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Psychedelics as Tools for Processing Climate Grief

Written by: Jasmine Virdi and Mushroom Tao team

View all posts

Psychedelics as Tools for Processing Climate Grief

Written by: Jasmine Virdi and Mushroom Tao team

Psychedelics could help address climate grief by enhancing our connection to nature and promoting eco-friendly actions. Recognizing climate grief as a natural reaction to environmental damage, psychedelics facilitate a process of ego-dissolution and interconnectedness. This can empower people to face their emotions with less fear and more compassion, fostering a mutually beneficial relationship with the environment and inspiring sustainable practices.

As a species we find ourselves in a moment of deep crisis, facing an unprecedented global environmental emergency caused by human activity. Bearing witness to rising sea levels, climbing temperatures, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and other types of environmental degradation naturally brings with it feelings of loss, sadness, anxiety, and helplessness.

"Beyond ego-dissolution, the mystical-type states associated with psychedelics are known to produce experiences of universal interconnectedness, leaving individuals with an embodied, felt-sense of unity with all of existence. Such feelings of deep connection to nature are one of the major predictors of pro-environmental behavior."

In the face of the profound challenges associated with our changing world, it becomes ever more urgent to explore avenues for healing and change. One potential path for navigating the emotional terrain of our environmental crisis involves the use of psychedelics. In this article, we explore the relationship between climate grief and psychedelics, contemplating the possibility of these substances to act as allies in fostering resilience and a deeper connection to our planet.

What is Climate Grief?

Climate grief, also sometimes referred to as ecological grief or climate mourning, refers to the sense of loss, bereavement, and heartbreak felt in relation to the ongoing impacts of the climate crisis and ecological destruction.

Historically, the notion of grief typically has been associated with human losses and feelings of bereavement after the death of a loved one. However, grief felt in relation to the natural world is becoming increasingly more common as headlines like “Football pitch-sized area of tropical rainforest lost every six seconds” and “What is a mass extinction, and why do scientists think we’re in the middle of one?” continue to proliferate.

Even so, the concept of eco-grief is not a new one. The eminent American naturalist and philosopher, Aldo Leopold first described the emotional weight of ecological degradation in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, reflecting, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

According to researchers, climate grief is not only connected to the direct loss of nature, it is also associated with the loss of ways of life, culture, and identity as well as the anticipated future losses that our changing world stipulates.

As individuals and communities world-over continue to bear witness to planetary change, they naturally experience negative impacts on their overall health and wellbeing. A global survey conducted in 2022 amongst 10,000 children and young people (aged 16- 25) from 10 countries revealed that almost 60% of them felt deeply worried about the climate crisis, with a further 45% sharing that it negatively impacted their daily functioning and mental health.

However, climate grief doesn’t just impact young people. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association linked the impacts of climate change to a wide array of negative mental health effects in the general population, including trauma and post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and feelings of anxiety and depression.

Additionally, it has long been known that climate change disproportionately impacts communities of color and individuals from underprivileged communities. In particular, research has found that Indigenous communities, whose identities and lifeways are deeply intertwined with the territories in which they live, are experiencing increased feelings of worry, fear, emotional distress and decreases in self-worth related to ongoing environmental change.

It should be emphasized that experience of climate grief and ecological anxiety are not mental health “disorders” and are nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, feelings of anxiety, despair and guilt about our collective future are normal, healthy responses that sing of our love for and entanglement with that which is lost.

As Buddhist teacher and environmental activist Joanna Macy writes in her book World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Planetary Renewal, “To experience anguish and anxiety in the face of the perils that threaten us is a healthy reaction. Far from being crazy, this pain is a testimony to the unity of life, the deep interconnections that relate us to all beings.”

Similarly researcher and environmental advocate Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, explains, “There’s a power and an honor to grief, because it means that we have loved something, and we’ve had a connection to a place or to species of the planet.”

Amidst the ongoing climate crisis, the idea of utilizing psychedelics as tools to navigate ecological grief emerges as a compelling avenue for exploration. It is now broadly accepted that psychedelics have therapeutic potential, and there has been growing traction in the idea that psychedelics could help to change humanity for the better.

Psychedelics as Tools to Navigate Eco-Grief

By enabling new modes of perception and fostering a deeper connection to the natural world, psychedelics could act as allies in the quest for healing and resilience amidst ecological challenges.

One possible way in which psychedelics could help individuals to confront climate grief is through psychedelics’ ability to produce feelings of connection with nature. A 2019 study from researchers at Imperial College London, demonstrated that people who had a single experience with a psychedelic substance (mostly psilocybin) reported increases in feeling a relatedness or connection with nature. Participants’ frequency of lifetime psychedelic use was positively correlated with the levels of connection to nature that they reported.

Such experiences of deepened connection with the natural world may serve as a reminder of life’s preciousness and impermanence, urging us into a more reciprocal relationship with the world in which we take action to actively tend to and care for the Earth.

Another way in which psychedelics could help navigate the emotional and psychological challenges associated with climate change is through allowing individuals to approach such difficulty with a sense of reduced fear and heightened compassion.

Previous research with 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, otherwise known MDMA, has shown that it produces states of heightened empathy both on the cognitive and emotional levels. Cognitive empathy relates to our capacity to understand another person’s or being’s emotions and thoughts, whereas emotional empathy is connected with our ability to “put ourselves in another person’s shoes” so to speak, and tap into their emotional state on the level of feeling.

Additionally, MDMA temporarily suppresses the function of the amygdala, the brain region responsible for producing feelings of fear, stress and anxiety, reducing levels of fear when confronting traumatic or emotionally charged experiences.

It has been posited that other psychedelics may have similar fear-reducing effects, potentially being helpful in the case of helping individuals come to terms with their experiences of grief with a deeper sense of presence and compassion, allowing them to be with, rather than avoid these challenging emotions.

Further psychedelics could help individuals navigate eco-grief through their ability to produce mystical experiences, connected with feelings of awe and wonder for the natural world. According to researchers, awe engages five main aspects which include shifts in neurophysiology, diminished focus on the self, increased relationality, greater social integration, and a heightened sense of meaning.

Research shows that experiences of awe perform a “vital social function” in that they allow us to decenter our individual selves and gravitate towards more selfless, altruistic ways of relating that prioritize the health of myriad other beings.

The late British writer, Aldous Huxley, wrote about his experience of awe produced by his ingestion of mescaline, the active ingredient in San Pedro and peyote cacti, sharing that, “To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.”

Such experiences of stepping outside of our ordinary sense of self and coming into contact with something greater—the mystery and beauty of life—can no doubt connect us with the sense of love and reverence that we have for the natural world.

There is a commonly circulated phrase by Jamie Anderson that reads, “Grief is just love with no place to go.” Through allowing us to experience the flipside of our ecological grief, the love and awe we hold for creation, psychedelics may be able to promote a deeper sense of relationality and help us dream new, more reciprocal futures.

Disconnection from Nature, Indigenous Worldviews and Animism

To some extent, our collective disconnection from the natural world can be linked to colonialism and the ways in which it deliberately severed people from the ecologies that sustained them, creating frameworks which look to nature as a “commodity” that can be extracted and exploited.

Indigenous peoples, who largely hold animistic beliefs, tend to have direct, reciprocal relationships with the territories they steward, knowing that the health of their communities is directly dependent on the health of the land.

Although the concept of animism is hard to define, it is generally encompassed by the idea that everything has a spirit. Thus, animism is the ascribing of personhood to more-than-human presences such as animals, plants, rocks, rivers, winds, the weather,  etc.).

In the past, Western anthropologists labeled such beliefs as “primitive”. However, the notion of animism was previously misapprehended by early anthropologists who believed that it involved projecting human-like attributes to nonhuman and inanimate phenomena.

Rather, animism is better understood as the perception of natural phenomena as more-than-human persons, eroding the distinction between nature and culture. Far from “fanciful” or “superstitious", embodying animistic modes perception has immensely practical implications. It is no coincidence that although Indigenous peoples only make up only 5% of the global population, they steward 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity.

As Nemonte Nenquimo, Indigenous activist and member of the Waorani Nation from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador, explained, “There is something central to our Indigenous worldview that often gets misunderstood or only partially understood in the West: the natural environment and within it all the biological diversity, the animals and Indigenous Peoples are not separate, unconnected things; they are one and the same.”

In Indigenous traditions, many psychoactive plants are used with the intention of amplifying one’s ability to interact with the more-than-human world of plants, animals, and spirits. From ayahuasca use by Indigenous tribes in South America to peyote use by Indigenous peoples in North America, communities ingest visionary plants in part to engage a dialogue and make offerings with the other beings that populate the land.

Even ayahuasca use in European neoshamanic contexts, where most individuals seek out ceremonies for purposes of individual healing, self-development and psychospiritual exploration, such experiences and the rituals that accompany them engender feelings of reverence and connection to nature.

Examining the connection between psychedelics and animistic inclinations, past studies have shown that psychedelics are able to produce shifts in metaphysical beliefs, creating shifts away from materialist worldviews (the belief that everything in the world can be explained by physical matter) to panpsychism, that idea that consciousness is in everything.

Similarly, a 2022 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the extent that individuals experienced mystical-type effects increased people’s tendency to attribute sentience to living and non-living entities.

By prompting a shift toward more animistic modes of perception, psychedelics can aid in cultivating reciprocal relationships with the world that sustains us. This enhanced connection fosters a sense of belonging and provides a heightened motivation to actively contribute to the creation and maintenance of positive change. Particularly in the Global North, where historical disconnection from nature has been so prevalent, psychedelics may serve as catalysts for rebuilding a more harmonious connection to the natural world, encouraging a collective journey toward ecological balance and sustainability.

Psychedelics as Tools for Social & Environmental Change

Beyond the subject of using psychedelics to help navigate climate grief, it has been suggested that psychedelics have the power to fuel social change and action in relation to the climate crisis. The notion that psychedelics may act as a catalyst for social transformation and not simply personal transformation is not new, previously popularized by early thinkers such as Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Aldous Huxley.

A 2017 study by researchers at Yale University, surveyed nearly 1500 people about the connection between psychedelic experiences, feelings of nature-relatedness and pro-environmental behaviors, such as water saving or recycling. The research controlled for factors like other substances, personality traits, and demographic factors, finding that psychedelic use was the only factor predictive of nature-relatedness.

Researchers believe that psychedelics were able to enhance feelings of connection with nature through their ability to produce states of “ego-dissolution”. Ego-dissolution, also referred to as “ego-death”, is when individuals are able to temporarily transcend their ordinary sense of self and identity, feeling the dissolution of boundaries between self and others. This blurring of distinction between self and other makes empathizing with nature and being aware of the impact of our actions much easier.

Beyond ego-dissolution, the mystical-type states associated with psychedelics are known to produce experiences of universal interconnectedness, leaving individuals with an embodied, felt-sense of unity with all of existence. Such feelings of deep connection to nature are one of the major predictors of pro-environmental behavior.

Experiences involving ego-dissolution and an enhanced connection to nature can help to steer us away from anthropocentric ways of seeing the world toward paradigms that speak of our entanglement with the broader tapestry of life.

Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, a global movement that uses non-violent direct action to put pressure on governments to respond justly to the climate and ecological emergency, has previously shared that her personal experiences with psychedelics are what shaped the genesis of the movement. In particular, psychedelics have helped Bradbook to be more willing to open herself to feelings of grief.

“Supported by my experience on psychedelics, what’s made a difference for me with Extinction Rebellion is the ability and willingness to face the grief and the trauma of these times,” she shares. “Grief is an essential part of this process because there’s something about grieving that opens the space for love, which opens the space for courage - and courage will be essential in this struggle against climate change.”

Even though it has been suggested that states of ego-dissolution and transcendence link to pro-environmental behavior, some have cautioned that not all individuals are driven to experiences of heightened connection with human and greater-than-human others. Journalist and writer, Jules Evans, explains, “one of the risks of ecstatic experience is ego inflation – thinking you’re uniquely blessed, divinely chosen, elect, highly evolved, or even the Messiah.”

In facing our sadness and despair about the current social and ecological crises, Joanna Macy shares that “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” No doubt that psychedelic substances and plant medicine have the ability to help us cultivate a deeper sense of presence as well as deeper connections with others, whether they be human or more-than-human beings.

However, it's important to emphasize that even though psychedelics show promising effects in improving our overall relationship to nature, whether it be through experiences of awe, deepening animistic inclinations, or simply making us more able to be present with the reality of our emotional experiences, it is important not to paint them as a “magic bullet” or “one-size fits all” solution to the problems of our time, but rather as one of many useful allies to be called upon in navigating the difficulties of our time.

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