Why adopting a "humanity sucks" attitude is bad for your mental health
Misanthropy eats away at our ability to get life-saving stuff done
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Thank you so much to those of you who wrote me last week to share your ideas about what needs to be prioritized in order to protect young people’s mental health as the world heats up. I read every single word. My email is a backlogged swamp at the moment, so it may take me some time before I can respond. Many of you work in mental health, climate, education, and related fields, and it is such a privilege to be able to brainstorm with you! Lots of your suggestions were amazing and I expect to be able to investigate some of them in my postdoctoral research project, so, thanks for going there with me.
Have you ever felt ashamed to be part of the human race? Maybe the thought struck you while looking at an image of thousands of shark fins drying in the sun in order to be made into…soup? Or while learning about the unconscionable amounts of disinformation that’s been funded by the fossil fuel industry to confuse the public about human caused warming? Now that this recent paper’s calculations show that all the stuff we’ve built --- the buildings, roads and factory equipment ---- outweighs all living things on the planet, it is harder for anyone to deny that our species has majorly overstepped.
I’ll admit that when I left home for university at the age of 17, I learned to see humans as a plague. A virus. A swarm of locusts upon the Earth. No professor ever outright said that humans were so bad, but you could connect the dots with your eyes closed. The message emanated from their biology lectures every day. Human-caused species extinctions, whether it was because humans brought invasive species over to new lands that made the native species there go extinct, or because we were destroying their habitat for agriculture, or because our cities encroached further into their wild spaces causing human-wildlife conflicts, or because of poaching, whatever it was, cemented the idea in my head that it would be better for the Earth if we just went extinct. Why would I want to reorient my life towards protecting humanity, when our very nature was so repugnant?
At that young age, I hadn’t yet learned the crucial subtleties of the word “we”. Who exactly were these humans I was so disparaging of? Was it Indigenous water protectors? Was it Indian farmers whose carbon emissions are only a tiny fraction of my own? Uh, clearly not. My misanthropic attitude started to unravel once I learned more about the world, and specifically, systemic and historical oppression. Sarah Jaquette Ray has a great analysis of this type of shift in thinking in her book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety.
What this means for mental health
Our ability to protect and care for mental health as the world heats up does not only rely on new interventions that can help people self-soothe on an increasingly chaotic planet. It also relies on being able to ground ourselves in ways that simultaneously allow us to change everything about our economy that’s eating the natural world, decarbonize, and grow stronger social ties in our communities as well as with other groups, to name a few starting points. Our ability to mobilize in these ways is partly shaped by our sense of injustice, and in order to get in touch with that sense, we need to feel our connection to other people — of all kinds. Hating “all humanity” is not only a sign of a striking lack of understanding, it is part of an attitude that will kill us.
The coronavirus vaccines are now starting to roll out, and citizens around the world are bracing themselves for a return to some kind of normal before too long. Meanwhile, the last several months have reminded us that many people despise humanity. “Humans are the real virus”, “Nature is healing. The coronavirus is the cure” and other kinds of anti-human slogans haven’t been uncommon. As we lurch out of this crisis and barrel towards many more, let’s try to remember that our mental health and wellbeing depends on how much we care about those very things in others.
The dread downgrades when we come together!
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I’m going to be a bit spotty over the holidays as I’m taking some extended time off away from the computer (it’s a Christmas miracle!) You may or may not get an email from me next week… If not, I’ll be back at the latest immediately on the other side of the new year.
Happy holidays and much love!