Climate Grief Is Burning Across the American West
Climate change is fueling a new kind of despair
Over the western U.S., grief has settled along with the thick haze of smoke pouring from dozens of massive wildfires up and down California, Oregon, Colorado and Washington. It’s grief over the thousands of structures and at least 33 lives lost so far; grief over another villain conspiring with COVID-19 to lock people indoors; grief that the orange-hued dystopia of Blade Runner is now a reality in smoky San Francisco; grief over losing any sense of normalcy, or indeed a clear future.
Enveloping all of those emotions—packaging them into an overwhelming feeling of doom—is climate grief, as psychologists call it, the dread that humans have thoroughly corrupted the planet, and that the planet is now exacting its revenge. Wildfires were around before human-made climate change, but by pulling a variety of strings, it’s made them bigger, fiercer and, ultimately, deadlier, creating what fire historian Steve Pyne has dubbed the Pyrocene, an Age of Flames. By burning fossil fuels, we’ve primed the landscape to burn explosively, and by pushing human communities deeper and deeper into what was once wilderness, we’re provided plenty of opportunities for ignition—and plenty of opportunities for grief as these forces catastrophically combine.
“So much is out of our control,” says Adrienne Heinz, a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who studies the effects of disasters like wildfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. “We lose our sense of personal agency over how we will live—the decisions are made for us.”
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