“One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”
Th American naturalist Aldo Leopold famously wrote those words in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There in response to environmental decline.
People have been grieving the loss of the natural world since the dawn of time — when a beloved tree dies, a flock of birds loses their habitat, a swamp hardens with industrial runoff — but the pace of grief has accelerated exponentially in recent years.
The Anthropocene era — a time marked by humanity's substantial impact on the planet — is fully upon us, and the natural world is undergoing significant changes on an almost daily basis.
The Great Barrier Reef, an underwater structure so large it can be seen from outer space, is rapidly decaying. The Rio Grande river, named because of its sheer force, runs dry for more than half of the year. The Tuni glacier, long looming like a jewel above La Paz, Bolivia, has nearly dissolved. And then there’s the plunging insect populations, the dwindling krill, the elephants whose tusks are sawed, and the sharks with lopped-off fins.
The scientists and conservationists who dedicate their lives to learning, appreciating, and protecting the natural world are coping with the grief by doubling down on their science.
But what about the rest of us — the growing number of people “very worried” about climate change? How can we deal with rising ecological anxiety and generate hope instead?
Here are seven things to do if you’re dealing with anxiety around climate change and grief for the natural world.
1. Donate to conservation and restoration efforts
Wildlife organizations are working to undo the effects of overdevelopment and pollution by restoring degraded habitats and safeguarding areas that are still intact. These groups often struggle to raise funds and face threats from industrial interests and escalating climate change. Find an organization dedicated to protecting something you care about — whether it's elephants, a rainforest, or a coral reef — and then donate to them.
There are large conservation and restoration groups like Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy that you can support, and also smaller, grassroots organizations fighting to protect the planet. Every year, the UN awards the Equator Prize to grassroots organizations fighting to save local ecosystems — groups that urgently need funding to continue their work.
2. Support Indigenous communities
Indigenous people have developed practices and systems for living in harmony with nature over hundreds and thousands of years. It’s no coincidence, then, that the vast majority of the biodiversity that remains worldwide exists on Indigenous lands. Indigenous communities need support, funds, and advocacy to continue protecting the natural world. You can help to advocate for the legal recognition of Indigenous peoples to their historic land and water, and donate to Indigenous organizations working on conservation and restoration.
3. Create an insect-friendly garden
Insects are foundational to healthy ecosystems. But humans have so extensively sprayed insecticides and other chemicals on lawns, gardens, fields, and forests that insects such as bees and butterflies have substantially declined in recent years. You can help reverse this trend in your own small way by starting a garden or keeping some plants on your windowsill that insects can use as a source of nourishment and rest. You’ll be surprised by how simple it is to attract butterflies and bees by doing a little gardening that doesn’t involve any chemicals.
If you live in a city or don’t have access to a yard, you can also join a community garden.
4. Join a community environmental group
Communities worldwide are rising up to protect local habitats from pollution, industrial activity, overdevelopment, and the impacts of climate change. These groups plant trees and flowers, organize protests and educational workshops, and engage politicians to advocate for stronger environmental protections. While there are local organizations you can find in your area, these international groups also have chapters in many communities: National Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and Waterkeeper Alliance.
5. Join or start a beach or river cleanup
Whether it’s thrown out a window or dumped in a landfill, plastic waste often ends up in bodies of water where it causes great harm to marine animals and plants. If you live near a body of water, check to see if local organizations have scheduled an upcoming cleanup and help out if you have the time. If you’re unable to find an opportunity, invite some friends and family, put on some gloves, and wade through some shallow waters to pick up plastic litter and put it in a garbage bag for recycling.
6. Learn more about wildlife
The more you know about wildlife, the more effective you’ll be as an advocate. One of the best ways to learn more about plants and animals is to volunteer with an environmental group where someone can act as a mentor. Otherwise, you can get some books, do research online, and watch educational videos or documentaries to learn more about a particular environmental subject — and then use your newfound knowledge to engage in activism.
7. Shrink your ecological footprint
While climate change and habitat loss are ultimately structural issues that require structural solutions, there are lifestyle changes you can make in your daily life that, when multiplied by millions of other people taking similar action, can make a difference. Adopting a plant-based diet, taking public transportation, and switching your home energy supply to renewable energy sources can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. You can also plant trees, buy less clothing, and reduce how much plastic you use.