Q&A: Climate Grief and Our Crisis of Culture

UConn's Phoebe Godfrey locates the growing feeling of "climate grief" in existing problems of Western society.

Students gather on the Great Lawn during the Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Students gather on the Great Lawn during the Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

When it comes to the climate, the events dominating the news in recent weeks – and arguably the past several years – have left many wondering how we got to this point.

A common reaction to the developments of the daily news cycle is a feeling of anxiety and despair in the face of climate change. Sometimes also referred to as “climate grief” or “eco-anxiety,” the feeling is fueled by constant news stories about accelerating sea ice loss, record breaking global temperatures, and declines in species, such as insects. As society grapples with comprehending the vast challenge of climate change – a subject explored by this year’s UConn Reads selection – it’s no surprise that climate grief is growing more common.

Phoebe Godfrey, Associate Professor in Residence of Sociology, spoke with UConn Today about climate grief, and offered advice and strategies for how to cope.


What is climate grief, and what role does culture play in it?

We live with fantasies and ideas of the way we want the world to be or the way we should be. The fantasy of our culture, and in particular white / male / upper-class / Christian culture, is that we’re God’s gift to the planet, we should have whatever we want, we shouldn’t die, the earth should provide. The idea that we are no more or less significant than the rest of the planet is sort of a heartbreak for us.

So much of this is based in our ego as a culture, that we are the most important culture, species, and most important nation and how dare the earth not give us everything we want? The idea of climate change and to face it is to face our own insignificance.

Grief for me is when I get caught between what we want and what is. The world was not made for us and it is not our personal life support system. A lot of grief is that we think of ourselves as takers, and why can’t we keep taking?

How does one come to terms with this grief?

I always start with the body. Return to your body, return to your breath, where does it come from? Once you realize it is oxygen from plants and trees and nature, what does that mean? What is the relationship between you and plant life? They keep us alive.

We are in this incredibly vibrant relationship with everything around us, but our culture has blocked out all of those connections.

I have had lots of students say they feel less anxiety the more they realize this connection with the earth. In my Sociology and Food course (SOCI2705E), we take time in class to eat a raisin. We realize we’re eating sunlight, we are eating soil, we are sunlight, we are soil. For some, they block it out but for others it is eye-opening.

We are part of the earth and it isn’t for us to own. We know this in our bodies if we listen. To generalize, people who are raised in indigenous cultures think of themselves very differently. They think of themselves as connected to the earth and to all life, rather than separate from.

How do you teach others about climate grief?

My approach is that climate change is a cultural issue coming out of the values of our particular culture, the Western culture, as opposed to being an all-human issue. As such, everything from capitalism, racism, patriarchy, inequality, our views of religion, that nature needs to be dominated, our fears of paganism, and fears of indigenous people, have culminated in creating climate change. In my classes, we do a lot of looking at the history of Western culture and compare it to that of indigenous cultures to show that there are other viable ways of living – ours is only one way and as it is turns out – it is not the one right way, despite what we claim. I use as a theoretical lens where we look at intersectionality so students can understand that it isn’t just about race or just about gender, or just about class or just about religion, that it is all of the ways that those topics intersect and transform each other in dynamic and complex ways, including place, space, and time.

How do we move forward from here?

The technology we need to address climate change we already know and have, but much of it is in fact deceptive and it acts to make us believe we don’t need to change our culture, we just need to switch to green energy. The irony therefore is that the most difficult part of the issue is culture, is ideology, and therefore is us.

Just look at lockdown. We reduced the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere and look what happened – there were positive signs of natural resiliency all over the world, even as so many humans were made to suffer and are still suffering. Most of these humans are the same ones as those who are suffering and will continue to suffer most due to climate change – the world’s poor, as well as those who are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). So, the way I see it, the technological aspect is not very complicated, but try to address racism, sexism, hatred of nature and the reverence of profit — that is hard work. That gets to the roots of our distorted cultural identities.

The real issue is reduction. Everybody wants to keep the capitalist system and keep growth at the level it is currently at with the assumption that all we need to do is to switch to green energy and just keep going. That is absurd.

We are not going to solve climate change until we as a culture change the way we think about solving things, and until we change our values and, as said, our identities. We need to work on hierarchical thinking that includes the domination of nature that is Western culture’s ultimate challenge. Ultimately, I’m a little extreme, but my notion is our domination of nature is really our attempt to dominate and control mortality because nature is death as much as it is life. Our whole culture is about control, if we’re totally in control, then nothing bad — and death is seen as the worst — will happen.

To resolve this, we need to change. We can keep learning and growing and that is phenomenal, we all can grow. It is great to watch others grow and learn and reflect and become more radical, introspective, empathetic and, I would say, consequently more self-confident in connecting more deeply to all life, not just themselves.

You can heal, you can grow, you can be re-inspired to be something else. I always have hope because I think the human spirit is resilient and I think we are wired for community. We are social beings. We want to connect. Conceptually, in our culture we say we love nature, we just don’t embody that love because fundamentally as a culture we are not socialized to love ourselves. Those who love themselves can’t be as easily controlled. And to love yourself fully in your body and to embrace your mortality is to love nature and see yourself as nature — not separate, not divided.

Yet, I am encouraged because young people are changing. We have to work collectively to create the world we want our children — all our children (by birth or by collective identity) to have, and to do this we must address inequality, including racism, sexism, and all the other forms of oppression. And as said, it is hard work, especially for those with privileges like myself, but it is healing and the most meaningful work we could do. I have hope in that humans can change; it is not in our biology to be self-destructive megalomaniacs. Other humans, and in particular indigenous humans whose cultures are still somewhat intact despite ongoing oppression, have already shown us ways to think, feel, be and live differently. I have hope.