With COP 26 upon us, and an endless stream of horror stories about the environment in the press, I wanted to write about how we might navigate what has been termed ‘eco-anxiety’. It’s something I myself have been through. I remember a weekend about 3 years ago when it seemed, all of a sudden, the weight of the problem hit me. I think it happens to most of us at some point. Previous to this I had existed in a state of ignorance/denial and hadn’t wanted to engage with environmental issues head on, knowing that it would cause me a degree of angst to which I wasn’t ready to subject myself. However, over time the message became more and more urgent and came from more and more places until it was unavoidable. I had to confront it. So I started reading and taking it all in and that was when it hit me. A sort of dreadful despondency swept over me. It wasn’t anger, or anxiety. It was a mix of frustration, disbelief and a sense that all of life was now pointless. We were just waiting for the inevitable destruction and degradation. We were powerless to stop it, and the people that might be able to help weren’t interested. Things had gotten out of hand and systems were so entrenched that there was no possible way out.
It turns out I wasn’t alone. According to a recent global survey:
- Nearly 60% of young people are very worried or extremely worried about the environment.
- More than 45% of those questioned said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives.
- Three-quarters of them said they thought the future was frightening. Over half (56%) say they think humanity is doomed.
- Two-thirds reported feeling sad, afraid and anxious. Many felt fear, anger, despair, grief and shame – as well as hope.
These are compelling, and distressing, numbers. The phenomenon doesn’t just exist among young people. For people of all ages the climate crisis is having a real effect on their mental health. So the big question is what can we do about it? I don’t mean what can we do about climate change, but what can we do about our attitude towards it?
Over the last year or so since reaching a low point in my feelings towards the environment I now feel hopeful, that I have some agency and seem to have developed a useful perspective about things that has alleviated the dread and anxiety.
Firstly, I accepted that this was something that I had no control over. That’s not to say I couldn’t do my bit, to be part of the solutio, but that I was totally powerless over the vastness of the issue, the global scale. I focused on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t. This is something I try and apply to my entire life. Sometimes more successfully than others…
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
The serenity prayer is a useful one in every difficult circumstance I have ever come across, and nowhere more so than here.
So after telling you all that we are powerless, I then talk about agency! Well, we ARE powerless over outcomes, but we DO have agency. There are so many things we can do, tiny when taken on their own, but when multiplied really make a difference. I’m not going to list them, but knowing you are doing your bit, as far as you can, is a great thing.
The earth is 4.5 billion years old. There have been 6 mass extinctions. Humans have been around for quite literally the blink of an eye in geological terms. If the age of the earth is measured as a 24 hour clock, dinosaurs came around 22.56, mammals at 23.39 and humans have only been around since 23.58 and 43 seconds. That’s 1 minute and 17 seconds of 24 hours. Not much is it? If you try and wrap your head around such huge spans of time, suddenly everything seems a bit less scary. The same applies when we zoom out and see the earth as just a tiny part of the solar system, and the solar system a tiny part of the Milky Way, and the Milky way a tiny part of the universe. The planet will endure beyond humans. Life has a way of adapting and thriving in the most unlikely circumstances. Our planet’s history is one of constant change. Life is flux and our human story is but a footnote in the history of the universe.
4. Keep it in the day
We don’t know what the future holds. We know that for sure! There is so much reason for hope. As a species we are remarkably resilient and adaptable. So aside from being hopeful about the future, I also try to keep in the present as much as possible. Right now, everything is good.
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