One day in December, I took a walk through the countryside near a small village in England. The smell was fresh – it had just rained – and birdsong punctuated the silence, a stream of clipped tweets no billionaire could lay claim to. Each bend in the path revealed something new. Here: a cluster of reeds blowing in the breeze, there: ponies grazing. The spectre of a cow took me by surprise though, suddenly visible behind some trees. It was so unexpected I couldn’t help but laugh. With every step I felt more at home, comforted by a wilderness that was both familiar and strange.
Then I reflected on what psychologist, Rebecca Nestor, had told me earlier that week. Namely, that nature can help us to process our emotions safely, an experience known as “containment”. She explained, “staying open to our love for the natural world can have a similar effect to being listened to by a human being.” She uses the example of standing “under some trees and breathing and taking in what’s happening around you (…) where something bigger than you is able to hold you but also enables your distress to be gradually turned into something you can understand and find words for.” This rang true for me: when I was younger, and was troubled by something, I would go for a walk in the forest to clear my head. I’d soon feel better.
Nature can be the sounding board for our deepest feelings. It can also take us out of ourselves – away from the voice in our heads and into the fractal pattern of a leaf, the perfume of bark, or the purr of a dragonfly’s wings. I think it is time we returned the favour.
We could start by opening our hearts to the reality of climate change. In sharing the distress that lives within us, we might develop the belief and resilience to transform the situation.
Ⅰ. A Terrible Beauty.
What happens when wildfires rage, and floods wipe out houses? When seasons come late – or not at all. When the information we find points towards an imminent breakdown.
A new set of emotions arise. They are often called – as one might expect – “climate feelings” and include species of grief, fear, anger and depression linked to ecological destruction. Some, we are beginning to find words for, like Imminania, which is a profound feeling of sorrow for the future. Others, like climate anxiety, have been studied by psychologists for over a decade. Climate feelings aren’t exclusively negative – they may come with a love of nature, or be coupled with radical hope. Though concerned about their impacts on mental health, researchers also view the more difficult climate feelings as signs of “sanity” rather than pathology. Linked to pro-environmental behaviours, they are a natural response to a perceived threat.
As our emotional states begin to mirror the state of a changing climate, I’m reminded of a quote from a Yeats poem I overheard years ago when walking across Spain,
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
How to tease this beauty out from under our defences? How to listen to our feelings? I put similar questions to the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) – a network of therapists and psychologists dedicated to helping people cope with the climate crisis. They connected me to Rebecca Nestor, who you heard from at the beginning of this story.
Ⅱ. Solace, Gratitude, Relief.
A board member of the CPA, Rebecca is involved in Climate Cafes. These are spaces for people to come together, voice, and reflect on their feelings about the climate crisis. Rather than focusing on solutions, organisers tend to guide the conversation in a gentle way – primarily by listening. There is no obligation to come regularly or provide feedback, so it’s difficult to know how impactful this is. That said, Rebecca has witnessed some of the effects first hand.
“The main thing that happens is a sense of solace and a kind of gratitude for being able to speak about these feelings without other people judging or changing the subject” she says, before mentioning “the huge relief that can come with that.” This plays into several psychological concepts like affect labelling, where simply naming an emotion can make you feel better, or catharsis, where expressing pent-up feelings provides a deep sense of relief.
What if you don’t know how you feel? Rebecca thinks that the best sessions are the ones where people have the space to figure it out. “Somebody may not have said very much at all.” she continues, a note of wonder appearing in her voice: “but you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing up because there is this depth of feeling underneath the few words that they’ve got for it.” The hope is that having more of these conversations will broaden what Kari Norgaard calls sociological imagination, leading us to better “describe what’s happening around us” during times of ecological distress.
“We’re kind of helping people to reach a place where all the energy that’s being used to keep their feelings under wraps gets freed up to feel better and therefore, to be able to do more.” Rebecca says, careful to add, “if that’s what they want.”
I get the feeling that energy is a powerful word in Climate Psychology. A synonym for life, it stems from two Greek roots, En for “in” or “within” and Ergon for “work”. The work within. But there is another term that matters even more. Agency.
Agency is our ability to act or have an effect. According to the Handbook of Climate Psychology, “a subjective sense of agency is a major factor in wellbeing (…) (and) can include being able to influence the course of our own lives, make things, or shape events.” Lack of political action and the sheer scale of the climate problem is likely to undermine agency. Of 10,000 young people surveyed in 2021, 57% reported feeling “powerless”.
Rebecca adds: “my sense of agency is going to shift from moment to moment depending on how physically I’m feeling but also what I’ve been influenced by in the last few days, how much advertising I’ve been watching, how much I’ve been exposed to Social Media – I think all of those things attack agency. They put us into consumer mode.” The goal is to seek out activities that enhance rather than weaken your agency, which usually means surrounding yourself with people who accept you the way you are. That may sound cheesy, but it’s through support and trust that you can find what Rebecca calls “self-efficacy, of congruity between inside and out.” The belief that I can do this.
Which leads me back to where we began. The therapeutic idea “that it’s only through relationship and having another who is listening and not judging that we can really think.” This is work that can be done in Climate Cafes, in communities, in nature, in families, in friendship and in love. The more we talk, the more we understand, the less afraid we feel.
The title for this piece comes from John Clare’s poem All Nature Has A Feeling (1845), which speaks to the quiet joy of being in the natural world. Just as poetry is the art of sound, the path to feeling better about Climate Change involves listening. Tuning into each other’s finer frequencies to pinpoint our joy and share our suffering.
If you’re ready to have more climate conversations, I’m ready to listen. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. For professional support, check the Climate Psychology Alliance website (English), or seek guidance from the Consejo General De La Psicología España.
And of course, to start taking action, look no further than your local XR group.
Love and rage.