After hearing environmental studies students say they wanted to change majors because pursuing an ecological career seemed too “depressing,” University of Washington Bothell lecturer Jennifer Atkinson decided it was time to start a new kind of environmental class.
Since the beginning of winter quarter, Atkinson, who is in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, has been leading a 200-level interdisciplinary studies seminar called Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety: Building Hope in the Age of Climate Consequences. The class gives students an opportunity to explore the emotional and psychological consequences of climate change. Although the course was initially conceived as a sort of pilot, Atkinson said the class filled almost immediately, proving to her that there was a need to address the topic.
“We live in a culture that constantly tells us we should avoid gloomy thoughts and feelings of distress — that those are ‘negative experiences’ we need to guard against,” she said. “But suppressing those responses can cause larger problems in the long run, like burnout, apathy or chronic depression.”
The class is geared toward environmental studies majors who are having a difficult time coping with the harsh repercussions of climate change such as mass extinction, wildfires, droughts and more. But Atkinson, who has been teaching environmental studies classes for eight years, said the course can benefit any learner who might be dealing with environmental grief.
“Having a community to turn to for support is crucial,” she said.
Atkinson said the seminar provides a supportive space for undergraduates to discuss pain and distress and also gives students a chance to confront issues head-on through dialogue, reflective outdoor activities, creative writing and more. For their final project, students make climate change “survival kits,” which allow them to use different artistic media to help navigate any intense feelings toward climate crises.
“There’s something incredibly powerful about hearing yourself speak about issues that are keeping you up at night,” Atkinson said. “Students often find some comfort in the fact that others are experiencing emotional turmoil as well. It reminds them that they’re not alone, nor are they deviant in experiencing that grief and devastation.”
So far, student reception has been positive.
For Cody Dillon, a junior studying computer science and software engineering, part of the course’s appeal had to do with the fact that it was centered around discussion.
“Last year, I was searching for a climate change class but could only find one about the science of climate change,” he said. “I didn’t take it because I wasn’t interested in learning more of the science. I was interested in having discussions about how it is emotionally and psychologically impacting us and others.”
When Dillon saw a poster advertising the new class last quarter, he signed up immediately. This is the third class he has taken with Atkinson and he appreciates how personally invested she is in the material.
“I will likely be reflecting on this class rather than any other class over the next 50 years as climate change continues to play out,” Dillon said, adding that he would “absolutely” recommend that others dealing with environmental grief register in the future.
Janet Quinn — a junior majoring in society, ethics and human behavior — has had a similarly meaningful experience. Having taken an illuminating sustainability class fall quarter, she was drawn to Atkinson’s seminar as she felt as though it would give her an opportunity to build on what she had learned.
She also was interested in having an avenue to help her work through her emotional responses to environmental change. And so far, the course has proven to be hugely beneficial.
“It has been an enriching experience to have a forum to discuss these issues with others grappling with similar concerns,” Quinn said.
Based on how the class has been received, Atkinson plans to offer the course next quarter. She hopes that after the class, students will stay engaged with climate solutions in the long term.
“Since environmentalists and front-line communities are confronting this crisis head-on, their anger and anxiety only gets magnified when so few people around them are even talking about this existential threat,” she said. “Our class is an antidote to that collective denial and invalidation.”