Blog For the love of the planet From the climate crisis to mass extinction to acidifying oceans, we’re living through an environmental emergency. What is this doing to our mental health? By David Powell 15 December 2020 This is an article from the second issue of the New Economics Zine. You can read the full issue here You never look at The Scream by Edvard Munch the same way once you realise it’s not a painting of someone emitting a scream but of someone hearing one. And not just any old wail, but what Munch described as the “enormous infinite scream of nature”. Munch may not have meant his aghast
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For the love of the planet
From the climate crisis to mass extinction to acidifying oceans, we’re living through an environmental emergency. What is this doing to our mental health?
15 December 2020
This is an article from the second issue of the New Economics Zine. You can read the full issue here
You never look at The Scream by Edvard Munch the same way once you realise it’s not a painting of someone emitting a scream but of someone hearing one. And not just any old wail, but what Munch described as the “enormous infinite scream of nature”.
Munch may not have meant his aghast figure to be suffering from what we today know as ‘eco-anxiety’ – he probably had in mind more of a general ‘aargh’ of the human condition. But to a 21st century interpretation it’s a nailed-on metaphor for a profound sense of unease and worry about the state of the natural world – shared by very many people, and most definitely by me.
It’s crept up on me. I’ve never been particularly prone to debilitating anxiety-anxiety. But I remember in 2018, when it hadn’t rained in London for 42 days straight and all the parks had turned to dust, first realising that something was amiss in my innards – something different. The Earth is broken, and that’s awful.
It’s bad all right
Given that the planet Earth is perhaps the only place in the universe where we can live it’s right to be a bit anxious about things. And things – health-of-planet-wise – are not tip-top.
It’s hard to write a piece about ecoanxiety without saying things that are going to make people eco-anxious, so let’s get this out of the way and then we can talk about what to do about it. Scientists say there are nine different ‘planetary boundaries’ which keep life on Earth kind of ticking along as it is as long as we don’t mess them about too much. But we’re messing them about big time. You’ll know all about the glitzy ones – climate change, species loss – but there’s also the acidity of our oceans and our soil health and many other bad things. If you really want to bum yourself out, have a google search.
And it’s not just the scale. It’s the urgency. Everyone is screaming about how quickly we need to do everything: that this is the only window for action that means anything, and that we have to get to zero carbon emissions within a generation. Former head of the UN panel on climate change, Christiane Figueres, talked recently about her mental image of humanity tiptoeing along a narrow mountain ridge, with apocalypse and war on one side, and a sustainable future on the other. No pressure.
This kind of starkness in our depictions of crisis is a natural response to the alarming science. We are, after all, not trying to make people feel warm and cuddly inside, but to get off their bottoms and DO SOMETHING. If you want to make people feel unsettled and uncomfortable, telling them it’s an emergency is a good way of going about it. But it doesn’t help the blood pressure.
And to be totally clear here: it is an emergency. What we are doing to the Earth isn’t like anything else we’ve ever done. We – and everything else – are alive thanks to the benevolence of the Earth’s richly complicated chemical soup, and we’re souring it. Chuck on top that we face this monumental embuggerance while petty, dangerous nationalist populism is on the rise around the world – where countries and culture appear to be turning in on themselves at exactly the time that we probably need to zoom out a bit – and yeah, it’s a miracle that we are not all thunderstruck by the Fear.
And of course we are not, in the main. We get on with things. On we pootle, only occasionally shushing this nagging sense that the arse might be about to fall out of everything. But for me at least, that shushing is getting harder.
Size is everything
It’s all so… big. It’s this ‘bigness’ that’s the problem, freak-out-wise. We who are very small, one of billions, asked to understand and act to prevent the collapse of everything.
I suspect part of the problem here is that we are not really evolved for this stuff. Evolutionarily speaking, it was only yesterday when the main business of the day was running away from angry hairy things that want to eat us. But ecological collapse or climate breakdown on a planetary scale is pretty different to running away from an angry hound. The teeth of eco-collapse are terribly sharp, but it’s not something that feels like it’s going to stop us going about the business of the day. Our chimp brains tell us still to worry, but there is no immediate monster at the door.
“If you want to make people feel unsettled and uncomfortable, telling them it’s an emergency is a good way of going about it. But it doesn’t help the blood pressure.”
Most of the time. It’s no surprise that environmental disasters are themselves bad for the mental health of those they increasingly strike. Solidarity and empathy, so essential for a global response on the scale required, brings home the injustice in which those who have done the least to cause climate breakdown are those on the front line of its impacts. Imagine being, for example, the elder from an indigenous community of North America, interviewed for the Guardian, who says: “We are people of the sea ice. And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?”
And spare a thought for young people in particular, for whom this is, after all, their future that’s literally on fire. Schools in New Zealand have been doing a lot to teach kids about climate change and, all too aware that its implications may be a lot to take in, have had a specific focus on helping them cope. But the new thing is what the American Psychological Association recently called “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. I’m not sure the word DOOM is a particularly helpful one for the eco-anxious to read. But yes, it is a very specific kind of horror – a dystopia made real and present.
I’ve time for philosopher Timothy Morton’s view that the best scary films are the ones that make you think that everyday life has something evil hiding in the shadows. Because climate change and ecological collapse are not, despite the attempt of some economists to make us think so, ‘external’ to us: they are us. We have nowhere else to live; we are comprised of nothing else than the soil and the air and the dust of stars. If it all goes wrong, that’s like finding out you really have got an alligator hiding at the end of your bed. There is something truly terrifying hiding in the dark corners of our safest places, and that’s the scariest thing of all.
Perhaps it’s not, at root, the vastness of eco-collapse that we really dread, but something altogether more human and close to home. Perhaps it’s mostly about love: the love we have for home, and for each other, and nature, and life itself. And its loss.
Anxiety is OK
Given all of that, both anxiety and denial are entirely understandable psychological responses. Perhaps they’re different sides of the same coin, as Joanne Macey has suggested; different ways of dealing with a horrible truth. In many ways I agree with those who deny the science of climate change: I too wish it wasn’t happening, but the most extensive peer-reviewed scientific endeavour in history has overwhelmingly concluded that it is.
It would after all be far, far worse if we weren’t being anxious about it all. I’d go so far as to suggest that if you aren’t feeling a little bit anxious about the state of the planet, you probably aren’t paying attention. Alas, the human brain doesn’t just stop worrying about things just because we instantly tell it to and trying to squish down our anxiety is not a particularly tasty recipe for sound mental health. We need to work what to do with that anxiety; the question is not: am I right to feel anxious (probably, yes); but instead: OK, and what can I do about it?
And so, what can you do?
1) Look after yourself
Just because a situation is urgent that does not mean that we have to run around shrieking with our hands in the air. That kind of thing can get one pretty tired. Go easy on yourself. Too many people that try to change the world for the better take all of its weight onto their shoulders, and a sense of the awfulness of everything isn’t likely to exacerbate that. You’re no use to a movement if you’re dyspeptic with fear. Try to get some sleep, and eat properly, and do things to take your brain out of it all for a while. Meditate, if that’s your bag (I recommend it, and I’m no hippy). This is not some kind of appeal to a hyper-individualised response to anxiety, particularly one triggered by a vast systemic failing of how we run our economy, and exacerbated by our atomised, neoliberal and lonely society. These are collective problems and they require collective action. But giving ourselves a break is a pretty important first thing to do.
2) Face it
It’s hard to outfox something terrible if we don’t admit that terrible thing is real. Life is not a Disney tale and there are precious few happily ever afters. And that’s OK: as neurobiologist Sam Harris suggests, happiness is more likely to lie in a “clearer understanding of the way things are” than “pious illusions”.
Yes, this is how things are. Those ice sheets crumbling off Antarctica, those glaciers withering to vapour, those dead koalas – this is how it is. We can, if we want, try to live the rest of our lives pretending that it’s not happening, or we can face it. As Caroline Hickman from the Climate Psychology Alliance says, “…with the majority of anxiety, once you engage with the thing that’s scaring you or you get beyond it, the anxiety goes away”.
So, engage with it. Talk about it: openly, honestly, constructively, with those that may feel the same, or even those that don’t. Our society is after all truly terrible at talking honestly about the things we are anxious about, in general: death, aging, loneliness, decay. (It is, however, very good at buying products that promise to take those anxieties away).
3) Think non-linearly
Perhaps the scariest thing about climate change is that its impacts are not necessarily linear. Every fraction of a degree by which average temperatures increases the risk of genuinely catastrophic things happening. There is, for example, a vast amount of methane – a considerably more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – locked away under Siberian permafrost, but the more warming we get, the less perma and frosty it will be.
But human change is not linear either. 2019 was an extraordinary year of climate mobilisation, during which Greta Thunberg went from being an unknown teenager to a global megastar and Time magazine’s person of the year. In what seems like the blink of an eye, a thing we couldn’t really talk much about in public is now something that we can most definitely talk about. Greta’s rise is a phenomenon best understood as a symbol that allowed the release of a collective anxiety that had been building for years.
4) Do something
Just…do something. Small or big. Accept there is no right thing to do and no perfect plan. Try not just to scream about how something needs to change, but in a tiny way, change it. Plant something. Fix something. Help a new project grow.
Act because others might notice and it might change something, no matter what. As Rebecca Solnit suggests in Hope in the Dark, light your candle even if it doesn’t appear to much illuminate the murk, because you never know who else might be lost and might see it.
Act because there is an intense and rewarding fellowship in standing together with others.
Act because acting is about taking control of something that might otherwise be destabilising and chaotic.
Act to translate the ineffable awfulness of the very big into the seeds of hope, and the precious nurturing of something better.
Act out of solidarity and empathy, and to jointly share the emotional burden of these times. Doing something out of love for life itself is a very beautiful thing, and the love of others is perhaps the single greatest defence against anxiety of which I can think.
And act because – well, what else are you going to do?
A profoundly human response
At the root of the right sort of response to eco-anxiety can come a curious but quite profound new optimism. Responding to ecological mayhem can actually remind us of something we all-too-often lose: that we’re all in this together, and humans are capable of not just awful but also wonderful things.
As US radio host Chris Hayes says, “the solution to the climate crisis is just the most profoundly human one – how we relate to each other as human beings… and what human beings mean to each other and how they treat each other and what they will do for each other. And I still feel there is something beautiful about being alive at this moment for that reason.” Amen to that.
Dave Powell is the co-host of Sustainababble, a weekly comedy podcast about climate change and the environment. It’s available in all the usual podcast places or at www.sustainababble.fish
Image: Eva Bee