Conversation about the climate crisis 

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A pen and pastel depiction of a fenced-off golden field under a sky of blue-grey tones.
How can you be stressed taking in a scene like this? Oh right, when you remember it could disappear in just a few years... Maren Savarese Knopf

EcoStress Sask asked about eco-grief and the impacts of catastrophe 

This year Canada has faced record breaking wildfires across the country. On June 25, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire centre officially declared the 2023 wildfire season the worst in the country’s recorded history. As of September 29, there have been upwards of 6,496 fires recorded which had burned approximately 17.9 million hectares of land.  

According to the government of Canada, that is equivalent of an area larger than Greece. Although Canada is no stranger to fire season, with its 10-year average of 2.7 million hectares consumed by forest fires every year, 2023 was incomparable. Unlike previous fire seasons, 2023 saw widespread fires from the west coast to the east and spreading into the north.  

In Saskatchewan, there have been a total of at least 495 fires, surpassing the five-year average of 385. Moreover, this year was marked by a season of severe drought. On July 31, the Water Security Agency announced a “well-below normal amount of moisture in many areas across Saskatchewan.” 

Experts say feelings of anxiety or stress during the current global climate crisis is normal. However, dealing with eco-anxiety can be overwhelming, troubling to navigate, and, at times, isolating. EcoStress Sask is an organization dealing with a wide range of emotional responses to climate catastrophe and change.  

The organization was started in 2022 when Katherine Arbuthnott, a retired professor Emeritus of Psychology, received a call from Amy Snider and Russell Charlton asking if she would join them in beginning a group to support people experiencing intense anxieties around climate crisis. The idea for the group was spurred by the summer of 2021 which was a particularly bad one for the climate. “That’s when I thought, well, there […] isn’t a support group, or anything like that for this type of problem […] in town that I know of, I couldn’t find any,” said Snider. As a result, the three began to plan what is now EcoStress.  

Both Snider and Arbuthnott explained the intentionality behind the name EcoStress, “We had this big debate – Amy, Russel, and I – on what to call this group. […] We wanted it to be clear we weren’t just going to talk about one emotion,” said Arbuthnott.  As Snider explained, “We chose the word eco-stress to encompass a few different emotional responses to ecological devastation. […] There’s despair, there’s fear, there’s anger, frustration, there can be a sense of abandonment by society and the people in charge,” adds Snider.  

EcoStress organizes member-driven focus groups to “talk about what is on people’s minds, what they are experiencing,” explained Arbuthnott, who acts as the group facilitator. Groups meets virtually for two hours once a week for eight weeks and although Arbuthnott facilitates the meetings, conversations focus on themes or topics that emerge naturally. When the groups first began in 2022, there was so much interest that Arbuthnott ran two groups simultaneously. For Arbuthnott, this may have been due partly to the pandemic: “The pandemic has links to climate change as well. […] and, you know, [during] COVID people couldn’t gather so they were looking for ways to not be so isolated with all of their feelings about that.”  

Both Snider and Arbuthnott touched on larger social environments within Saskatchewan that perhaps make it difficult to talk about eco-stress within the province. “At the end of [the sessions], we asked people if they could share their reasons for being interested in the group and a few broke down in tears, sharing relief and gratitude to have a place where they could talk about their feeling. They said that it seems especially hard here in Saskatchewan,” said Snider.  

“It’s hard to talk about in Saskatchewan because the social norms here are really against us even acknowledging that it’s happening,” added Arbuthnott.  

For Snider, it is important to understand that, “Someone can experience eco-stress without necessarily living in a place that has noticeable effects of climate change taking place currently or happening currently, it’s enough just to be up to date with the news to be terrified. […] And so many people in Regina only see the digital effects of the climate crisis.” However, unknown to many Canadians, native grasslands are among the world’s most endangered ecosystems.  

“And that’s actually a pretty strong characteristic that people think it’s worse everywhere else,” said Arbuthnott. “But it’s when I’m out with my grandkids and I really notice that the wild flowers and plants that we used to have just abundantly, it’s like a big deal if you find one these days.”  

“There is a connection between the loss of native grasslands and climate change,” said Snider. “We’re destroying, we have destroyed the land, especially by our current agricultural practices and our urban sprawl.” Likewise, Arbuthnott has had extensive conversations with agricultural producers as part of her work with Public Pastures Public Interest (PPPI) and said, “They care passionately about the land, but they feel blamed. They’re scared about how they can run their operations in a less carbon-intense way.”   

For Snider, who is not a scientist, drought is the most pressing concern for Saskatchewan. “The water we drink that fills our reservoir at Buffalo Pound comes to us from the South Saskatchewan River. The South Saskatchewan River is fed by the Rocky Mountains, […] there is actually a glacier in the Rocky Mountains called Saskatchewan Glacier.” This glacier is part of the Columbia Icefield in Banff National Park, a popular tourist attraction. “And when that water melts from the glaciers, small amounts of it make it all the way to Regina. I find it quite mortifying that when you turn on your tap a small amount of the water you’re drinking is what glaciologists and climate scientists call glacial wastage.”  

However, increased air temperatures are not only responsible for glacial melting and subsequent drought.“ Wetlands in the south are drying up. And it’s that extra heat that we’ve had makes the water evaporate more quickly. So more of the wetlands are quite literally vanishing into the air,” said Snider.  

“The other thing about Saskatchewan,” said Arbuthnott, “[is that] we are all really attached to our land, our province and part of that may be just because it’s kind of an underappreciated one. But we see how wonderful it is, you’re really attached to it.” For the most part, Arbuthnott explains that the people of Saskatchewan are a “salt-of-the-earth type” and very pragmatic. “We have our flaws definitely, but we [are] just good people mostly. So, it’s particularly painful when these good people, you see, are not paying attention to it [climate crisis].”  

Snider says there are two important things you can do to help. “One is to build community, and the other is to take action. To feel as though you’re contributing something to help the problem get better. I think that taking care of yourself by finding community is taking an action.” For Arbuthnott, conversation is “especially [needed] in tough times.” For folks interested in connecting with EcoStress, they can visit http://ecostresssask.ca to learn more or to connect with Arbuthnott or Snider.  

Co-founder Amy Snider, in addition to her work at EcoStress, teaches English as a second-language and is completing a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Regina. Sniders’ forthcoming exhibition will weave together interactive ceramics made from Regina-dug clay with themes of climate emergency and stress to pose questions about what gallery visitors will leave behind.  

Editor’s note: This digital article was updated on (October 20, 2023) to reflect an information correction request from EcoStress Sask., including abbreviating the province’s name in theirs, updating the web address listed, and changing “climatologist” to “glaciologist.

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