Great Barrier Grief

Nadine Marshall is trained as an ecologist, and she’s an expert on the Great Barrier Reef. But recently, her work has picked up an unexpected new element: crisis counseling.

“People tell me about their childhoods spent spearfishing in clear blue waters, but now the water is murky and the fish have gone,” says Marshall, a senior social scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. In just three years, the Great Barrier Reef has undergone a steep decline, with marine heatwaves bleaching two-thirds of its corals. She says that “the sense of loss is very real, but people don’t have an outlet where they can express their feelings.” So they call her.

There’s a name for the growing sense of despair some people are experiencing as they see the natural world deteriorate around them: ecological grief. Similar to other forms of bereavement, ecological grief can range from sadness and hopelessness to anger and post-traumatic stress. Whether communities face melting sea icea disappearing glacier, or brutal drought, ecological grief is quietly taking hold as climate change alters the land and sea.

Governments are not acknowledging the emotional side effects of environmental catastrophe, says Joshua Cinner from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, who studies how communities manage coral reefs. “Cost-benefit analyses are often based solely on the economic value of different activities, but emotional well-being is not considered in the costs.”

The danger of this emotional suffering, says Marshall, is that people may give up hope altogether. “When people have no control over the future of their homes, they tend to get depressed and disengage from society,” she says. “They may feel like there is no point anymore, and that is something to be very concerned about.”

Despite these concerns, few studies have set out to measure the mental health impacts of ecosystem loss in everyday people. To do so, Marshall and her colleagues surveyed almost 4,000 residents, tourists, tourism operators, and commercial fishers in the Great Barrier Reef region.

The team presented a simple statement to the participants: “Thinking about coral bleaching makes me depressed.” Participants rated how strongly they agreed with the statement on a scale of one to 10 and also ranked a selection of values associated with the Great Barrier Reef, such as whether they find it beautiful or how proud they feel to live close to a World Heritage Site.

Around half of the residents, tourists, and tourism operators surveyed agreed that coral bleaching was making them depressed, giving a score between eight and 10. Respondents in this group also reported that they derived a sense of identity from the reef and had a strong attachment to it. They also said they deeply appreciated the reef’s biodiversity.

In contrast, only around a quarter of commercial fishers reported feeling depressed because of coral bleaching. Marshall says that the low levels of reef grief among fishers could be because they tend to spend years working in the same areas, which may be less impacted. Fishers who do notice change likely do so gradually. “They could be struggling to reconcile their observations with what society is telling them,” she says.

At a time when environmental policies are determined by those at the top of the political ladder, Marshall hopes her findings will spark conversations between the public and the government about how to best manage the fragile reef.

“There is a perception within government that everyday people don’t care about the environment, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Marshall. “We need to harness this grief into positive action.”