March 2020

Cures for the deep eco-blues as we grieve for our Earth

This year, my annual break turned from azure sky and aquamarine sea to a much more sinister shade of the blues, writes Alice Priest.

It’s been raining without stopping for more than eight hours. It rained like this yesterday. And the day before that. It’s the most rain Sydney has had in one ‘event’ for some 30 years. Deep within me, some unnamed fear lets go and Joy raises her umbrella. Having been lost, Hope steps a little quicker, splashes her feet in puddles, and smiles.

Part of me has been petrified this summer. The whole of the national psyche in Australia, emblazoned with the narrative of endless summer getaway – sunshine, surf and tranquillity – was transformed into a haze of ash and smoke, dust and destruction.

This year, my annual summer break turned from azure sky and aquamarine sea to a much more sinister shade of the blues. I longed to escape from the acrid smell of smoke in my bed and the dirty orange light pressing on the curtains as the days broke in my inner-city Sydney apartment. Switching off had already begun as I buckled under the overloading of news, the noxious social media feeds of bickering, blame and denial.

Image: Creative Commons.

Safe in my apartment, informed and aware, drinking from my keep-cup, composting food waste, and donating to online appeals, I felt pitiful and powerless, hopeless and helpless. My prayers felt pathetic. The warnings of things being out of control and catastrophic echoed everywhere – within and beyond me.

Efforts made persistently, in good faith, with courage, which nevertheless prove futile, are deeply psychologically disturbing. Physiologically, in this state, the brain’s limbic system goes into overdrive and fear shuts down our problem-solving abilities. A seeming apathy emerges – the petrification of the petrified.

This form of apathy now has a name: “environmental melancholia”. Eco-psychologists such as Renee Letzman, author of Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement argue that it is akin to other melancholies, a kind of grief response, a deep and complex, mostly unconscious, psychological reaction ‘‘to anxiety, loss and perceived threats’’.

Defences emerge like inaction, numbness, dissociation, ambivalence or apathy. And, like other inchoate melancholies, we don’t have the language for recognising or expressing our grief for the loss of our environment.

I call it the deep eco-blues. I feel it as a profound dis-ease. Even as it makes me angry, it also disarms me. It’s more than the uneasy feeling at my lack of agency, the creeping fear that my little eco-friendly efforts to live up to my role as steward of creation are useless: too little and too late, against the dying of the environmental light.

It’s more than the dis-ease of feeling the self-evident hypocrisy in the mismatch between what I say and what I do. As Letzman puts it, it’s the very complicated psychological constraint of deeply caring, caring “even in surplus”, and thus being stricken with ecological grief and fear, that something wonderful is broken in the universal scheme of things, and reality as we know it has irreversibly changed.

Is there a remedy for these deep eco-blues?

Image: Creative Commons.

“If you’re going to sound the alarm, you need to show where the exits are,” reflected Damon Gameau, Australian director of the 2019 eco-futures documentary, 2040. These past months have felt like an awful endless summer of alarms being sounded without a single exit in clear sight. But as Gameau and his filmic epistle to his small daughter attests, exits do exist, the rain is falling, and hope is real in this landscape of seeming despair.

Remedies for environmental melancholia – aka, the deep eco-blues

Meditate with Isaiah 43:18-21 “I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Water the blackened seeds of hope within you. Marvel at the rain and remarkable images of nature’s regeneration and survival from the firegrounds, like these of nature: ABC Australia and Tiny endangered frogs miraculously survive. Your psycho-spiritual self will be uplifted watching Farmers celebrate rain.

Meditate with Luke 4: 18-21 “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Try to filter your polluted live stream to up the good news catchment. Then, do some ‘fact-based dreaming’ about the future. Counter the climate doomsday voices, in and around you, with the fact that we already have the solutions, the technologies, the research and the people to regenerate the earth and reverse the effects of global warming. It is happening now!

Watch 2040, a fact-based dreaming  documentary about what the realisation of today’s solutions can mean for the planet and its people in the next 20 years.

Get informed and on-board with some awesome innovations happening right here in Australia:

Seaweed – the climate change solution no one expected (Tasmania)

Next Generation Renewables Program – Solar revolution (ACT)

1.5 billion fewer plastic bags. Reduction of single use plastic bags in Australia alone.

Meditate with the opening Paragraphs (1&2) of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’: “… our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life.”

Listen to the groans of Mother Earth. Listen to the groans of melancholia within you. Learn from indigenous perspectives – long fashioned by this dis-ease. Know the truth of the interconnectedness between you and all of creation. Find God’s self-revelation there, in the deep eco-blues, calling us from apartness to knowing that we are a part.

Meditate with Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, Chapter II, New paths of pastoral conversion: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

Image: Creative Commons.

Paragraph 20. “We need to undergo a pastoral conversion in order to be a missionary Church reaching out. In the Amazon this path also means “navigating” our rivers and our lakes, among our people. For in the Amazon, water unites us, it does not separate us. Our pastoral conversion will be samaritan, in dialogue, accompanying people with the real faces of indigenous people, peasants, afro-descendants and migrants, young people, city dwellers. All of this requires a spirituality of listening and proclamation. This is how we will walk and navigate in this chapter.” (Pope Francis)

Meditate with James 2: 14-17. “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Take courage. Keep faith. Do what is in your power to make reparation and be a guide to Earth’s redemption. We are wired mentally and spiritually to want to make a creative contribution to the world. Letzman says that our deep eco-blues can be remedied by exercising our “inherent reparative energies” for the environment. Be good to your Mother (Earth). Attend to your stuff; reduce, reuse, recycle. The journey of a thousand ecologically sustainable miles begins with small steps. We are surely in the difficult throes of a seismic shift, the opening of the tomb, to renewables and a renewable economy, part of the trajectory towards a new normal for the Generation of the Incredulous – those to come who will not believe how it was that we lived.  



Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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