Eco-Anxiety During the Climate Crisis: What It Is And How To Navigate It

Feeling blue about the future of green? Eco-anxiety, climate grief, eco-distress, climate anxiety, eco-guilt, climate rage – these are all justifiable responses to the climate emergency. Eco-anxiety is defined as a sense of hopelessness, panic, fear, or sadness for the state of the earth and the future of our climate. Conversely, you may find family or friends finding solace on an entirely different space in the spectrum – from not thinking about the reality of climate change as a way to cope, to succumbing to overwhelming “doomism” rhetorics and feeling helpless, to denying climate change altogether. It’s not too late – hope is at our fingertips. By harnessing our own agency and helping to write a new climate narrative, we can honour and transform eco-anxiety.

Understanding the roots of how eco-anxiety affects some communities more profoundly than others is imperative to support the climate justice movement.

Does it affect everyone equally?

Communities on the frontline of devastating climate change effects, from African countries to Pacific Islands, live with the stark reality of a changing planet. Displacement, forced migration, resource scarcity, and consequential conflict are all results of climate change and add to daily insecurity. In the West, eco-anxiety may seem like a fairly new response, galvanized into alarm by access to 24-hour media coverage of the climate emergency. In a poll of American teenagers by Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation, “57 percent said that climate change made them feel scared and 52 percent said it made them feel angry, both higher rates than among adults.” A startling response from Gen Z, it’s clear to see why the likes of Greta Thunberg and passionate youth lead the global climate movement – if nothing else, out of desperation to ensure they are not the last generation, as their name suggests.

The youth may feel their futures are endangered, but there are further intersecting realities that exacerbate eco-anxiety and compound climate crisis trauma – including race, indigeneity, location, and disparities in income and wealth.

Indigenous communities in cultures all over the world carry the trauma of centuries-old climate grief, of violence and land dispossession that continues to characterize ongoing battles against corporations today. The traumatic history of land loss, displacement, and genocide predisposes them to experience the current climate crisis through a particularly painful lens. A sacred relationship with the earth is central to many Indigenous philosophies of life. It’s a relationship that continues to be pushed aside with the invasion of destructive fossil fuel company activities, disrupting everyday activities vital to well-being and cultural practices.

Researchers interviewed 67 community members and health professionals in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada in 2010 to investigate how climate change impacted the well-being and mental health of the world’s most southerly Inuit community. They found that environmental and climate change “increased family stress, enhanced the possibility of increased drug and alcohol usage, amplified previous traumas and mental health stressors,” going on to note that subsequent disruption to land-based activities had negative impacts due to “a loss of place-based solace and cultural identity.” Their cultural connection to the land means disrupted access to it has strong, long-lasting cultural ripples.

The Indigenous uprising against modern colonization and the fight for resource security is not a new phenomenon – instead, it has long been ingrained through a history of sadly familiar struggles. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe campaign against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016 was pivotal in captivating the world’s media, yet the Indigenous fight to defend land and culture originated long before the headlines officialized them in print. Indigenous people have protected ecosystems and a harmonious way of life for centuries, with the decimation of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas scientifically linked to climate change for the first time in 2019.

Historically, the industrial revolution might be the catalyst we associate with the dawning of a fossil fuel era and modern pollution. A 2019 paper published by University College London scientists illuminate a different story. Their findings reveal a far earlier start to detrimental human activity – the colonization of the Americas in the 1500s. The team discovered the arrival of Europeans and subsequent Indigenous depopulation contributed to the cooling of earth’s atmosphere – a factor in what is now referred to as the “Little Ice Age,” as global surface air temperatures decreased. Authors of the paper estimate 56 million hectares of farmland were abandoned due to the Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, leading to “widespread vegetation regrowth” on the previously agricultural land. This reforestation reduced CO2 rates in the atmosphere as the increase in vegetation sequestered higher rates of carbon. The conclusion? “[H]uman actions had global impacts on the Earth system in the centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution.”

This study demonstrated the impact of colonization was also deeply environmental. The findings affirm just how interconnected the histories that shape our current realities are; by uplifting the marginalized and systemically disadvantaged in our society, we uplift everyone. If they win, we all win.

“If the land’s sick, we’re sick.”

The impact of prolonged drought on the social and emotional well-being of Aboriginal communities in rural New South Wales

Today’s systemic inequalities, disparities, and colonial legacies mean that environmental disasters disproportionately affect people of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged people. A quick internet search on “environmental racism” provides more than enough evidence. Michigan’s Flint water crisis is one glaring example of how marginalized communities suffered at the hands of “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias.” Speaking to Green America, Dr. Beverly Wight of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University explains, “If you’re a person of color, particularly Black or Latino, you’re more likely to live near toxic facilities.” Where waste and toxic facilities are placed and the proximity to which communities are questions that reveal a startling pattern.

This pattern was mirrored in the case of US federal disaster money favoring the rich, as revealed by a 2019 NPR report. Federal disaster programs buy homes affected by natural disasters to convert into green spaces, inherently requiring the receivers to be property owners in order to benefit. This already leans in favor of the wealthy and disadvantages minority communities, who historically were blocked from property ownership as a result of racial barriers. After successfully suing the federal government to access a record list of 40,000 properties bought, the NPR investigation uncovered most of these buyouts were in neighborhoods of more than 85 percent white and non-Hispanic populations. Research from sociologists found that the pattern can be described as, in essence, “rich people get richer after a storm, and poor people get poorer,” with pre-existing educational, racial, and wealth inequalities amplified by who the aid goes to.

@wildlife_by_yuri Brian Yurasits Barbados

Transforming eco-anxiety

Good news: there are many resources available to access if you are feeling eco-anxious. Countless books, podcasts, and social media accounts with accessible content offer up a stream of great solutions-based conversations and positive news to start engaging with. If even this feels too overwhelming, you could try speaking to a climate-aware therapist who may be better placed to help.

Even better news: eco-anxiety can be a positive driving force. Educating ourselves on the local impact of climate change is a great first step in breaking down the climate crisis into bite-size pieces. Diving headfirst into climate change facts and figures, research, news articles, and campaigns from all over the globe can be overwhelming and feel a little gloom and doom. Equipped with your community’s story within the larger climate crisis conversation, you now have a personal understanding to better contextualize other communities’ plights across the world and the environmental implications for everyone, everywhere. It can also help you regain a sense of control amidst this eco-anxious uncertainty, and it’s from this position that we are best placed to join the call for structural change.

Racial and Indigenous justice is inextricably linked with climate justice, with structural inequality impacting these communities the hardest. Whether we are conscious or unconscious of our own privileges, understanding the ways we benefit from structural and societal systems is entirely necessary. Informing our decisions with the knowledge of how they affect others allows us to be an authentic ally, and see the interconnectedness of causes. This is the important role we play as individuals, supporting the collective rewrite of a largely whitewashed climate change narrative.

The itch to spend time in nature is a pertinent one, after national lockdowns and social distancing have confined many to the great indoors. Immersing ourselves in nature opens a door into deep mind and body restoration – just look to the ancient practice of forest bathing for inspiration. Outdoor connection can remind us of the message our eco-anxiety is conveying: our relationship with the earth is sacred. If motivation to leave the house is difficult, using a local walking route app leaves all your brainpower free to soak in nature. Combining an outing with a community activity, like tree planting or a beach cleanup, is a great way to combine eco-anxiety remedies. Integrating a personal challenge can also add an exciting twist – walking 5k, grabbing a pair of binoculars to spot wildlife, or trying your hand at foraging. For a longer immersion, there are plenty of vacations offering sacred time in nature.

Heeding your body and mind’s call for self-care is essential, so that you can be the best climate justice advocate you can be. If you’re able to get out into the community for a litter pickup, invest in a climate-conscious wardrobe, or calculate your carbon footprint – you’re showing up for yourself, and therefore showing up for the earth. From action stems hope, as passivity and helplessness go hand in hand. The more we engage with the kind of activity we want to see more of, the more we notice and attract it. The positive engagement brings our social media feeds and attention to amazing activists all around the world bringing the movement to life, and an awareness of the actions we’re in control of to help the climate justice movement succeed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of self-care to combat eco-anxiety is belonging to a community. Connecting with others who share your values and who you can exchange support with is essential in transforming eco-anxiety into something that empowers. Making connections with like-minded people imparts a sense of shared responsibility, and a realization that we are not an island, alone in the middle of a sea of eco-distress. There is unbelievable strength in numbers as we have the natural instinct to support those we stand alongside, and stand up for the causes we advocate.

Be part of the change, and sign up for group-oriented experiences with other like-minded individuals like the Natural Change retreat with Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the wild Scottish Highlands. Alongside nine others and guided by national experts, embark upon a program that takes you through “wild mindfulness, guided meditation, wilderness solos, structured dialogue and reflection” to reach the heart of harmony with wilderness.

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