapeutic experience. We can fall into trap of being puritanical when it comes to changing our habits to benefit the environment, and this is not the way to evolve or grow as a species, or to fix the complex problems we are faced with. The session helped me to understand the need to stay with the feelings of anxiety and, on occasion, helplessness, rather than ignore it; to have compassion for others and for myself."


"I have been feeling owerwhelmed lately, confused about what I can and can not do to contribute to a positive change. It’s a strange thing to learn about the fascinating workings of nature simultaneously as I learn about our destruction of it, but I guess we have gotten to the point where there’s no way around this. The feeling of being owerwhelmed often leads to a certain passiveness, a feeling of helplessness that your voice wont reach those who are actually in a position to make the important and necessary decisions. So far I have been turning to reading, and educating my self, I guess. Reading about how everything in nature is connected, and how even our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, forcing us to question the idea of The individual."


Gillian Ruch is Professor of Social Work, Dept of Social Work and Social Care, School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex and Director of the Centre for Social Work Innovation and Research (CSWIR)

Rebecca Nestor is an organisational consultant, facilitator and coach with a particular focus on supporting people and organisations with the emotional impacts of the climate and ecological crisis. She is a director of the Climate Psychology Alliance and is undertaking doctoral research on the experience of leaders in organisations that engage the public on climate change. and

Chestnut drawings: Flavia Parone

116 views0 comments