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‘Catastrophe’, ‘apocalypse’, ‘tipping points’, ‘extinction’. Words tailor-made to inspire a sense of dread and despair about our planet’s not-too-distant future.
If thinking about climate change has caused you stress and sleepless nights, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey by the Climate Psychology Alliance, as many as two-thirds of young people in the UK worry about what climate change will mean for their future, with 42% saying that anxiety about the climate crisis has affected their day-to-day life and ability to function.
Eco-anxiety has become an increasingly widely-acknowledged term for the fears, anger and in some cases trauma being experienced by people on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. Last month, it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and is officially defined as ‘unease or apprehension about current and future harm to the environment caused by human activity and climate change’.
The effects of climate change have been evident in many parts of the world for decades, but in recent years have hit home for people living in western countries with increasing regularity, as wildfires, floods and other extreme weather events become all too familiar occurrences everywhere from Canada to Germany.
Confronted with the horror of these events, the continued failure of governments and polluting corporations to take meaningful action to mitigate things – despite increasing pressure from activists and almost universal consensus among the scientific community – is becoming increasingly baffling, and contributing to increasing despair about the state of our world, and the future that awaits our younger generations.
‘It’s a very rational response to what’s actually happening, and the real insanity is people who are ignoring that,’ says Jo McAndrews, a psychologist who works to help parents and children dealing with eco-anxiety.
For Ben Porter, a wildlife photographer and conservationist, anxiety about the state of the world comes in ‘ups and downs’, but it’s a daily reality.
‘It’s always something that’s there, that you’re constantly aware of,’ he tells UNILAD as he prepares for a 10-day bike ride from his home in Wales to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. ‘It’s a hard one to ignore in your day-to-day life sometimes.’
This ‘low-level’ eco-anxiety, as he describes it, is something that’s probably becoming familiar to a lot of us as the stark reality of environmental destruction becomes harder to ignore in our day to day lives. According to Grist, Google searches for ‘climate anxiety’ exploded over the past year, increasing by 565% compared with October 2020.
As studies by the Yale Program for Climate Communication and the think tank Global Future have shown, eco-anxiety impacts people of all ages and backgrounds. Most people would acknowledge that this anxiety is more than justified, and as awareness of the mental health impact of climate change grows, young people in particular are increasingly asking why they’ve been left to carry this emotional burden.
Yes, the situation is undoubtedly bleak, but as environmental activists have pointed out, media coverage and social media can often be negative to the point of being unhelpful.
‘The apocalyptic framing is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is hugely dangerous,’ says Sarah Ray, an environmental studies professor at Humboldt University and author of A Field Guide To Climate Anxiety. ‘We assume that fear tactics will get people to care and act- and in some cases it’s true- but for people who already care…it is counterproductive.’
Whether it’s the calls to take personal responsibility for the climate that dominate conversations over calls for large-scale government and corporate action, or the ‘all is lost’ messaging that pervades mainstream environmental news coverage, this framing obscures the very real and positive work that is being done around the world to bring about radical and meaningful change. No wonder young people are coming forward in their droves to report feeling increasingly hopeless about the prospect of meaningful progress.
As eco-anxiety enters the mainstream discussion, so does the campaign to channel that anxiety into action, pushing back against the ‘doomerism’ that some activists say promotes the feelings common among those dealing with climate anxiety. On TikTok, the most popular accounts posting under the #climateanxiety hashtag aren’t full of despair, but are instead dedicated to spreading positive news and ways for young people to get involved in the fight against climate change.
‘I try to find a line between having a dose of recognising that whilst things are really not great right now and are likely to get quite bad too, there’s also real power in being realistically optimistic and hopeful of what we are capable of doing and what is going on around us,’ Porter says.
‘The press is already highly skewed towards just spewing out negative news and whilst obviously climate change is the stark reality, there are also a huge amount of great things going on that, if they were given a wider platform, I feel would lead to a lot more empowerment and positive actions among young people.
As Ray told UNILAD, even the discussion surrounding eco-anxiety is imperfect. ‘Is climate anxiety something we should learn to ‘cope with’, or does the term itself distract us from the political sources of our anguish?’ she says. ‘We need better vocabulary to distinguish between these things because the more nuanced our emotional intelligence about these challenges, the better equipped we will be to face – and even challenge the sources of our suffering – them collectively.’
For McAndrews, whose background is in child mental health, climate anxiety is in large part the result of a society that puts the concerns of its younger generations at the bottom of the pile, rather than listening to and validating their thoughts and feelings.
‘I see it very much as a systemic issue,’ she says. ‘Young people are massively ignored and are hugely struggling in the face of a changing world that the people who are older and in power don’t recognise.’
So how do we begin unpacking these feelings, and channelling them into meaningful action? Among the people UNILAD spoke to for this article, alongside educational resources like books and podcasts, the most common recommendation was to find a community that understands and validates your emotions, and helps you to do something positive with them.
‘Being very anxious and distressed about the state of the planet is totally coherent,’ McAndrews says. ‘But when those feelings are met by other people who care and who listen to them, when they’re met with more empathy, and then when it’s possible to take action, and you can get together with other people, then that anxiety stops being a mental health disorder and it becomes a galvanising force.’
For Porter this idea of solidarity is especially important. ‘Having people around you as well that can support you,’ he says. ‘It can be a very isolating, lonely thing if you’re in certain social situations where people just don’t get it or just don’t understand it.’
‘I think one of the big things about anxiety is the enormity of it, it can be so paralysing not knowing what you can actually do… having practical things to engage with is a massive counter to the anxiety that people get.’
As anyone who has struggled with anxiety can tell you, coping is not as simple as just ignoring or eliminating negative feelings and fears. There’s no off-switch, no foolproof way to push your anxiety to the back of your mind. But when it comes to eco-anxiety, those at the forefront of research emphasise the power that we have to confront the source of our fears, and the real and positive ways we can still make a difference.
‘It’s young people who care passionately about what happens, and are willing to take risks and have new ideas, and change things around, and that’s where the hope is,’ McAndrews says.
‘Don’t be intimidated by scale; the problem is not big and you’re not small – that’s just a trick capitalism plays on us to make us feel powerless and just give up’ Ray echoes. ‘The planet needs us to have all of the resources we can – all of the energy and joy we can muster – to build the regenerative world that we desire.’
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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