The Role of Fictional Thinking in Climate Grief

By Tamar Brandsma

Climate change is one of the biggest problems of our era. We are facing natural losses at an accelerating pace: extraordinary species are under threat and land is disappearing because of rising sea levels and global warming. Climate change and the losses connected to it also generate enormous hidden costs on people’s mental health: climate disasters traumatize their victims, insecurity about the future of the planet causes anxiety, and losses of secure livelihoods can trigger depressions. In the last 15 years, there has been a growing amount of research on climate-change induced stress. A well-established concept in this area is “ecological grief.” Ecological grief is a direct response to climate change related losses such as losses of ecosystems, species, ways of life, and landscapes.

Just like other forms of grief, ecological grief can manifest itself in several ways and this means that both dysfunctional and more productive forms of ecological grief exist. One should not forget that grief is a natural reaction to losses and that grieving about the loss of nature is, therefore, a healthy reaction. An acknowledgement of the existence of ecological grief and highlighting that it is normal and okay to grieve about the climate, is important. This is true not only for anthropocentric reasons (such as that all human beings and their feelings should be valued as they are), but also because acknowledging climate grief and discovering ways to grieve about the climate indicates that nature is worth grieving about. This stimulates the forming of an ecocentric worldview that can replace the dominant anthropocentric one.

A first step to think about these ways of living and grieving on a planet that suffers losses can be through fictional thinking.

In this respect, I agree with Donna Haraway, who wrote in her groundbreaking book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties” (p. 12).

This quote is applicable to (fictional) thinking about climate grief: it matters how—and what—is fictionally written and thought about climate grief since it helps to speculate about potential ways of grieving.

While climate grief might result in a passive numbness, which stops humans from trying to prevent climate change, it can also be experienced productively. Research has shown that productive climate grief makes people want to act against climate change in positive ways. The cultural theorist Mikkel Krause Frantzen, for instance, states that grief can become productive when we learn “how to grieve, how to hope and how to take care of each other, our worlds and the planet, in the midst of ongoing environmental catastrophes” (p. 6). Ashlee Cunsolo Willox presents a similar argument and notes that productive ecological grief facilitates the capacity of acting responsibly through connections with a “collective.”

Building on this research, I suggest that fictional thinking can be a tool to explore (productive) grief, along with the factors that might be important for productive climate grief.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines fiction as “the type of book or story that is written about imaginary characters and events and not based on real people and facts.” Contrasting this common idea about fiction, I argue that fictional stories are not entirely imaginary or unreal, and that the boundaries between fiction and reality are ambiguous. Fiction not only reveals facets of the author’s reality; it can also have a real impact on the world by producing new ideas, evoking real feelings, and starting dialogues about the real world. Fiction and reality are not binary concepts; they are entangled with each other. Therefore, fiction is important and powerful, and it can play an essential role in the future of our planet because it can help us think above and beyond currently existing human-made boundaries.

One example of a ‘fictional’ story which adds value to our current knowledge about climate grief is the story presented in The Island of Missing Trees, a novel written by Elif Shafak. She presents a story about migration and forbidden love in which she shows how trees and humans can grieve losses in entanglement with each other, and she speculates about what this might look like by addressing human thoughts and feelings but also the perspective of a fig tree.

For instance, one of the main protagonists addresses the death of his wife: “She was blooming and thriving with your love, and I’d like to believe with mine, too, but underneath, something was strangling her—the past, the memories, the roots” (p. 334).

This quote demonstrates how humans can express themselves through metaphors that relate to more-than-human beings, in this case a tree. The book shows how understanding the more-than-human world and how, by adopting an ecocentric worldview, humans and nature can help each other to cope with losses. By discussing the tree perspective, which includes the experience of emotions like grief, the natural world gets a voice and becomes more relatable for the reader. An example is how the fig tree addresses the value (and loss) of bats:

We fig trees hold bats in high regard. We know how essential they are for the entire ecosystem, and we appreciate them, with their large eyes the colour of burnt cinnamon. They help us pollinate, faithfully carrying our seeds far and wide. I consider them my friends. It broke me seeing them dropping to their deaths like fallen leaves. (p. 150)

Speculations about the thoughts and feelings of natural beings in a voice that humans understand might stimulate the development of relationships between human and nature and lead to the development of more empathy towards the natural world. The connection between nature and human, as highlighted in the novel, might even inspire humans to treat nature differently by grieving together with the natural world, developing more productive ways to grieve.

In conclusion: Keep looking and thinking beyond the boundaries of what you believe is real and possible, especially when it comes to climate change. Don’t be bound by boundaries.


Tamar Brandsma is a research master student religious studies and spiritual care who studies at the University of Groningen. During her studies, she focuses on the area of sustainability and religion, also in relation to philosophy and psychology.

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