The Alcoholics Anonymous Approach Meets Climate Change
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Laura Schmidt has created a framework and a language to process existential grief as climate change accelerates.
By Carly Stern
Ten people gather on lawn chairs as the summer sun slips lower. Laura Schmidt kicks off the meeting by asking that everyone share something they felt grateful for that day. Then, for the next 90 minutes, the group examines this week’s step — being with uncertainty, perhaps, or breaking down perception and brain patterns.
Grounded in the healing power of ritual, Schmidt’s peer-to-peer support group, Good Grief, mirrors the format of Alcoholics Anonymous. But those present haven’t shown up because of their struggle with addiction. They’re discussing their struggle with climate change.
Schmidt, whose parents battled addiction, spent years in the support group Adult Children of Alcoholics. Similar to AA’s 12-step program, the Good Grief Network is based on 10 steps designed to help people navigate feelings of powerlessness in the face of climate change and other systemic social ills like racial conflict and gun violence.
Wildfires are ravaging California. Heatwaves sweep through the U.S. and Europe. Extreme storms erupt with increasing frequency. As the climate crisis deepens, psychological coping mechanisms for the loss of once-familiar weather patterns are emerging — accompanied by terms like “eco-anxiety” and “solastalgia.” And for people who’ve made climate change their career, from biologists to grassroots organizers, Schmidt knows firsthand that it’s easy to feel defeated. Just as aid workers or psychotherapists are encouraged to seek therapy to prevent personal roadblocks from impeding their practice, Good Grief invites participants to metabolize “collective grief” to build resilience.
Since founding the network in 2016, Schmidt, 33, and her partner, Aimee Lewis Reau, have facilitated sessions both face-to-face and digitally while training others to implement the program in their communities. Up to 250 people have participated to date, and the program will soon be available across three continents, with fall sessions offered from Australia to the U.K. to Berkeley, California. Meetings range from five to 20 people who are asked to pay $100 for the 10-week program — or as much as they can afford, including favors or services.
Most people who find their way to Good Grief, says Schmidt, have seen the writing on the wall yet feel ill-equipped to effect change. “We know we’re going to see suffering, probably on a scale that many of us have not seen,” says Schmidt. Their program pushes participants to find meaning in their daily lives despite external circumstances and to “help people build that inner fortitude to not break down.”
Schmidt grew up in the small farming community of Shepherd, Michigan. Her father, whom she describes as an abusive alcoholic, lost custody of his three daughters after a drunk driving incident. Life with her mother, who also struggled with addiction, was unstable, so Schmidt moved in with her older sister to finish high school. During that time, her closest friend died from cancer and another was killed in a car accident, leaving the teenager no choice but to sit with her grief. “There was so much trauma that I never envisioned a future,” Schmidt says. Instead, she focused on her most pressing concerns, asking, “What’s the next best step to make so that I don’t perpetuate the system from which I came?”
A desire for order and consistency led her to the hard sciences at Central Michigan University, where she earned a degree in biology in 2009. The next year, she moved to Louisiana to work with an AmeriCorps-affiliated nonprofit; there, she saw fishermen and oil workers struggling to bounce back after the BP oil spill. “That took it out of the textbooks,” she says.
We don’t have any equivalent for processing grief over a concept as future-oriented and unspecific as climate change.
Wrestling with the connection between climate and human action, she shifted to the environmental humanities, which incorporate psychology and sociology, for her master’s program at the University of Utah. Later, after she worked on air quality reform in Salt Lake City, politics left her demoralized. Her voice rises, thick with frustration, as she describes the slow pace of change compared to the urgency of the problem. She redirected her energy toward Good Grief, a concept she’d begun to explore in her master’s thesis.
Through talking in activist circles, public radio and social media outreach, the program attracted others searching for ways to translate paralysis into agency. Dick Meyer, who owns a landscaping business in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, felt burdened by existential angst after working for a park conservancy in New Mexico. “We have a recognition in our society that grief is a legitimate response to the death of a friend or the death of a family member,” he says. Yet we don’t have any equivalent for processing grief over a concept as future-oriented and unspecific as climate change, he notes.
Good Grief offered that language. After participating in 2016, Meyer invited Schmidt and Reau to live rent-free in his home in Scottsbluff so they could focus on building it out. The program is still not financially secure, and the couple works other part-time jobs to get by, but profit isn’t their aim. The goal is to be “a network in the truest sense,” Schmidt says, by putting out useful material that can be tailored to any community. They’ve submitted a book proposal and are in talks with a publisher.
As with any support group, there’s a risk of triggering subconscious feelings if someone taps into personal grief that goes beyond the group context. Peer-to-peer groups must be carefully managed and are not a replacement for therapy, says Renee Lertzman, an environmental psychologist and strategist. Establishing clear protocols is essential to preserving boundaries, Lertzman notes. Schmidt, who is not a certified therapist and has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, agrees, insisting that Good Grief participants sign a form saying they’re of sound mind or seeking professional help, and that the program is not a forum for addressing personal trauma.
Kinde Nebeker, a wilderness rites-of-passage guide who mentored Schmidt, says giving people an outlet to work through anxiety can spark action. “If everyone, or at least a critical mass of people, were to turn toward the realities of what climate change could mean for us, and properly grieve our situation, things would radically change,” Nebeker says.
For Schmidt’s part, she’s long known how to sit with heavy feelings; her challenge is learning where to find peace — and how to protect it. A favorite respite is sitting with Reau at Lake Minatare, Nebraska, watching their dogs swim freely. Overlooking a reservoir that brims in early summer, receding as the months stretch into fall, they wonder what will happen when the lake overflows, or there isn’t enough water to fill it.
Schmidt has come to accept that the answers she seeks may be out of reach, but her quest will never evaporate.
OZY’S 5 Questions With Laura Schmidt
- What’s the last book you read? Climate: A New Story, by Charles Eisenstein.
- What do you worry about? I worry that as the systemic crises continue to unfold, we will respond with fear instead of love. And I fear people’s reactions when we’re coming from a place of fear.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Authentic connection and exposure to animals — hanging out with dogs or cats.
- Who’s your hero? Joanna Macy, Terry Tempest Williams and my older sister, Jacci Storey.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To write a book.