Art, Can it be the Key to Helping with Environmental Grief?

December 31, 2019

As a new decade dawns, it’s an opportunity to reflect upon the past, to shake off and learn from our mistakes, to look at the challenges ahead and resolve to make positive changes. This isn’t the usual blog about contemplations or optimistic resolutions. More a reflection on the past, future and present. The next ten years are likely to be quite different to previous as the realities of climate breakdown become apparent. Unpredictable and frightening weather events, floods and droughts, food shortages and the displacement of people are all possible if the global temperature continues to rise at the speed it’s doing now. Along with that, environmental grief will become more common as we collectively mourn the loss of flora and fauna. If ever there was a time to take stock and make serious plans for the future, it is now and perhaps Art can help us with our resolve.

The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it. The present is here, live it. Anon.

The past is behind, learn from it.

I find it astonishing that leaders of my generation have ignored the philosophical and scientific predictions for the future of our planet, seemingly surprised by their authenticity. I’ve been environmentally active for over 40 years, aware of the problems associated with overpopulation since then. How could they not know this was coming? Did nobody believe Johnathon Porritt and his peers in the ’70s? Having spent the last couple of years increasingly grief stricken at the frightening legacy we’re leaving our children, I’ve found myself going through the motions of life rather than embracing it.

In August 2019, at the launch of a Special Report on Climate Change and Land by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a document produced by 107 scientists from more than 50 countries across all regions of the world, more stark warnings were provided:

World food security increasingly at risk due to ‘unprecedented’ climate change impact,

“…the rise in global temperatures, linked to increasing pressures on fertile soil, risked jeopardizing food security for the planet.
Humans affect more than 70 per cent of ice-free land and a quarter is already degraded, noted Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Co-Chair of one of three Working Groups that contributed to the bumper 1,200-page report.
“Today 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification,” she told journalists. “People living in already degraded or desertified areas are increasingly negatively affected by climate change.”


Apart from diminishing fertile soil meaning less available, nutritious food, the unprecedented weather events, food insecurity, war and civil unrest that we’re experiencing will all lead to the displacement of people as they move to seek better or safer living conditions elsewhere. Now is not the time to ignore the situation and pretend climate change is in the distant future, or for activists like myself to stick our heads in the sand and consider spending our pensions, now is the time to knuckle under and be courageous.

But that’s a difficult ask. For those of us interested in environmental issues, our algorithmic media channels bombard us minute by minute with headlines like the ones emboldened above. I spend most days with a sense of increasing panic about what’s in store for our natural world and the rest of humanity.

Whilst it’s encouraging that some politicians are taking the IPCC warnings seriously, and it’s a welcome breath of fresh air to see Greta Thunburg leading a new movement of activists, it’s not nearly enough, quick enough. Sadly, the years of inaction coupled with clear signs that climate change is accelerating faster than predicted, have resulted in an environmental heartache that many of us may, or may not realise we are experiencing.

Environmental Grief

The seven stages of grief begin with shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, and then comes the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, acceptance, courage and hope. Are any of these ringing true for you? Once we recognise that environmental grief is a real thing, acknowledge and talk about it, and that for many there are stages to work through similar to the grief of death for loved ones, we can begin to heal.

Is Art the Answer?

County Carlow based Dr Cathy Fitgerald believes that we can do that with the help of art. She completed a PhD by Practice – ‘The Ecological Turn’ that allowed her to fully explain eco-social art practices. She believes that art has a critical role in these times, providing an immense social power to inspire communities to live differently and well.

Unexpectedly, I realised the healing powers of art when I returned to college in September to study a part-time QQI 7 Landscape Design course. This might on the outside have appeared a folly, another act of environmental denial as I crept away from the fundamentals of growing food and market gardening that I’d previously qualified in. However, losing myself in such a creative process has rekindled a love for my craft that I can now acknowledge has been flailing. Art has rekindled my sense of wonder. Not growing food in our home place didn’t happen because I was too busy, it occurred because I’ve been feeling drained with grief for the breakdown of our planet. Instead of dealing with my fears, I had allowed self destructive practices to creep in.

Irish author Donal Ryan commented at the Festival of Writing and Ideas in Borris earlier this year that “The function of art is to restore the world’s store of empathy”. I can’t speak for the world but it has been helping me to restore my own. Once we open our hearts to the stores of empathy within us, we can begin to build social connections, manage our own feelings and are more able to help others.

Art and Design in Landscapes

By learning about the history of landscape art and the principles of design, my curiosity for gardens and passion for the beauty that surrounds us has awoken. From Roman to Islamic, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, English Landscape and the more recent styles of Gardenesque, Picturesque and Robinsonian, there is so much to wonder and admire about the processes that have shaped our landscapes, whether we’re fans of the particular designers or not.

I’m excited about reshaping our own garden after a two year hiatus, becoming mentally and physically fitter in the process. Feeding and protecting our soil, caring for the growing plants that will feed my family provides a feeling of empowerment and a symbol of hope. Simply growing food, an act of creation, can allow us to believe that we’re not helpless in the face of the coming adversity.

Art and Design in the Environmental Theatre

For the past year I’ve been volunteering with the County Carlow Environmental Network. We have achieved so much already in helping local festivals to green up their act.

For the 2020 spring season, we are working in partnership with the Visual Arts Theatre in Carlow to screen a series of uplifting, educational films addressing significant issues to do with climate change; specifically proposing solutions to move us toward a low carbon and climate resilient future. This ties in with the Visual’s continual drive to highlight environmental and sustainable practices through their arts programming.

Details will be shared on my social media channels as soon they are published but we hope to help raise awareness and provide a space where people can talk or learn about actions they can take, with the support of the collective.

Art and Design Through Gardening

There’s an inspiring community garden in North Belfast which tags itself as a public park, growing space and outdoor gallery. Peas Park has recognised that art brings new people into their garden and, combined with the biophilia effect of nature, can help with a healing process that can unite.

During 2020 I will be working with many groups, from my regulars to new, across counties Carlow and Waterford. In each of these spaces I will be encouraging them to think about and include art into their gardening programmes and to practice regenerative ways to improve their soils. In January I’ll be returning to college to study the QQI 7 Advanced Certificate in Landscape Design where the focus is on public and community spaces. I hope this will help me to continue to help others design the spaces that surround us, filling them with the wonder that gardens can bring.

The present is here, live it.

By acknowledging the past and the future, it frees our minds to enjoy the present and this can be the biggest challenge. Mindfulness. Being here, in the moment. We often start with great intentions but it’s very easy to forget to be mindful when we’re busy doing so many other things.

Isn’t it odd that we have to remind ourselves that we are alive, and should be paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment, even if it’s by the simple process of acknowledging our breathing and being aware of the subtleties that accompany that?

Accepting that the world is changing rather than worrying about how it will change, allows us to savour every wonderful part of it, whether that’s noticing the colour of a flower, the intricacies of a spider web, or climbing into a warm, dry bed at the end of each day.

The global destruction happening to our planet is out of my hands. I’m doing as much as I can in this moment of time and space to reduce my impact. To make the changes necessary to slow global warming down we need such a momentous, coming together of minds and actions that I’m no longer convinced we can do it. Kate Marvel, climate scientist and writer suggests we need courage rather than hope to face climate change.

I believe that art and nature can help us work our way towards that. I’m ready to face up to the challenges ahead of us in the next decade.

My courage is growing. Is yours?


  • Reply Kerstin Walsh December 31, 2019 at 6:50 pm

    Thank you. I feel exactly the same. Hope and courage and anything else available, I’ll take it. Xx

    • Reply Dee Sewell January 1, 2020 at 10:49 am

      I think it might become quite a problem but hopefully resilience will see us through. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Wishing you a happy new year 🙂


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