Sarah Jaquette Ray on the unbearable whiteness of climate anxiety
Reflections from a concerned environmental studies professor
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This week I’m digging into the backstory behind Dr Sarah Jaquette Ray’s article The Unbearable Whiteness of Climate Anxiety that was published last weekend in Scientific American. This piece is so on point, and brings to light critically important issues that need to be dealt with as the conversation around environmental emotions heats up. As she writes in the article, "It is a surprisingly short step from “chronic fear of environmental doom,” as the American Psychological Association defines ecoanxiety, to xenophobia and fascism." There’s nothing I can say about this article that Ray’s essay doesn’t lay out better, so please go read it. Then come back here to read Ray’s reflections on what she was noticing about climate anxiety since publishing a book on the topic and why this moved her to write about its unbearable whiteness.
Sarah Jaquette Ray holding a copy of her book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety
In Sarah’s words
I wrote this piece because I am genuinely worried about how anxiety about climate change — and any big feelings about the environment for that matter— can result in xenophobia, exclusion, and even violence.
Although I believe anybody can have climate anxiety, the term itself seems more applicable to folks who haven’t experienced existential threats before. Communities that have experienced existential threats — colonialism, slavery, genocide, dispossession, medical injustice, food insecurity, pollution, exile — tend to view climate change as just another layer of threat, compounding these other long-standing forms of oppression, cultural death, and environmental trauma.
Climate change has long had a resonance problem- it feels abstract even to people with the privilege to think about polar bears instead of polluted and over-policed neighborhoods. And even though the climate justice movement is connecting those dots — polar bears, pollution, and police violence are all about the unequal access to the right to breathe — I have been noticing that the people most interested in talking about climate anxiety since the publication of my book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety are white and fairly privileged.
In a next piece I want to write about how climate anxiety inflects these other forms of trauma for communities affected most by climate change, but in this Scientific American essay I really wanted to focus on sounding an alarm. While I still firmly believe that people with privilege deserve and need help coping with climate anxiety— after all, white people have a role to play in the future of the planet, and they too need to be existentially resourced and thriving — I want to be sure their angst is directed toward solidarity with justice movements, and not seduced by white supremacist solutions to climate change.
Climate anxiety among white people can go one of two ways — toward recognizing that climate change comes from and exacerbates racism, and so therefore addressing one will require addressing the other. Or, climate anxiety can lead toward fear and othering. I wrote about the way environmental feelings (especially the affect of disgust) can lead to scapegoating black and brown bodies in my first book, The Ecological Other. This essay in Sci Am brings the ideas of the two books together— we can’t respond to climate anxiety by clamping down borders, restricting reproductive rights (of black and brown women), and treating some people as more worthy of the planet’s precious resources than others. If racism is at the root of the climate crisis, then more racism doesn’t fix it, it exacerbates it.
With the El Paso and Christchurch mass shootings of 2019, the unprecedented Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 in the wake of yet more murder of black people (George Floyd and Breonna Taylor) at the hands of police, the right-wing response to the 2020 election, and the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capital, it is more incumbent than ever that the environmental community reckon with the racial dimensions of its work and motives. After all, eco-fascism has a long history, especially in the United States.
Environmentalists may not see themselves as racist, but even claiming global warming as the greatest threat of “our” time lands insensitively on the ears of people who might say otherwise. Worse, rather than being a strictly leftist issue, climate change urgency and alarmism can easily be co-opted by right-wing extremists to justify authoritarianism, nativism, isolationism, and harm toward “ecological others.”
We need to tend to white people’s big environmental feelings, not just because we need white people to keep fighting for the climate, but also because we want those efforts enlisted for climate justice. While goo-gobs of resources have started to mobilize to help white people cope with their big climate feelings, we must also be sure that as much is being done to make the climate movement an anti-racist one as well.
The past year has brought this point into even starker relief than it ever had been for me. So I call on the climate anxious to lean into the big feelings with more determination than ever to see the liberation and fates of all life— human and non-human— as bound together.
Right? Yes! Sarah Jaquette Ray is an inspiration in this space. I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’re outside of the United States. How do these ideas about racism and eco-anxiety connect with conversations where you are?
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