Eco-Anxiety in the New Age of Pandemics

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Elections can spike anxiety, as the American one tomorrow is doing at massive scale (with record-breaking gun sales to prove it). They can also cause reflection. In anticipation of tomorrow’s history-shaping event, I’m sharing my “election diary” that I wrote for GROW about the intersections between the climate crisis, the pandemic, and the worrying lack of systems thinking in political campaigns.


Eco-Anxiety in the New Age of Pandemics

You’re unlikely to ever hear climate experts say, “God I can’t wait for this year to be over,” or “When things go back to normal…” They know that the kinds of calamities this year has brought — the illness, the social cataclysm, the fires — won’t end with the coronavirus. Witnessing this preview of our looming dystopia has given me a more actionable perspective on a question I’ve been wrangling with for years: how do you get regular people to assimilate the reality of climate change into their consciousness, let alone act on it? How can we turn our pervasive eco-anxiety into productive action?

In my work, I research the psychological impacts of the climate crisis. For the past few months, at least twice a week, someone has interviewed me in order to ask some version of the same two questions: 1) ‘what can I do to cope better with eco-anxiety?’ And 2) ‘what can be done to make people care enough about the climate crisis that they become anxious in the first place?’ These people are searching for the Goldilocks zone of distress about the climate. Not too much. Not too little. Just the right amount.

My own journey with eco-anxiety started in 2017, when I woke up to the full severity of the climate and wider eco-crisis. That year, it ceased to exist solely as an intellectual problem for me, and became a massive tragedy of the heart. At the time, my partner and I were thinking about trying to get pregnant. The process of considering that decision, while reading the harrowing projections from multilateral organizations like the WHO and UN, birthed a painful dilemma. I began to seek as much information as I could about biodiversity collapse. I started bringing up climate disruption in conversations with friends, family and colleagues at every occasion, sometimes making them visibly uncomfortable. My partner even had to ask me to put a timeout on how I was talking about the climate at home, because it was affecting his mental health.

The American Psychological Association describes eco-anxiety as the “chronic fear of environmental doom,” but at its simplest, at this late stage in the climate crisis, it is merely a sign of attachment to the world. Eco-anxiety isn’t listed as a medical condition in the DSM, and many mental health professionals say it is important that it remains excluded. After all, the last thing we want is to pathologize this moral emotion, which stems from an accurate understanding of how grave of an ecological mess we’ve made. Eco-anxiety arises when we feel our vulnerability, and are in touch with our capacity to care because we are no longer numbed by our defenses. It is what happens when we bring our thinking and feeling together. When the issue is only contained in the mind, and not in the stomach or heart, our brains (which are adapted to protect us from discomfort) split the full extent of our reality off with an impressive cadre of unconscious tricks. They’re meant to be features, but in this civilization-threatening scenario, they’re just bugs.

This problem would be easier to manage if we were neatly divided between climate realists and climate deniers. In fact, most of us, whether we admit it or not, are stuck somewhere in between. The most prevalent defense against climate breakdown is what psychoanalysts call disavowal. Disavowal is like having one eye open and one eye closed to the truth at the same time. It happens when we believe the science, understand the risks, and are concerned about systems collapse, but still find ways to play down the threats, so that we can continue to live our lives according to our desires, and hop on the next plane. We read that we are fast approaching tipping points, which, once surpassed, will set off a cascade of impacts across biophysical systems ⁠that cannot be reversed. But knowing something intellectually and fully comprehending it are not the same thing. And so we kick the can down the road, avoiding uncomfortable changes. Sound familiar?

The coronavirus, the rise of authoritarianism, and the looming ecological collapse, all mess with our sense of ontological security, the feeling of continuity in the order of our lives. For sociologist Anthony Giddens, ontological insecurity concerns a “person’s fundamental sense of safety in the world and includes a basic trust of other people.” Indeed, my eco-anxiety became significant not only because the climate is clearly breaking down, but because I lost trust in other people’s abilities and determination to solve the problem. Our leaders have been either fully denying the crisis, or promising paltry action that will only delay the inevitable, rather than addressing this emergency at the scale that it demands.

All this anxiety comes from a shared source: the planetary health crisis, which encapsulates climate change, species extinctions, water scarcity, food insecurity, air pollution, and land transformation. The pandemic is not separate from, but a symptom of our planetary health crisis. As we continue sucking resources out of the natural world — by cutting trees in tropical forests for example, or extracting mineral and fossil fuels — we also suck viruses out of species that live in the wild places we tear into, and draw them into us. Epidemiological research shows we can only prevent future spillovers and stop outbreaks from turning into pandemics if we develop the political willpower to change the way we interact with the natural word. Scientists have proposed that the next spillover is likely to come from the Amazon, as we continue to clear its trees and force species to interact with invading humans.

All this ought to compel us to rethink our relationship to nature itself, replacing our default mode of domination with a model of mutually beneficial partnership. This means getting rid of growth-based capitalism. Otherwise, there will just be more pandemics, not to mention waves of genocidal-level deaths as places become uninhabitable.

Complexity scientists, who study the interactions between complex systems like the climate system and the political system, saw the growing cracks in our democracies coming. They know that, as humanity dances on an ever-sharpening knife’s edge, the loss of ontological security we feel — and the anxiety it stirs up — will make many voters seek simple solutions to increasingly complex problems. Populist leaders, who have uncomplicated explanations for domestic and international turmoil, such as “it’s the immigrants’ fault,” benefit from our turmoil. Strongmen for strange times.

On a society-wide level, we have failed to connect COVID-19 to climate change as signatures of the exact same problem, which prevents us from a necessary act: addressing them simultaneously. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about climate response, it seems to be that we’ll only take the climate threat seriously when it starts killing the people we love. Even then we still won’t all agree about the legitimacy of the threat, and we’ll be ready to sacrifice a lot: elderly and poor people all around the world, the climate equivalent of people who can’t afford to work from home. Our leaders will say we’re all in this together, when they know that’s really a lie.

So in this election season, while there’s no question of the outcome I want, my main concern is about the lack of systems thinking on behalf of even our preferred leaders. This is no longer a cute gripe about short-term thinking in politics; we’re running out of time. Sure, 2020 has been a terrible year, but it is nothing compared to what could be coming. We require some honesty about that fact from our leadership, and for them to feel the kind of anguish that can break through their own walls of defenses. Only then, will we find the wellspring of energy we need to act together and in time.

No matter who wins the presidential election, citizens all over the world are going to have to rise up to become the prosocial tipping points in order to safeguard a liveable climate for ourselves. We have to put up the fight of our lives for the sake of our survival. There is no doubt that one election outcome will make this fight far easier than the other, but either could breed complacency. Pushing back against that is my way, as a Canadian living in the US, of fending off my sense of powerlessness. Rather than sit around with my thoughts, these days, I’ve found that resolve for me means accepting that Goldilocks is gone, and finding the will to do the right thing for the present moment, without attachment to outcome. It’s the best way I’ve found to feel empowered in our predicament, and at peace with the ballot I won’t be able to cast, as I wait for the American people to have their say on all of our futures.

Here’s hoping tomorrow’s election welcomes in a new era of more compassionate leadership that will work to protect the future, putting a stop to the malignant narcissism and chaos we’ve all gotten way too used to. You’ll hear from me on the other side of this monumental election.

The dread downgrades when we come together!

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