Scientists ‘must be allowed to cry’ about environmental crisis

Researchers call for end to ‘pervasive illusion that scientists must be dispassionate observers’, and better emotional support

October 11, 2019
Environmental destruction concept illustrating book review of ‘Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas’ by Pierre Charbonnier, Polity Press
Source: istock

Environmental scientists must be “allowed to cry” about loss of species and ecosystems – and then given the emotional support they need to respond effectively, researchers say.

Three academics from the universities of Exeter and Bristol set out the demand in a letter published in Science magazine.

“Rates of environmental destruction are greater today than at any previous point in human history,” they write, something which inevitably “triggers strong grief responses in people with an emotional attachment to nature”. Yet “environmental scientists are presented with few opportunities to address this grief professionally”.

“We’re documenting the destruction of the world’s most beautiful and valuable ecosystems, and it’s impossible to remain emotionally detached,” explained lead author Tim Gordon, a marine biologist studying for a PhD at Exeter. “When you spend your life studying places like the Great Barrier Reef or the Arctic ice caps, and then watch them bleach into rubble fields or melt into the sea, it hits you really hard.”

In “other professions in which distressing circumstances are commonplace, such as healthcare, disaster relief, law enforcement, and the military”, the letter points out, there are “well-defined organisational structures and active strategies” to help “employees to anticipate and manage their emotional distress”. Lacking such support, “environmental scientists tend to respond to degradation of the natural world by ignoring, suppressing, or denying the resulting painful emotions while at work”. This could lead to a form of “emotional trauma”, which “can substantially compromise self-awareness, imagination, and the ability to think coherently”.

Instead, the letter argues, “academic institutes must allow environmental scientists to grieve well and thus emerge stronger from traumatic experiences to discover new insights about our rapidly changing world”. This could involve, for example, “systematic training of employees, early-intervention debriefing after disturbing events, social support from colleagues and managers, and therapeutic counselling”. Meanwhile, it was time to reject as “dangerously misguided…the pervasive illusion that scientists must be dispassionate observers” and to recognise instead that “grief and post-traumatic recovery can strengthen resolve and inspire scientific creativity”.

“The emotional burden of this kind of research should not be underestimated,” said Andy Radford, professor of behavioural ecology at Bristol, and a co-author of the letter. “Grief, when unaddressed, can cloud judgment, inhibit creativity and engender a sense that there is no way forward.”

“If we’re serious about finding any sort of future for our natural ecosystems, we need to avoid getting trapped in cycles of grief,” Mr Gordon said. “We need to allow ourselves to cry – and then see beyond our tears.”

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