In 2018 when the IPCC announced we only had ‘12 years to limit climate change catastrophe’, I remember having an anxiety induced knee-jerk reaction which I immediately regretted. I sent a message to the WhatsApp junior infant parent group of my son’s school, more or less pleading with everyone to do something to save our children’s futures. The radio silence afterwards made me feel slightly unhinged. I was definitely experiencing climate anxiety back then. It had crept up on me as I was completely immersed in climate and sustainability issues in my work and my spare time. I’ve probably experienced eco-anxiety or at least eco-concern on some, usually manageable level, ever since 1986 or so, when I learnt about global warming in Geography class and joined the school Green Group. There began several decades of work trying to raise understanding and awareness of social and environmental issues and promote wellbeing in individuals and communities and through this work, I’ve seen how eco-anxiety is becoming more of an issue for many.
Climate change is not just about future disasters. The idea of an apocalyptic future is having a profound effect on people’s psyches in the here and now. Even in places untouched by floods, fires and food crisis, an insidious anxiety is occupying the minds of many, robbing young and old of our dreamed of futures. Pre traumatic stress is becoming more common. Barely through the Covid pandemic we now face into an epidemic of climate related mental health issues. Conventional wisdom tells us that the solution to eco-anxiety is to get involved, get active, do something practical. I do agree with this to a certain extent, but it is not the whole solution. Our society has an unquestioned bias towards action versus contemplation and to move from climate anxiety to climate resilience takes outer and inner work. As Britt Wray a prominent voice on the psychological and mental health impacts of the ecological crisis said in a recent online talk on climate resilience, the solution is not only external, it is about changing on the inside too.
When it comes to climate change, the warnings and predictions have been getting louder and more dire for decades. For many of us interested in these issues, there has always been a level of incredulity that people could go on as normal, knowing what we know. Nowadays however, fewer people are managing to completely ignore this crisis and we now know that mental distress due to ecological and climate breakdown is widespread. While it is true that on hearing the same alarming news about climate change some people think about their next trip to Spain and others doom scroll till 2am, this may be more indicative of how we vary in our responses to a perceived threat and which coping mechanisms we chose, rather than a sign that only those who engage directly with the issue are affected. Activist and scholar Joanna Macy argues that even those who seem on the surface to be apathetic to the situation are also feeling fear and grief, so much so that they cannot accept and respond to the crisis and keep it at bay through any means possible.
The increase in climate anxiety in recent years has been noted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) which recognises climate change as a growing threat to mental health. International research on the topic of climate anxiety is revealing the extent of the problem, especially for young people and vulnerable communities in the Global South and media is giving more space to this issue. There is also more acceptance that human reactions to this reality, such as experiencing worry, fear, despair and anger are healthy and normal. While mentioning one’s eco-anxiety is still not a welcome topic of conversation in many settings, people are less likely to be pathologized or patronised if they do so. However, even though these responses are healthy and normal, for some these emotions become overwhelming and interfere with everyday life and more support for this group is needed. We already have an enormous lack of accessible and affordable mental health care in Ireland so as well as more funding for climate specific mental health care, we need community level informal responses to this emerging crisis, some of which are listed at the end of this article.
Eco or climate anxiety can manifest in so many ways, from being a backdrop to everyday life and activities to something that changes the very way we live. What are some common ways that it shows up in our lives? I’ve witnessed, lived through, or heard about these ways, but I’m sure there are many more.
- Despair over whether it is ok to have kids
- Feeling guilty about flying
- Deciding where to live based on surviving societal breakdown
- Getting upset when seeing others eat meat or use disposable items
- Gnawing feeling that things are not ok
- Feeling of loss over a planned for or dreamed of future
- Feeling let down by older generations
- Getting triggered by other people’s apparent apathy or lack of action
- Developing a hatred for the human species
- Not being able to watch the news or read climate related articles
The list goes on. We can also see the suffering caused by climate issues in those who are forced to change, whether they see climate change as a threat or not. Recently Leo Varadkar said that telling those who cut and sell turf that they could no longer do so was “like telling the French they can’t drink wine or the Italians they can’t eat pasta.” This loss of cultural identity is a source of real suffering, and is also happening at a more acute level to the Inuit in places like Greenland and Northern Canada where the ice which has shaped their lives for generations is melting. As Greg Mercer wrote in 2018 for the Guardian, ‘scientists say the impact of climate change on the Inuit psyche is significant, and only just beginning to be understood. Social workers worry it is leading to increased rates of drugs and alcohol abuse, in a place where the suicide rate far outstrips the national’.
Through my work delivering workshops on sustainability issues I’ve been able to have many rich conversations with other people about how they feel about the crisis. For three or four years before the pandemic I trained up community leaders to advocate for zero waste. Through the lens of zero waste, I was aiming to help leaders to really understand how the western model of consumption based economic growth would eventually render the planet uninhabitable and question whether it was creating happy thriving individuals in the process. In one exercise we shared photos of the youngest people in our lives and discussed our hopes for them as them in the future, as they reached their life expectancy, in around 2100. We wondered whether they would have enough water and food, what species would still be around, what kind of air they would breathe and what their lives would be like. It was fairly heavy going, but I think people felt the better for it afterwards. Many of us carry these worries and fears on our own and talking about it and meeting people who think similarly is actually a great relief.
So how we can deal with eco or climate-anxiety and manage to become more empowered and resilient in these challenging times? It isn’t a question of turning our anxiety into resilience, for me, both can live side by side. In our lifetimes we are not going to resolve this crisis, so we need to live as best we can in the crisis, doing what we feel we can in response to it, and not letting our fears and grief dominate and disrupt too much of the present moment. The first step is to recognise and allow the painful feelings to be there. And it is important to start talking about them to people, especially those who you feel can listen and be trusted to respond with care. There are now various spaces, mostly online, where you can chat with others in a structured space. See the end of this article for links.
Next, I think we all need to become better at taking care of ourselves. By that I don’t mean longer baths and weekends away, thought these might be nice too. It is more about making sure our lives provide space and time for the things that matter to us and make us feel well. It is about learning to deal with stuff, talk about stuff, not overwork ourselves and not be too self-destructive in our coping mechanisms. Allowing ourselves some distraction and some engagement. Taking breaks from climate stuff as needed. I’ve learnt to take long breaks of weeks or months where I simply don’t read anything climate or ecological related because I just can’t. I know I’ll go back to it, but I just need a rest. I suppose it is about dealing with stress and doing the basics such as sleeping, eating well, moving and chilling out. The same things that apply to dealing with any kind of anxiety will also help when it comes to climate and ecological related anxiety. Practices such as yoga or other mindful movement, breathing techniques, mindfulness, creative expression, grounding, nature connection etc, are also invaluable.
It is very common to read that acting on behalf of the environment will help to relieve eco-anxiety. It might seem counter intuitive, but when people become more involved in and learn about climate issues, they often have less of a hold over them. Action and knowledge are indeed empowering. Getting involved and doing something positive is no doubt a great move, and is much needed, but there are some pitfalls. Sometimes a person will decide to become more environmentally friendly, and will start to read up on recycling, plastic, toxicity in various products, how ethnical or not a product is and so on. They start to shop differently, trying to substitute the bad products for the not so bad products. In the process they spend hours driving to specialist shops and reading conflicting information online about whether wooden pegs which can rot and need to be replaced are better than plastic ones which though they are plastic, they might last longer over a lifetime, if they don’t break, which is an issue, as they are unrecyclable and so on and so forth. Often motivated by guilt and worry, people can get bogged down in the minutiae of domestic decision making and get so stressed and disheartened and they end up booking a family holiday in Turkey for the summer and undo all the good they did on their wooden peg purchase. Others fixate on the perfect solution, which if only everyone could see it, would save the planet. This could be veganism or not flying or not having kids or whatever, but people can become so entrenched in that idea that there is one superior solution that others should adopt, that they become hostile to anyone who doesn’t see eye to eye. Even if the science on this solution is really convincing, I believe that as we edge our way forward into a more precarious and more divided world, tolerance and open heartedness are as important than the science on solutions. After all, who wants to live on a not so warm planet where everyone hates each other? We know there is less PTSD after a natural disaster when communities come together to help each other, so cultivating connected communities is a huge part of climate resilience. Others get into campaigning and organising and if they really throw themselves into it, enter an intense arena, where deadlines are constant, rest is a luxury, urgency is the name of the game and keeping going is paramount. This suits some but for others it can lead to exhaustion. Emotional intelligence and regulation is key when responding to the climate crisis.
Choosing which kind of action to take is important and doesn’t have to be overly complicated. The great thing about an all-encompassing disaster like the ecological crisis is that we can deal with it on so many levels. We probably think of lifestyle or personal consumer changes and political activism/campaigning as two of the main forms of eco-action. Within these areas there are many options, but for some neither of these types of responses make them feel like they are being effective. Maybe you’d love to chain yourself to fence but you can’t get arrested as you have too many dependents. Or maybe you can’t afford the time or money needed to live zero waste. The truth is, though, since the climate and biodiversity crisis is a consequence of many broken systems in the world, from our education to food production to healthcare systems, there are many forms of action which can indirectly contribute to creating a more climate resilient world and lessening the suffering associated with climate change and ecological destruction. On an individual level you might find there are easier wins to be made when you look more closely at your own situation. You might press pause on your fight against plastic and ditch the car instead, because you love walking and you have a bus pass. Or you reignite your passion for cooking, saving loads on take-aways and eating more sustainably in the process. Or maybe you stop mowing the lawn and help support biodiversity and enjoy your extra time to do a bit of sewing. Beyond individual and political action is community-based action. Examples include getting involved in (or initiating) things like carpooling, forest schools, litter picking, beach cleans, repair cafes, food co-ops, libraries of things etc. This form is often less lonely and meets more of the human needs which our consumer society neglects, such as connection, meaning and belonging. To be sustainable, our form of taking action must align with our needs, our strengths and our talents. This is sometimes not apparent. We need to pause and contemplate.
- What is it that I can bring to the world?
- What are my gifts?
- What gap is there in my life that I could fill through positive action?
- What do I have to give in terms of time, energy, and resources?
We can also look at activism and change-making we are already involved in or would like to enter, such as community building, anti-poverty work, work with migrants and refugees, gender work and recognise that this is actually also climate related, though indirectly. Creating alternative structures based on human needs, such as different pathways for education and health care, is climate action. Working to make our society fairer and kinder will help to strengthen resilience and connection, both of which are needed when we suffer climate related shocks (e.g. drought, food shortages, extreme weather events) and help empower groups which may otherwise disproportionality bare the brunt of these challenges.
So, what if you delve into whatever form of action you feel is appropriate and possible for you but you get no real relief. You might have been campaigning for change for decades with no real perceived success. You might have spent a fortune on ethical products only to realise that you’ve been had by greenwashing. (This won't happen at Ode to Earth of course!) It is almost inevitable that if you think of what you invest in change as having a measurable outcome in the short term, that you will be disappointed. In many spheres of life you can set goals and objectives, work hard and reap the rewards. Not so much in the work of changing the world. Change happens incrementally and not in a linear fashion. Think of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Each person’s efforts intermingle with everyone else’s, like a huge cauldron of soup with a bit of everything thrown in. We need to do what we love doing, because we love this Earth and all the lifeforms on it, and let go of the outcome. We simply don’t know how our efforts will join with those of others to make change in 1, 10, 50 or hundreds of years’ time. And although we have little time to limit warming, every degree of warming, and every species saved, and every positive connection made counts. So although it is often impossible to see the fruits of our labours in the outside world, it is about enjoying the process, finding meaning in it, in the here and now and remembering we don’t yet know how things will play out in the future. Furthermore, when successes do happen, they won’t be on the 6 o’clock news. Seek out the positive news, read about change-makers who inspire you, talk about the subtle yet powerful ways that regeneration is happening on the planet. While we can take on board what climate science tells us and we can recognise there will be death and suffering, we should never rule out future joy and happiness for ourselves and others, now and in the future.
Ultimately, though, developing resilience in the face of an existential threat is not just about doing stuff out there in the world. It is an inner journey too. In the same way that Covid made people more aware of the value of time with loved ones, meaningful work, space and time, nature etc. the climate crisis has the potential to really shake us up. It forces us to deal with our mortality, our spirituality and find meaning in the world. When the future is uncertain, we need to live in the present. When society as we know it may change radically, we need to decide what parts of it are worth conserving. When we feel we might not be able to do the things we planned to do or have the lives we were told we would have, we need to simplify, to find joy in the present and in what we know we do have. As the Buddhists teach us, we are dying every moment of our lives. In Western culture we tend to live to acquire stuff, to find pleasure and excitement, to satiate longings, to create buffers against suffering, to distract and entertain but the climate crisis has brought us collectively to a point where we need to change so much about how we live that we might as well also ask ourselves how we might live better while we are at it.
Have you experienced eco-anxiety? Have you found ways through it? What has helped you develop climate/eco resilience? I would love to hear from you about this issue.
If you’re interested in exploring this issue more, I offer an online course ‘From Eco-Anxiety to Eco-Resilience’, find out more about it here.
Here are some useful links to resources on this theme:
Thank you to Rachel Dempsey for this blog post and for the wonderful work she does. I first met Rachel in early 2019 when she facilitated a Zero Waste Training Programme I attended, a critical part of creating Ode to Earth. For more info on Rachel's work and upcoming events, check out her website and Instagram.