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Resources for dealing with eco-grief from the 2021 RMIT Community of Practice

In late 2021, I helped run four community of practice (CoP) sessions open to all staff at RMIT University to explore strategies for reducing eco-grief and eco-anxiety in our teaching for staff and students. We aimed to cover three aspects: the staff experience (week 1); the teaching experience (week 2); and the student experience (week 3). Week 4 was a general discussion bringing everything together. Part of the aim of the CoP was also to start developing a library of activities for us to use in lectures/tutorials, on ourselves, and for students.

This document is an initial contribution towards these aims and summarizes the points used for initiating the discussions and brief summaries of some of the useful points that came out of the discussion. The document ends with a summary of resources collated so far.

I hope that others will find these resources useful.

Eco-anxiety and the staff experience

Discussion starters for exploring the staff experience:

  • How could we teach topics with the potential to create eco-anxiety in safe and meaning full ways, and what resources exist that could be helpful changing the way we deliver content?

  • How might eco-distress show up in students, how could we deal with this and what are the most appropriate resources to direct students to?

  • How can we work to process our own eco-distress, so as not to pass it on to the students while we teach?

  • Exploring experiential approaches to dealing with eco-anxiety and eco-grief within this group, to have direct experience with these approaches before we attempt them with students?

It would be great to start to develop a library of activities for us to use in lectures/tutorials, on ourselves, and for students.

It is useful to us as staff to focus on understanding our own eco-anxiety, as teachers.

  • How to work with this constructively and not just avoid it, how to not let it overwhelm us?

  • Learning to be with uncomfortable emotions

  • Should we let know students how we feel? How to do this in a responsibly way?

  • Practical measures and point to consider to implement this:

    • Tracking somatic responses to stressful information

    • Building our capacity for interoception

    • Mindfulness, being in nature

    • Learning not to avoid

    • It’s a slow process take practice

An important point to remember is that there is no culture in academia of taking time reflect on our own wellbeing, it is highly competitive, and we are constantly pushed to achieve more.

Eco-anxiety and the teaching experience

Discussion starters for exploring the teaching experience:

  • What shows up for you in your classroom when you teach topics that could lead to eco-anxiety? Do you notice what you’re feeling? Are you disconnected from your feelings when you teach? 

  • Is there anything you’ve done to help alleviate student eco-anxiety in your teaching so far? How well do you feel it has worked?

  • Have you considered sharing your personal feelings around a topic to the class (in an appropriate way)? Do you think that could be useful for the students hear? 

  • Do you have any ideas for approaches/processes/activities you’d like to try in the classroom to help reduce eco-anxiety in students? 

  • Do you know of any resources that could be useful for us all to consider in our teaching?

Think about giving content warnings. First mention what the topics that will be covered in the lecture. Give opportunity to pause and for people to step out if needed. Opportunity for students to express if they were challenged by the material.

Think about how distress might show up for students. We give content in an intellectual way. But if need to be able to engage in their emotional response.

Social work disciplines and others teach challenging subjects in way that is trauma informed — could we use this as model for how we teach.

Staff discussed incorporation of nature connection practices into an courses. Can be a good antidote to exco anxiety. Build into assessments?

Reflective assessment tasks could be helpful for reducing eco-anxiety. Could be a personal journal type reflective writing. Also consider option of setting up task where students to read each other’s reflections to respond to each other.

For reflective activities that involve sharing, it can be important to be prepared to share your story, and plan for this, what you are sharing and why. This is to avoid a spiral into doom and gloom. Give students additional notice to plan for this.

Suggestions to end lectures of challenging topics with hope and covering how students can use their skills towards mitigating environmental/sustainability issues. Bring people back to what they can do, and what they do have power over. Know that we’re facing this as a collective, so we have permission to pause and take a breath and know the action is continuing.

Eco-anxiety and the student experience

Discussion starters for exploring the student experience:

  • Have you seen eco-anxiety show up in students? How has this shown up?

  • What are good ways to ask students about this?

  • How to deal with extra stress and anxiety from these topics, even if these stresses on their own would not be a level where when they obviously need additional support.

  • What resources are most useful to point students to help with this?

  • Can we facilitate students to work together on this?

There have been examples where students have criticized each other in discussions (e.g. vegan students criticized other non-vegan students). Can be difficult to manage. This can make students feel anxious about participating in conversations and this destroys group cohesion. Plan for how to address this when it shows up in lectures and tutorials. Look out for when one student is criticising others and making assumptions about other students.

Issues of privilege: “some students are talking about giving up air travel, while others who have never had the opportunity to travel”.

Points to bring up with students: issue of consumer guilt which can redirect attention from larger polluters and governments. Emergency mode versus slow ongoing transformation work. Judgement often comes from people in the emergency mode.

Once the flood gates open, can be a big deal as people often don’t have permission to talk about eco-anxiety related issues. How to balance talking about this with students but balancing the time on this so it doesn’t take the whole tutorial.

Acknowledge eco-anxiety is not binary: we go through being anxious verses being calm and cantered. Make sure when doing things online, want activities where people can control how deep they go. E.g., someone might be sharing something that feels ok to them but might be challenging for some sensitive people to listen to … Be careful when facilitator can’t be there (e.g., in breakout groups).

We could think about connecting all the courses that are popping up that cover climate emergency and could be offered to students as electives. And way to connect students that are doing these courses.

If we open the flood gates with lecture/tutorial activities, what to do? We can point students to community events students they can participate in. Tell students that the way to do this is join up with community inside and outside RMIT. Our tasks as university educators are the understand the emotions that come up and acknowledging them. But not for providing a space for spending the time to heal them. But we can point them resources and the fact that being with a community of like-minded people is shown to be beneficial. Develop a list of resources we can have to give to students: Online grief groups for processing grief, empathy cafes, books, development community.

Can we provide an online hub or resources (e.g., via the RMIT library?) for students about dealing with eco-anxiety. Could we even consider developing a course with a range of activities? Some relevance to decolonizing courses activities that have occurred. Set up peer to peer activities?

General points from final week

People are doing different things to address their concerns - some are visible some not so – it is important to be non-judgmental.

We should do what aligns with values, but not to put people in difficult situations - important in class, we want to share not shut down.

Pastoral care often falling to more to women academics - are these questions as urgent in our counterparts? Weight of care around discussions of climate change and how impacts the broader student community.

Students can feel helpless, what can we do? ‘‘cosmolocalism’’ - see https://www.thealternative.org.uk/dailyalternative/2019/5/13/what-is-cosmo-localism-and-why-we-think-its-a-game-changer

There is a struggle between: the scale of local and global; anxiety and anger; marathon and sprint


A great set of resources has been collated from the web site for the book Learning to Live with Climate Change by Blanche Verlie. They cover climate anxiety/grief, psychology, the politics of ecological distress among other things: https://www.learningtolivewithclimatechange.org/resources

Book: Learning to Live with Climate Change From Anxiety to Transformation

by Blanche Verlie

8 Psychological strategies to tackle climate change https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/b2304d9c-64d4-40a6-b063-3014128ec740/activate-climate-change.pdf

Resources for coping with climate change distress from Australian Psychological Society https://psychology.org.au/for-the-public/psychology-topics/climate-change-psychology/coping-with-climate-change-distress

Resources to Cope With Climate Anxiety and Grief - from the The Commons Social Change Library

Trauma-Informed Tertiary Learning and Teaching Practice Framework - Quick Reference Guide from Griffith University https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiFw67tnfL5AhUa0XMBHbfEDWkQFnoECA4QAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.griffith.edu.au%2F__data%2Fassets%2Fpdf_file%2F0020%2F1052309%2FFRAMEWORK.pdf&usg=AOvVaw32tDTrM6JRC03cgOvmWnnM

An Existential Toolkit for Climate Justice Educators

Climate Anxiety Is an Overwhelmingly White Phenomenon - Is it really just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or to get “back to normal?” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-climate-anxiety/

Student activities

“A Field Guide for Weathering: Embodied Tactics for Collectives of Two or More Humans” which invites us to cultivate a more deliberate embodied relationship to weather worlds, while at the same time questioning the practices of management and discourses of weather neutrality that we have inherited. As such, we hope it might also inspire deeper consideration of climate change as a “more-than-meteorological” phenomenon.

https://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1511&context=thegoose (pdf)

Get people to stand in the room in different spots: very concerned, partially concerned, not concerned. Get people stand it groups. “I have great hope for our ability to combat climate change” and get them to stand in their groups. Could be a good online activities with breakout groups too.

Open sentences for exploration of our feelings (based on Joanna Macy’s Work the Reconnects, see https://workthatreconnects.org/ )

  1. When I think about the condition of our world, I would say things are getting….

  2. Some concerns I have include….

  3. Some feelings that come up when I think about these are…

  4. What I do with these feelings is…

  5. What I appreciate about myself, what supports me is…