March 11, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Taryn Klanot | Photos by Rikki Held

The morning of Feb. 24, we all woke up to the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine. That same morning, my classmates and I attended our environmental justice class, where our professor, Ph.D. Juan Miguel Arias, incorporated the Russo-Ukrainian war into our discussions about environmental injustices.

Much of this conversation drifted away from the environmental standpoint, allowing us to explore questions we had about the war, as well as process any emotions that might have resulted from reading the newest headlines. Arias told us that he believes it is important to raise consciousness about current events when he teaches while also recognizing that conversations about these heavy topics can be overwhelming.

The class discussion that day seemed to spark a new conversation amongst my classmates. We found ourselves asking how we have been able to navigate so many difficult discussions about climate change during a time in which the world seems to be in constant crisis.

This year alone, we have had to cope with negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes, racial injustices and police brutality, natural disasters, political instability, and more.

When so many different pressing and devastating issues are in the headlines, it feels overwhelming to take a class that explores environmental issues: especially when the issues discussed in class tend to take a backseat to other crises in the media.

Following this class, I spent the rest of the week speaking to multiple environmental science and environmental studies students to build a better understanding of how environmental grief is addressed in classrooms at Colorado College, as well as how one might cope with environmental grief during times of international crisis.

Almost all of the students I spoke with shared that their classes can sometimes have a negative impact on their mental health.

Baxter Waltermire ’24 noted that a lot of his class discussions tend to be pessimistic, which puts him in a negative headspace. Soumya Keefe ’23 also mentioned a trend of pessimism in her classes, describing how she often feels frustrated when discussing environmental issues.

“People in power aren’t taking the possible steps to make change,” Keefe said.

She also noted that her upper-level classes have been more optimistic and solution-based, which she finds uplifting.

Amy Cotter ’23 told me about the U.S. Environmental Law and Policy course she took, where students learned how laws can be created and changed even when there is a lack of public belief in the science behind them. She explained that this class left her more hopeful than other classes she has taken.

I am having a similar experience in my Environmental Justice class. On the first day, Arias asked us to reflect on any anxieties we had about the class. Multiple students brought up the fear of falling into a gloomy mindset. Together we engaged in a conversation about how we can remain optimistic throughout the course, which is something I had never experienced in a CC classroom. It was an important conversation that I wish occurred more often in my classes.

I personally benefited from Arias’ advice on how to combat pessimism, which was to find importance in the fight against environmental issues.

“Optimism and pessimism, I’m realizing, can’t come from a certainty of outcome,” Arias said.

Students expanded upon the ways in which feelings of pessimism and hopelessness have been combated in their other environmental classes.

“During many of our final projects, we make policy proposals to mitigate the effects of environmental injustices or slow climate change, which allows the class to end on a more hopeful note,” said Cotter.

Both Cotter and Keefe noted that the topic of environmental grief is not always directly addressed in their classes.

“There seems to be a consensus that dwelling on feelings of environmental grief for too long can be unproductive,” said Keefe with regard to the environmental studies program.

As we came to the end of our conversations, I asked these environmental science and environmental studies students how they cope with feelings of environmental grief. They all shared advice that can be beneficial for any student battling environmental grief.

“I cope with environmental grief by keeping up with the news as much as possible; it sometimes makes the grief worse, but it’s really what motivates my studies and my desire to enter the field of environmental science,” said Cotter. “I also do my best to connect with other environmental majors and organizations and talk about this stuff, because it’s helpful to have a community of like-minded people.”

“Most of my classes are environmentally focused, so I spend a lot of time thinking about climate change,” said Keefe. “So, to some extent I have to create time for myself outside of class to not think about these issues.”

Waltermire takes a different approach. “I try my best to live in the present moment,” he said.

Leave a Reply