By Sam Bower
For a scientist who spent years investigating the environment, accelerated climate change has led to deep mental anguish and frustration.
“Destroying the planet is the saddest thing in the world,” said Elizabeth Bower, who graduated from Smith College with a degree in environmental science in the 1980s. After college, she worked as a field biologist studying the effects of over-spraying pesticides on local waterfowl in the midwest.
She’s my mother. I recently conducted an interview with her as part of an exploration of how climate change is affecting human lives.
In 2005, philosopher Glenn Albrecht put his finger down on the mental side of the impact of environmental destruction – a feeling which he called solastalgia. This feeling, to him, was emotional distress caused by the direct observance of a change in the environment: an eco-grief.
Growing up, Bower would go to the Great Lakes region with her family and loved to swim. But In the 1970s, the Great Lakes became “too polluted to even go near,” she said. She felt devastated that she could not swim in the lake that she swam in every year, but when the lakes were cleaned up in the 1980s, she felt relieved.
When she was studying the effects of pesticides, she knew that she was watching a human activity wreak havoc on certain species, which was distressing to her. But then the FDA began to regulate pesticides, so that distress began to falter.
The short-lived feelings of grief in Bower’s anecdotes were how she originally responded to the destruction of the environment. When the local area got better, her grief got better. Then, in the ’80s, when science became increasingly focused on climate change, something changed about the way Bower’s solastalgia manifested itself.
“As I stepped back,” she said sadly, “I realize that isolated problems are now problems that impact the entire world.”
Everywhere she looks today there is a reminder of climate change, she said.
Having grown up in Maryland, she has been able to observe climate change on a larger time scale than any of the youth climate activists. In recent years, the extreme weather in her hometown of Catonsville, right outside of Baltimore, has given her the most grief. The neighboring town of Ellicott City has had extreme flooding, likely as a result of the record-breaking 7’ annual rainfall it received that year. The winters are not freezing anymore, the springs are not as clear, and the summers are unbearably hot compared to her childhood. As an avid gardener and outdoorswoman, these changes seriously hurt her.
She believes solastalgia is much harder to overcome than other distress relating to the modern world, such as her political frustration.
“When you are frustrated with someone in office, they are realistically only there for four or eight years, and then they get cycled through; climate change does not work that way.” She said
Solastalgia feels “not as abrupt as something like the world trade center, but more like a constant gnawing sadness.”