Ecological emotions in an era of global boiling: A view from linguistics – by Helen Bromhead

Helen Bromhead, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre of Social and Cultural Research. She is a linguist who studies language from a cultural perspective. Her research interests include environment, disasters, public messaging, and public health.

When people receive bad news in healthcare settings, they often look out the window at the sky. In recent years, the inhabitants of planet earth have been receiving warnings that their home may be heading for climate catastrophe. Yet, sometimes, they may not always even have the comfort of the sky. Climate disasters, like the recent wildfires in Italy and Greece, and the ‘black summer’ Australian bushfires, can blanket the sky with thick smoke haze. And fires are not all of the earth’s maladies. Animal species are dying. Rivers are stopping flowing. Coral reefs are bleaching. In some places, people have to leave their ancestral homes because of sea level rise. Just as health crises beget painful emotions, so too do the climate crisis, and ecological breakdown.

Many lenses can be used to view these emotions and mental wellbeing impacts. As well as psychologists, psychiatrists and public health researchers, social scientists and historians, and philosophers and activists have all turned their attention to the ways environmental and climate change make us feel. With painful emotions comes talk and writing. My lens is that of the linguist interested in words and meanings, languages and translation, discourses and conversation. Here, let us go in search of words of these painful feelings about environmental change, but let not the negativities block from sight the diversity of ecological emotions.

Labels have been placed on some negative ecological emotions. In English, the most popular combinations use the word ‘grief’, as though dealing with loss, and the word ‘anxiety’, as looking on an ill-omened future. The result is phrases like ecological griefclimate anxietyclimate grief, and eco-anxiety. Some talk of anxiety and grief. New words have also been coined. Solastalgia is a blend of the Latin sōlācium (‘solace’) and the Greek root –algia (‘pain’). Its inventor, or perhaps discoverer, the philosopher, Glen Albrecht, defines it as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home” because the changing environment. These kinds of terms have been developing since the 1980s in the work of different theorists. But in the late 2010’s and 2020’s, they have become more widely known. 

At the level of science, psychologists have created scales and surveys to measure what they call the ‘distress’ about environmental change. People are asked to respond to statements about emotional effects of climate change. In their English instruments, psychologists can use a wide range of words that sit much closer to home than the more technical ‘distress’. Some include ‘worry’, ‘anxiety’, ‘grieving’, ‘sad’, ‘guilty’, and ‘sense of loss’. From the point of view of linguistics, a colleague and I helped to sharpen the wording of climate distress questions in one of these surveys, the National Climate Action Survey of Australia’s Griffith University. Australia is a diverse country. Many people languages that are not English at home, and not everyone has a high reading level.  For example, the more complex statement “I experience some guilt” was changed to “I feel guilty”. In this way, the questions became simpler and more accessible for speakers of English as an additional language. Linguistic contributions to these pursuits of psychological science can help capture more people’s emotional experience.

Yet, in conversation, people do not necessarily use obvious emotion words to talk about how environmental change makes them feel. In a collection of Australian podcasts about this topic, some people interviewed backdate their ecological emotions. They may talk of childhood before they had heard of ecological grief or climate anxiety. People can talk about the effect of these emotions on their bodies, as in “I found myself choking back tears” or experiences of the psyche like “I had nightmares”. Sometimes people recall distressing thoughts like “we’re going to cook” of a child’s memory of learning about global warming. We may access our feelings through the senses. A journalist spoke of the experience of covering the Australian bushfires: “looking at all these pictures of charred kangaroos … it’s honestly traumatic”. It is also possible to use figures of speech, like a scientist likening a habitat to a loved one, saying “killed my girlfriend”. Paying attention to how creative humans can be when they talk about emotions allows us to see a fuller picture.

The way people talk about the environment is heavily shaped by the status of English as a global language. Most research on ecological emotions is published in English, even if the studies were carried out in other languages, so differences may not always be brought out fully. In the fascinating bilingual situation of Canada, there is evidence that the ecological emotional realm is less differentiated in French-Canadian culture than in English-Canadian culture. Nordic languages, too, have proved significant in ecological talk. The word flyskam was created in Swedish to capture the feeling of responsibility for the impact of carbon emissions generated by one’s choice to travel by aeroplane. It was quickly transferred into English as flight shame and became another global environmental emotion. Climate change has hit the Global South more severely than the Global North, so collecting different emotional vocabularies is crucial.

Media coverage and research bring out generational differences in emotions. The surveys already mentioned report young people as being more distressed than the old. Popular discourse sees age groups being pitted against each other. Seen as guilty through creation of the dire environmental situation and climate inaction, culpable boomers are contrasted with younger doomers, people expecting a climate collapse, and activists. There is even the phrase the Greta Effect used to describe an individual young person channeling their energy into collective climate action, named after Skolstrejk för Klimatet movement founder, Greta Thunberg. She has famously talked of her poor mental health prior to beginning her solo protests. Yet such simplified takes may mask the nuances of generational responsibility and the complexity of young people’s feelings.

Attention is now turning, more and more, to the diversity of feelings evoked by climate change and environmental destruction. Along with emotions such as sadness or fear, cataloguers have identified emotions like angergratitudecompassionjoy, and pride, often pride in a favoured place or in one’s homeSome studies use stimulus material to guide participants in talking about varied emotions. One example of gratitude found in the podcast collection already mentioned comes when a rural environmental activist talks of her thankfulness that all the trees burnt in bushfires in her district are species that will regenerate. In another podcast, students express anger at the display of a “climate clock” in New York, counting down the time to destruction, while they are individually powerless to stop its progression. Casting a wide net allows for empowerment for people from despair.

Painful ecological emotions need to be attended to in the interests of mental wellbeing. Yet not all emotions are bleak. Some offer more positive takes on feelings like climate hope. As Australian singer-songwriter, Missy Higgins said in a podcast, “I needed … to find hope in the positive changes that are already happening around us, that the news doesn’t show us”. Language, broadly defined, can shed light on these emotions as the world moves into an era of, as UN Secretary General António Guterres says, global boiling, as opposed to the calmer global warming.

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