Eco-anxiety in Nigeria
An activist who studied eco-anxiety in the UK reflects on her experiences with eco-emotions as a Nigerian change-maker
Hi (Gen D)reader!
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel called In My Feelings About Climate Change which was organized by SustyVibes and the Rights Studio Festival. My co-panelists were Jennifer Uchendu, a Nigerian climate activist and Founder of SustyVibes, Elizabeth Wathuti, a Kenyan climate activist and Founder of Green Generation Initiative, and Clover Hogan, an Australian climate activist, eco-anxiety researcher, and Founder and Executive Director of Force of Nature. You can watch a recording of our discussion here.
This week Gen Dread is taking a deeper look at eco-anxiety in Nigeria, as it was explained to me by Jennifer Uchendu in an interview conducted before last week’s event. Learning about the broad strokes of how eco-anxiety manifests differently in Nigeria than, say, the United Kingdom, was an important part of enlarging my sense of what we’re dealing with at a global scale. Understanding these differentials is key if we are going to be able to better support each other with the emotional burdens that the crisis puts on us all, in unique and localized ways.
I also thought it was particularly interesting to hear Uchendu talk about eco-anxiety in Nigeria because a debate has emerged around whether or not terms like eco-anxiety/climate anxiety are even relevant in countries like Nigeria that experience far more climate injustice than high income countries. And another debate contends with whether the concept of being anxious about what’s happening with the climate is just another form of white fragility. As you’ll see, Uchendu uses the concept of eco-anxiety in an expansive way, finds the insights of climate-aware psychology that are coming from the West useful for what she and fellow Nigerian climate activists are dealing with, and predominantly experiences the phenomenon as a mix of rage and burnout.
Everything written below is excerpted directly from the transcript of my conversation with Uchendu (and edited for brevity) and grouped into themes. Hope you enjoy it.
Moving to biweekly publishing
Before we get into it, one housekeeping note. My new research role is adding a lot to my plate on top of other ongoing projects, and I couldn’t manage to get a post up here last week. Consequently, Gen Dread is moving to a biweekly posting schedule instead of weekly. Perhaps eventually I’ll start asking for donations to help me resource this newsletter and broaden its content, like many other independent writers are doing with their paid newsletter subscriptions. But for now I’d like to keep it free and slow down a bit. Thanks for understanding.
In the words of Jennifer Uchendu, climate activist and eco-anxiety researcher
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Uchendu
Before I knew eco-anxiety was a word
SustyVibes, which basically means sustainability vibes, was my own way of creating a platform for young people in Nigeria to do sustainability work that is youth led. We have over 300 volunteers doing different projects related to education for sustainable development. We also throw a lot of parties rather than just having seminars. A while ago, I said let's have a party around mental health and climate change, which was very odd. We created a space for young people to talk about the link between mental health and how they think about climate change. I hadn't even heard of eco-anxiety at that point. It was a very basic overview, you know, is there a relationship? Are people worried about it? Are young people feeling threatened? Do they feel like they even want to continue the work that we do? Because at that point, we were planting trees and you would see something on social media saying 40 trees were cut down for some road expansion. It was very frustrating that we were doing all of those efforts to clean up a location, and you go there the week after and it's just bags of plastic and rubbish everywhere. It was really, really overwhelming personally for myself, but also for the community. And young people, it’s just generally crazy times for mental health issues. So there was a link with having our volunteers experiencing a lot of mental health issues and still needing to find strength within our community to do the work that they were doing for the planet. I thought, let's talk about it.
Tokenism at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25
Before I knew I was going to do research on eco-anxiety I thought l’d research women and climate change. But then I got into the Institute of Development Studies in the UK and had an opportunity to go to COP25 in Spain. It wasn't so cool. I get there, you know, and they're talking about the youth strikes, the climate strikes, all of these conversations are happening. I then just suddenly feel that the leaders and influential people weren't as committed or interested in these conversations. It was all talk, it felt very tokenized, them wanting to just have the young Black female in the room to talk about her experience. What's next after that then? I thought it was going to be life changing, with a lot more support, a lot more highlights of our work. But it wasn't that. It was just to fulfill all righteousness.
At one event they're like, you have 20 seconds to speak. What am I supposed to say in 20 seconds? You give me 20 seconds and that's the problem. This is tokenism. What am I supposed to talk about? Am I supposed to say thank you for bringing me here? Am I supposed to talk about the work that I do? What can I possibly say? And then you use social media to amplify, but you don't listen, you don't want to listen. So what's the point? Just for you to profit or gain some form of PR points?
I remember going back to my room in those days and crying. This is where every youth climate activist wants to be, but they don't seem to care. Even worse, we had a strike or protest as it were, and we were locked out of the UN event place. Because we had a climate strike. My badge was sticking out. I thought this was the space to express this sort of issue, talk about climate justice, and all of that. But no. So it was very, very overwhelming for me.
I went back to the UK and I was just like I'm going to leave all of these climate issues. I'm going to look for some other way to make an impact. I was that frustrated. And then I learned about eco-anxiety because I thought what I'm feeling has to be something. It has to be called something. All my life I've always been about this issue. How can I suddenly just not be interested? I didn't even want to read about climate change.
Experiencing eco-anxiety in the UK and how it differs from Nigeria
At that time, I was back in the UK, which feels like a bubble -- all is well, I can get my food and I can get my groceries. I don't run out of food and security compared to when I'm back home. Issues around oil spills are not in my head anymore because I'm far away geographically, but I’m still feeling eco-anxiety and starting to learn about it. I thought, okay, this is super, super interesting. I'm going to put myself in an experiment of research, thinking about youth spaces, and about how eco-anxiety comes about. I decided to do my thesis on eco-anxiety. What I researched was participatory spaces, the spaces youth climate activists would usually engage in talking about these issues. How do they relate to eco-anxiety? I looked at it from a family perspective and what conversations happen on the dinner table. How do parents support climate activists? I looked at the schools, the classrooms, the teacher student dynamics, and what I realized is that even the teachers were experiencing some form of eco-anxiety, teaching the same thing over and over again. I ended up with teachers saying we need some ways to address our own eco-anxiety before we can help students about it. I also looked at community groups, the Extinction Rebellions, the public spaces where young people meet and what kinds of experiences play out in this area.
And then putting myself in, a Nigerian Black woman learning about this thing in the UK, I realized that my eco-anxiety was very different from their eco-anxiety. I'm more angry, and they are more feeling guilty that they are in the developed world, and they feel they can't help. That was what my research opened up to me. Racism came up a lot too, power structures, and how young climate activists, white climate activists in particular, are realizing how privileged and powerful they are within this conversation and how they owe it to their colleagues in developing countries to lend their voices to amplify this issue.
In Nigeria, eco-anxiety, it's anger. I's a lot of anger, especially when your health is directly impacted. The Niger Delta, and all of the oil spills, and everything that happens with people who assume they were supposed to be born into lands with oil. They're supposed to be rich, they're supposed to be very comfortable, but instead, they're living with ruins, with polluted environments. Some places in the Niger Delta, they say, it’s not habitable. People can’t live there, the water is not safe. And it's that anger. So you often see them express their anger through terrorism, through kidnapping and then insecurity increases. It’s a whole lot.
What’s helping now
Every time I talk about eco-anxiety on social media, young people can immediately relate to it. They know what I mean. I remember when I came back home and talked to our volunteers (at SustyVibes), they were like, “oh my God, it has a name, it’s a thing, people have figured it out!” And that was exactly how I felt in the UK, realizing that this is actually valid. I think that's the word -- validating these feelings and saying I'm not crazy, I'm not overthinking, I'm not taking it too far. This is a real problem.
So what’s most helpful to be honest, is just finding out that eco-anxiety is a thing and that there are people who are talking about it. I talked to Caroline Hickman, the British climate psychotherapist who was really, really, really helpful. I remember after speaking to her I did a search on “how can someone become a climate psychotherapist?” because this is so useful. This is so needed if we're going to have young people driving climate action. If young people are going to go beyond just having strikes, if they are going to become actual innovators, if they're going to do big things and push the needle when it comes to climate change, then they need spaces, and they need psychotherapy that is focused towards this issue.
Thanks for sharing Jennifer!
Thoughts? Comments? Reflections?
That’s it for this week - reach out anytime
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