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Grief for the Present, Grief for the Future

By Elizabeth Dangerfield

Like so many in Australia at this moment, my anxiety about the future has impacted on my mental health. But those who have borne the brunt of these catastrophic fires; those who have lost their homes, property, livestock; those who have been fighting fires for weeks; those who have been trying to save animals so cruelly affected by the fires; those who have been evacuated and wondered what was ahead of them; those who do not know where their next meal is coming from, where they are going to live or how on earth they are going to start again; those who are totally despondent and exhausted: their mental health must be severely compromised by their harrowing experiences over the last months. We have all, in our way been impacted by the horror of this gigantic disaster as we have watched it unfold.

When I watched Andrew Constance, NSW MP, express his heartbreak over the devastation in his electorate and the impact on his and his family’s mental health I could not help but suffer with him. Here was a man who had stared unflinchingly into the stark reality of what had happened as a result of these bushfires and felt the suffering of others on his shoulders. The reality is that what has happened is absolutely appalling and there is no quick fix, no platitude, no forced handshake that can make the hurt go away quickly. Neither should it, we need to remember this event for what it is and recognise that people will need a great deal of support over a long time to get over this, physically, mentally, socially and economically.

My mental health issues come from a slightly different place. They started in earnest three years ago when I realised that the Earth I knew and loved was slipping away and with it a decent future for people as well as all the other wonderful living things on this planet. I am a trained zoologist with an interest in ecology, I have studied geology at university and taught science, understand probability and risk assessment, so I have been able to read the reports and research that have been coming out for many years warning of human-induced global warming, its impact on our climate and the terrible consequences of not acting effectively to slow down climate change. They are compelling.

I know what the world will be like if we exceed 2°C of global warming – for example just about all coral reefs will die and ecosystems will collapse; at 3°C we are likely to have severe impacts on people with massive numbers of climate refugees, many deaths and the breakdown of our economies and societies; at 4°C, which could happen by the end of this century, the Earth may no longer be able to sustain life as we know it.

Not only that, the impact of global warming is already more severe than anticipated and although we have not yet reached a global average of 1.5°C the impact on our ecosystems has been severe. The hottest year on record, the driest year on record, the hottest decade on record, have resulted in prolonged drought, water shortages, high temperatures, longer fire seasons and exacerbated the conditions for mega-fires. We have the greatest amount of CO2 in the atmosphere than we have had for millions of years. Biodiversity is plummeting. And there is great concern that we are already seeing tipping points that will accelerate climate changes such as changes in ocean currents, loss of sea ice and the thawing of the tundra.

What does it do to your mental health to know that we are squandering one of the most precious things in the whole universe; our unique planet with its remarkable biosphere What do you do feel when you have read all the predictions made about overpopulation, overconsumption and climate change since the 1970s and still there is a lack of will to do what needs to be done to fix the problem? Imagine how it plunges you into a black despair when you realise the fires we have experienced, needn’t have been so catastrophic. It is mind-numbing and it certainly keeps me awake at night. I am not the only one. One of our foremost climate scientist Joëll Gergis, a lead author of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report, and an expert adviser to the Climate Council, recently said we are seeing the worst of our scientific predictions come to pass in these bushfires and she can’t sleep at night worrying about it either.

I know that there are strategies to deal with my grief and anxiety. You can recognise that you are not alone, and many other people feel similarly and that lots of people are working hard to change things. You can recognise that you are powerless to do anything but change your own behaviour and having done your utmost you can feel good about that. You can put worrying thoughts to one side and enjoy life in the present. You can practice gratitude. Of course, there is refuge in meditation, exercise, social events and laughter. You can seek counselling and read self-help books or join a group. Most strategies involve accepting that that’s life and making the most of it.

But one thing I cannot do is to pretend, like climate change deniers, that this catastrophe is not happening, or to do what many people do and is to go about their lives not thinking too much about it and hoping that someone will come up with a solution before too long. I cannot bury my head in the sand and nor should anyone else regardless of the mental health costs. It is not for me that I am anxious, it is for future generations, I have had a great life and climate change will not bother me too much before I die. It is not me that I grieve for but for the loss of something irreplaceable, wonderous and precious – life on Earth. We are facing an existential crisis and it is not alright and we should all be terribly upset about it.

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  1. Baby Jewels

    An existential crisis while the powers that be refuse to do anything about it while they can still make a buck.

  2. JudithW

    The symptoms of eco-anxiety are similar to those of clinical anxiety except that where the latter is based on an irrational fear, eco-anxiety is based on a very real threat.
    And yet some wonder why our young people are experiencing greater levels of anxiety and depression than in the past – turns out the School Strikes are a good way for young people to transfer anxiety into action.
    I have put a few links together in a blog post under the heading Talking to Children about Climate Change – I hope you don’t mind if I share them here…
    Tell me the truth – Talking to Children about Climate Change

  3. John Blundell

    .. ‘wondrous’ isn’t it?

    A good timely read

    It will help key decision makers, the trustees of the children’s future health & happiness to sit themselves down, take a deep breath & a big glass of drinkable water and start all over again.

    As we all must now.

  4. Josephus

    Yes the heartbreak is real. I understand that the under appreciation of the acceleration of global warming is due to not factoring the cumulative effects, ie the curve gets steeper and steeper?

    Modern medicine made us live longer but religion , military ambition and poverty alike conspired to let humanity increase out of control.

    We are watching our killing of other animals just when we realise how intelligent non speaking creatures often are: echidnas, magpies, dogs etc.

    Only fools would buy a coastal property. Estate agents must know it yet they appeal to greed, delusion, ignorance.
    In Wales a coastal village finds its houses do not sell as the sea rises. On our own south coast some have to invest in barriers to stop the tide. Heard of king Canute or Knut, anyone?

  5. roma guerin

    If only this could be read aloud in the House of Representatives, with every last one of them in the chamber. With their mobile phones switched off.

  6. Phil Pryor

    Paranoids, Pigs, Prostitutes, Perverts, Parasites, Pornerastics, Pueriles, Posthionics, Prats.., are we talking of the courts and those awaiting sentence or is it all of this filthy, lawless, indecent, pustular, poxed and problematic pen of porky government peanuts..??

  7. Matters Not


    cannot do is to pretend, like climate change deniers

    So it’s a pretence? With some, most or even all coming from a position of mala fides? No room for plain, old-fashioned ignorance as an alternative explanation? What about those who believe that the Almighty would not let this happen unless it is/was part of a much larger plan that’s yet to be revealed?

    Lots of possibilities. But guess we will have to choose and soon. Then again, perhaps it’s already too late for anything other than the metaphorical band-aids?

  8. Keitha Granville

    Do not go gentle into that good night……. rage against the dying of the light

    Rage, rage, maintain the rage, keep it up every day, every minute.

    We have no other options

  9. wam

    rationalise to obviate some of your anxious moments???
    climate change is a natural process and only the ‘god does everything’ simpletons believe it doesn’t exist.
    These are the few peripheral deniers. The real deniers believe in climate change but deny it is man made.
    These people are vulnerable to persuasion and will eventually accept man’s involvement
    Even better is smirko’s god is seeing the votes and the belief of voters is almost as fervent as we were in x,as 2009 when loonie boobby sided with the rabbott and ten years later still nothing.

  10. New England Cocky

    Heard an ABC RN programme yesterday (180120) where in passing commentary it was mentioned that in 1935 the smell from Dachau was well known in surrounding German towns. Funny that the German people all suffered from national amnesia after the liberation of the death camps in 1945 and subsequent world-wide publicity. “We didn’t know!” they bleated repeatedly ….. for decades.

    The difference to the present climate crisis is that “WE DID KNOW ….. AND OUR POLITICIANS IGNORED IT!!”

    Could this be a self-inflicted wound? Would you vote for the COALition political parties knowing that the senior political positions are filled with former and serving members of the Mining Council of Australia? Australian voters did in 2019!!!

    So, what are you doing TODAY to ACTIVELY remove the COALition misgovernment from the Canberra Treasury benches …

  11. Terence Mills

    There seems to be an active lobby group among conservative politicians not to have a Royal Commission into the bush fires : the causes and implications for the future and the one they don’t want mentioned – the link to climate change.

    They argue that a Royal Commission would take too long, that it would be too expensive, that we already know the causes of the bush-fires and according to our prime minister we just need to adapt and become more resilient.

    Strange that a coalition government under Tony Abbott in 2013 couldn’t wait to declare Royal Commissions into Trade union governance and another into the Home Insulation Program (Pink Batts).

    At the very least we need a broad ranging Royal Commission as a mark of respect to those who have lost their lives, their homes and their livelihoods. We need a Royal Commission to call on global scientific expertise to tell us how climate change is impacting on the intensity of these fires.

    Don’t let these grubs just treat this as business as usual because the will if we don’t stand-up .

  12. Henry Rodrigues

    The climate deniers are everywhere, amongst work collegues who dutifully tune into Alan Jones at their tea break to try and shove his vile comments down the others throats. In families where one significant member usually the elderly one, who reads one of Murdoch’s rags and comes all ready with the day’s talking point, to corrode the minds of those are respectful not to contradict the old fart. I know this from personally watching and hearing my niece’s father-in- law state that there is dispute about the true facts because not all scientists agree, referring to the 0.001% dissenting ones as compared to the 99.999% who can prove it with numbers and observations. His son is just as stupid as he is, no doubt being imbued by the same moronic genes as his dopey father. That is the problem we face in Australia, generational moronic behaviour.

  13. Terence Mills

    A comment from Henry Lawson :

    One Christmas time, when months of drought
    Had parched the western creeks,
    The bush-fires started in the north
    And travelled south for weeks.
    At night along the river-side
    The scene was grand and strange —
    The hill-fires looked like lighted streets
    Of cities in the range.

    The cattle-tracks between the trees
    Were like long dusky aisles,
    And on a sudden breeze the fire
    Would sweep along for miles;
    Like sounds of distant musketry
    It crackled through the brakes,
    And o’er the flat of silver grass
    It hissed like angry snakes.

    It leapt across the flowing streams
    And raced o’er pastures broad;
    It climbed the trees and lit the boughs
    And through the scrubs it roared.
    The bees fell stifled in the smoke
    Or perished in their hives,
    And with the stock the kangaroos
    Went flying for their lives.

    And a snippet from Dorothea McKellar

    Core of my heart, my country!
    Her pitiless blue sky,
    When sick at heart, around us,
    We see the cattle die –
    But then the grey clouds gather,
    And we can bless again
    The drumming of an army,
    The steady, soaking rain.

    These are extracts, only but fitting !

  14. Bernie

    Terry, what Henry would say today? Would he write about geo-engineering or modification of weather?
    Would he say, ‘Hey nutty professors, enough. 20 years of chemtrailing must stop!’
    And what of trees burning from the root system up, leaving bark, boughs, leaves and surrounding leaf litter intact?

    ‘This scene is grand and strange,
    Metal oxide in tree viens,
    See it burn like thermite hot,
    Let’s tell Greta – not.’

    Channel 7 is all over chemtrails, see their take on ‘chaff’, a source of mirth:
    ‘There has been something strange going on in the skies of southern Queensland’

    Channel 7 Fakebook here: Mysterious echoes appearing on the radar

    All that metal dust floats to earth, it enters the food chain, enters the trees, enters our bodies.
    Had enough of the climate changers poisoning the air we breathe?

  15. Vikingduk

    Like you, Elizabeth, and many others, I am quite a bit broken, broken hearted and despairing. Whilst this rain is very helpful for many, it will not fix the ecological disaster we are and will be facing. For many areas whole ecosystems are destroyed, too much lost never to return. A little hope remains, I don’t know why, given the stinking fckwits that currently control our fate, a worldwide epidemic of greed, wilful ignorance and outright stupidity.

    Whilst the Wollemi pines were largely saved, spare a thought for the mount Nardi oak, a remnant of Gondwana, 40 million years of survival, approx. 100 mature specimens, plus 100 or so saplings. Now showing severe fire damage. Spare a thought for all those critters incinerated, the birdsongs disappearing or gone, the pollinators gone. All of those forests gone. Rainforests burn, the drought cleaning up the stragglers.

    Is this tragedy, this disaster our final warning, or something much more serious? Is there still time to mitigate our savagery, our wilful destruction of this most beautiful planet?

    I feel I am being pushed into a corner, a dangerous place to be, given I am only an animal with an animal’s instinct, in these situations, to fight, tooth and claw, to the death. Mourning the dead.

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