On Trying, and Failing, To Deal With Climate Anxiety
It took me nearly all of ten years, but 2019 was the year I finally made it to a therapist. I should’ve gone much, much sooner, but my talent for shoving emotional issues deep down and to the side and out of sight and sound remains one of my chief life skills.
I still find it incredibly difficult to get into things in detail—especially on a public forum like this—but to put it simply: In the summer of 2010, at the age of 22, I suffered a terrible and sudden bereavement, and rather than confronting its effects in a healthy and constructive way I did everything in my power to avoid them, and in fact swerved wildly towards the destructive response instead. The foundations of my emotional wellbeing suffered deep structural damage, my perspective of the world was dynamited into pieces, and instead of rolling up my sleeves and reckoning with the impact I papered over the cracks and swept the pieces under the rug with what could, in some twisted way I suppose, be described as quite impressive haste. I became a living embodiment of that This Is The End moment.
Predictably, this didn’t prove itself to be exactly an ideal solution. Or any kind of solution, really. All it did was embed a slowly decaying radioactive isotope deep into my soul, one that would release its poison steadily and relentlessly over the years as I tried my best to ignore it and get on with the practical realities of crafting and living some sort of adult life.
What’s odd is that I would have expected things to have gone differently. To have been able to cope with things better than I did. I thought I could be better, that I wouldn’t fall prey to the same trap that so many people do. As boys and men, we are taught by society that many emotions are not to be engaged with. That feelings like sadness and vulnerability are illegitimate. Things are slowly changing for the better, but this is a prime example of how the particular brand of patriarchy that rules over us harms even individuals of the gender that otherwise relatively benefit from it (and that’s not even mentioning the wider, systemic problems around the issue that exacerbate—and in many cases cause—the problem. The individualistic perspective that puts the onus on a person to seek help is just one part of the equation).
The actor Terry Crews once called masculinity a cult. It’s an incredibly apt word for it. All the insidious connotations of brainwashing and conditioning that come with that label make it all the more accurate. It ensnares even those of us who think we are wise to it. I grew up in a progressive household. I have actively sought to educate myself as to the hidden workings of the systems that bind us and to stay on top of sociological developments. What’s more I always passionately extolled the virtues of being in touch with your feelings, and of the necessity to communicate them. And still despite all that, when push came to shove, I found myself unable to practice what I preached. When the need came to grapple with heavy emotions, I was simply incapable.
For nearly a decade after the existential rupture that struck at the very core of my sense of self, I failed to reckon with it in any but the most superficial ways. I would crack and break down on occasion, especially in the early days, but I learned to manage these cycles in a surface-level way. To most people most of the time, I imagine I looked perfectly fine. But with each passing month and year, damage was being done out of sight. I knew this, could feel it, and thought numerous times that it should be addressed somehow, but I could never bring myself to do anything. Finally, somehow—I’m still unsure as to how—I bit the bullet and managed to do what many of those close to me had counseled me to do over the years and what I tried and failed to convince myself to do many times: I sought professional help. Going into therapy was terrifying, revelatory, redeeming, painful, and vivifying all at once. I feel that now, at last, I may be beginning to learn how to cope with this terrible life-defining event in a healthy way.
Despite this lengthy preamble, the bereavement is not what I want to talk about here. My subject is instead something that was briefly touched on in my first therapy session but then put aside in the name of focus. Similarly to the bereavement, it is a psychological issue born of real-world events, and it is one I remain just as ill-equipped to deal with as I was with the other all those years. It’s a spectre that now haunts my every waking day, an oppressive gloom that it is possible to escape from only briefly in moments of distraction but which has no apparent long-term solution. This psychological affliction doesn’t yet have an associated universally adopted clinical term, but ‘climate anxiety’ is just as good a label as any. Put simply it is the paralyzing and horizon-shrinking conviction that we have passed the point of no return. That thanks to human-made climate change, our existence on this planet—as well as the existence of millions of other species—is now untenable in the face of the coming storm.
Following the news around the issue would seem to indicate that I am not alone in feeling this. Stories abound of psychologists coming to terms with a rising wave of mental disorders being attributed to a greater awareness of climate change. Younger adults are going on birth strikes—refusing to procreate as a means of drawing attention to the issue. Still, others are doing so simply because they feel it would be cruel to bring a life into a world doomed to unimaginable horrors. According to a report in the BBC:
No stats are available on the prevalence of eco-anxiety, but some experts have noted an increase in public anxiety around climate change. Professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio, Susan Clayton, co-authored a 2017 report titled Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. She says: “We can say that a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change, and that the level of worry is almost certainly increasing.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - the guide mental health professionals use to make diagnoses in the US - does not yet include ‘eco-anxiety’ as a specific condition, but the American Psychological Association produced a 2017 report detailing the impacts of climate change on mental health which made reference to the term ‘eco-anxiety’. The glossary describes it as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
I have been cognizant of the disastrous impact that capitalism has had on the environment even before I first became otherwise politically aware in my early teens. Thanks to the vital work of activists this has been a visible and talked about issue my whole life. I’ve been reading about it, protesting it, and writing about it for a long time. Yet it’s only in the past few years that my anxiety about the issue has shot through the roof. The reason why is simple: the alarm calls have become earth-shakingly dramatic and urgent.
Think of the now-infamous ‘12 year’ deadline that we have to have fully implemented wide-ranging systemic change to combat climate change lest we risk a global temperature rise greater than 1.5 degrees Centigrade—and of news challenging that figure, saying that it is even less than 12 years. Think of the reports of mass fauna die-off and biomass collapse—a dozen species go extinct every day; half of all are expected to be gone by 2050. Of coral extinction. Of dramatic desertification. Of ocean salification and heating dispruting eco-chains on a scale not seen since mass extinction events of aeons past. Of extreme, worsening weather events. Of children protesting in the streets for their right to a liveable future. Think of Greta Thunberg not just sounding the alarm at the UN, but essentially delivering a near-hopeless indictment of how the world’s leaders were complicit in a system that burned the world to ashes—a world that they will never have to contend with, but her generation will. Think of the millions upon millions of vulnerable people in the Global South feeling the effects of an apocalypse that for them has in fact already begun. Or think of the news that came from Iceland this week, of the country holding a memorial for the first of its icebergs vanished due to the effects of climate change. The country created a plaque to mark the occasion:
A letter to the future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier.
In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.
This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.
415 ppm CO2
Or, if you dare stomach it, picture Brazil, its skies overcast with black smoke from the fires started in the Amazon rainforest by loggers and capitalists in celebration of the further destructive exploitation promised by the fascist Jair Bolsonaro. Cities as far as 1,500 miles apart choking with the same smoke.
🌎Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS🌎 pic.twitter.com/P1DrCzQO6x— Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 20, 2019
So far in 2019 there have been 74,155 forest fires in Brazil. Nearly 36,000 of them—that’s nigh on a half—have ignited in the last month, and that amount is almost equal to the total for the whole of 2018. The Amazon is often described as the ‘lungs of the earth’ because of its titanic carbon-absorbing power. Without it, we choke.
The drip of news has become a tide. One that has at times threatened to really bring me under. Yet none of these disastrous markers of our downfall should come as a surprise. Yes, some of the more drastic warnings are new, but the science has been clear and the information available—though suppressed and manipulated by vested interests—for a long time. As I wrote previously:
Remember: Exxon knew about climate change four decades ago. They spent millions on lobbying and pumping disinformation out into the world to protect their profits. They won’t have been the only ones. At one point, we had plenty of time to turn things around, but they prevented this. Now, we have 12 years. 12 years until we doom our children and vast swathes of this planet’s wonderful animal and plant life to an unimaginable fate. If there was any justice, the people responsible for Exxon’s crimes would be held accountable; the company—and all others like it—would be dissolved, its assets stripped and used to fund green energy. I want to say ‘it’s not too late!’ but dammit is that hard sometimes.
It is as if we are waking up on the morning of the day of reckoning and there is simply no more time to do anything differently to change the outcome. Certainly, that is the kind of doomed mindset that often clouds my mind. On top of that I find myself frequently feeling significant amounts of guilt for being someone who is politically engaged—and aware of this particular issue—and still not having done enough to prevent or at least ameliorate it; this despite knowing that the problem is systemic, and institutional, and requires the action of nations to fix.
I’ve been trying and failing miserably to write this piece for some time. I generally avoid writing about personal stuff. I prefer going on about dogs, or the wonderful power of metal, or more dogs. But I confess I’m at a loss. I find myself living underneath an oppressive dark shadow that follows me wherever I go. It is an oppressive gloom and a storm of emotions that I feel woefully unequipped to deal with. This is of course combined with the knowledge that it should not in fact be ‘dealt with’ in any way that isn’t addressing its real-world cause. This, in turn, leads to yet more guilt. Sometimes the temptation to withdraw—to disappear into a bubble of complete ignorance and relative Western privilege—is potent; yet it is also always morally repugnant, and you tell yourself that of course you cannot do that: To disengage would be a shocking abdication of responsibility. Then you doubt whether there is any level of engagement that actually has the power to make any sort of difference—what with the causes of the crisis existing on the scale of macro, systemic, institutional levels. And then you remind yourself that, as with any struggle, any action, no matter how small, is always—always—better than none. Except, perhaps—a lingering voice says—maybe this time the scale of the crisis is so large, that might not even be the case anymore.
One of the main emotions I have felt as a result of the bereavement I suffered was a chronic hopelessness. The precise nature of it is difficult to put into words. When it happened, everything changed. Some basic, instinctual assumptions about the nature of the world were rent asunder. I felt untethered from the chain of cause and effect. Making long term—or even medium-term—plans seemed pointless. A bitter nihilism crept in to fill the hollowness. In a cruel irony, just as I had begun to reckon and deal with that loss through therapy, the baton was passed to this new affliction, and as a result of my climate anxiety an uncannily similar feeling of hollow hopelessness has crept over me.
Lest I make this sound more dramatic than it is, however, I hasten to add that I can function pretty well in this state. Perhaps it’s because I do have that ability to compartmentalise—to shove things behind mental walls and out of sight—but just as before my deep sorrow and despair did not stop me from getting on with the day-to-day, so too now do I find that I can carry on with the routine and the banal. I cook and clean and read and laugh. I’m an extrovert by nature. I see friends and we talk about a multitude of things. Life, with all its minuscule tragedies and victories, goes on. Sunsets still bring a feeling of peace and serenity. The smell of freshly cut grass still transports me to childhood summers. But it’s all a bit like having a party onboard the Nostromo, after finding out what stalks its darker corners. You might be able to forget for a few fleeting moments, as you sip your space-whisky and nibble on your rationed cake, but it’s not long before the grim knowledge of what’s out there descends upon you with a shiver you feel all the way down to your bones.
Once upon a time, I studied astrophysics at university. I didn’t finish the degree, but I remember so clearly the moment that led me to make the decision to start it. Or rather, the accumulation of moments. As a child I used to spend my summers in a little house in the middle of the Czech countryside. It’s a place truly in the middle of nowhere and as such the light pollution is essentially non-existent, and after 11 or so at night, they turn all the street lights off, plunging the landscape into complete darkness. It’s then when the terrestrial plane recedes into total obscurity that the heavens really put on a show. The stars there are absolutely unreal. I used to walk barefoot around our garden underneath that endlessly twinkling blanket, head craned upwards, no mind on which direction I was walking, just following the textures and shapes of star clusters and constellations. It’s there where I started to feel deeply our place in the universe. I could see it all in my mind’s eye: This beautiful, blue orb, hanging suspended in the infinite black, lonely and unimaginably special, teeming with life of mind-boggling variety. When the time came to decide what to study at university, the choice was easy.
Now I see the reports come in, day by day, of how we have reduced our home to an ashen husk. I remember walking around that garden as a boy, discovering how special our world was, and I see the portrait now being painted of a species that developed an economic model so destructive that it risks causing apocalyptic damage to it—as well as to billions of our fellow cohabitants—and it fills me with a chronic anxiety that is also a deep sorrow and furious anger. And I am entirely unsure what to do about it.
There is the matter of privilege here too, of course. The fact that I have only in recent years developed this anxiety speaks volumes about my personal position in the world. Climate change is class warfare: The richest will be able to weather the storm far longer than the rest of us, and just by virtue of my living in London I already fall into one of the most insulated bubbles in the world. Climate change cannot be disentangled from the colonialist capitalism that the West used to enslave the world. It is the logical endpoint of a system that prizes endless growth and that treats the very planet as a resource to be used up and burned. Whether it is the indigenous communities of America, the millions stretched across Eastern and Southern Africa, or the nations South East Asia, frontline and indigenous communities around the world have been sounding the alarm about climate collapse for a lot longer than it has been front-page news in our societies. It is these communities who are already feeling the disaster, and who will feel it worst going forward. As Indigenous Climate Action put it:
Climate change is a major issue for Indigenous Communities, as it has wide-ranging impacts on their territories, rights and way of life. However, the particular context of Indigenous Rights and impacts - in terms of governance, economy, infrastructure, activities related to the territory, etc. - means that most solutions developed for non-Indigenous communities don’t always address deeper understanding and connection to land. In fact, many Indigenous communities are already engaged in important climate change mitigation strategies rooted in Indigenous knowledge and customary practices.
This deep injustice at the heart of climate change forms a significant part of the anxiety I feel. It is crippling and it is taking a major toll on my mental health as I see less and less hope for the people who are already paying for the crimes committed by a few capitalists who got rich off of mass ecocide.
As Greta Thunberg put it to the UN:
Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.
The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.
Until you start focusing on what needs to be done, rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.
Individualism will not save us. The tech bros will not save us. Capitalism will not save us. Only a wide-scale adoption of a green socialism will avert the worst of the damage. Objectively, hope is fast receding. For me personally, most days it feels as if all hope has already left. The dark cloud that has settled on my mind shows no signs of abating. It is as if I was already mourning the death of everything we know, and of the beautiful planet that gave birth to us, and was powerless to grapple with it in any way.
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, Columbia Pictures