Posting every Friday at noon is how I act in solidarity with young climate strikers all over the world who want their elders to save their future. The strikers are probably all out of school today, since it is New Year’s Eve, but the problem of climate change is not taking a break.
We all are carrying the weight of anxiety associated with climate change. More and more, our troubled feelings are topics in therapy, in the church and around our tables. In their 2017 document: Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, implications and Guidance, three partners summarized the groundbreaking work people have been doing to assess the impact of the warming atmosphere on mental health: the American Psychological Association (APA), Climate for Health, and EcoAmerica. There is trouble, literally, in the air. We can feel how other people and whole communities are changing and adapting. The experts are helping us sort it all out. If you are practicing psychotherapy, church leadership or any institutional oversight, the health and effectiveness of what you do is being impacted by climate change and the associated mental health challenges we all face.
According to the APA doc, mental health is “the ability to process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses.” As you read through the new names experts are suggesting for what ails us, you can decide how disabled you are. You know that all emotions are part of a fulfilling life. But I think you also know that extreme negative feelings can interfere with our ability to think rationally, plan our behavior, and consider alternative actions. It is easy to see that extreme weather events are sources of trauma; the experiences can cause disabling emotions. You may have already endured such an event. Less-noticed are the indirect effects of climate change which add stress to our lives in varying degrees and are cumulative over time. The stressors to our climate translate into impaired mental health which is resulting in alarming amounts of depression and anxiety.
Everyone has ways to cope with stress. But the accumulated effects of relentless stress can tip a person into mental illness. Just the uncertainty of expecting further trauma can create psychological distress on its own. What’s more, we are negatively affected by hearing about the negative experiences of others, and by fears—founded or unfounded—about our own potential vulnerability.
The stress on the climate also produces stress on the bodies living in it. Compromised physical health creates stress that threatens psychological well-being. Conversely, mental health problems can also threaten physical health, for example, by changing patterns of sleep, eating, or exercise and by reducing immune system function.
The stress is not just about individual well-being. Individual mental and physical health affects communities. The changing climate stresses our community fabric and strains interpersonal relationships. It alters our opportunities for social interaction, the ways we relate to each other, and our connections to the natural world.
I hope talking about climate change anxiety makes it a subject we can discuss and examine and not just a menacing “force” we can’t quite identify. The experts have been hard at work helping us put names to what we are experiencing. Here are a few identifiers which have been coined in the past few years that you might find useful. You don’t need to try each of them on to see if it fits. Let the understanding increase your security. If you recognize a threat, call on God to help you endure it or let it go.
Over the past several years, climate change has moved from an abstract idea to a reality in many of our lives – a reality that has a lot of us increasingly worried. An APA survey in February 2020 found that two-thirds of American adults said that they felt at least a little eco-anxiety [APA podcast], which is defined as worry or concern about climate change and its effects. Some say eco-anxiety is the chronic fear of environmental doom, which will feel appropriately dramatic (and traumatic) to a few readers, no doubt. In the survey, nearly half of those under age 34 said that stress about climate change affects their daily lives.
Ashlee Cunsolo, one of the contributors of the 2017 APA study noted above, coined the idea of “ecological grief” to describe what Inuit people experienced as they tried to adapt to the most rapidly-warming place on Earth: the Arctic.
We have so much grief associated with the last few years of Covid: loved ones dying, and all the community and traditional experiences we lost! Then we had fires, floods, drought, wild tornados, habitat loss, and the list goes on. Climate change anxiety may be a feeling closer to the surface than ecological grief. People are grieving both the current changes they are experiencing and the future loss that might be coming. The loss and fear can create a constant sense of anxiety. Young people feel a loss of power when they want to “future proof” a choice or relationship; their hope and imagination can be blunted.
Many of these terms are collected in Sarah Jaquette Ray’s book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet. She’s an activist and undergrad professor who realized the fact-driven and blame-casting techniques many activists have used in the last 20-30 years have not worked. So she teaches and writes with a more narrative approach full of vision and creativity, not division and damnation.
One of the reasons for her change of direction is most of us feel like we’re hostages to a larger process that is going on in spite of us. The average citizen doesn’t have a lot of power to direct the government or corporations to address climate change. It is important bear witness to this reality, name it, and validate it. It is soothing to validate whatever the problem happens to be in one’s life. It is empowering to elevate it; we lift it up, and say, “This is important.” It is transforming to look at it from different angles and get creative about it, “What are we going to do about this?”
Life is beginning to feel like a prison for many people, an experience we never imagined. It is exhausting. The climate, coupled with the economy, COVID, political polarization is very real anxiety for people. We tend to toggle between grieving, mourning and disorganization and then experiences of growth, new beginnings, and creativity. It is a normal sort of oscillation. So we should not be surprised if climate change anxiety takes us up and down, like we are locked into the roller coaster car. We should look at people charitably to see where they are on the oscillation curve when we are relating. One of my favorite proverbs says:
Like a man who undresses in winter
or a woman who pours vinegar on a wound,
So is anyone who tries to sing happy songs
to a sorrowful heart. (Proverbs 20:20 The Voice)
We can feel or make others feel it is shameful to feel troubled, as if life should be dancing with the stars! It is helpful to check out our own state with some understanding and compassion as well as that of others with the same charity.
The philosopher Glenn Albrecht in Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World (2019) invented a new word: solastalgia, to describe the experience of being in place in one’s home community, but it no longer looks or feels like home. Solstalgia comes from the Latin word for comfort (solacium) and Greek word for pain (-algia). It names a sense of homesickness without actually leaving home. People experience this when their neighborhoods and churches change around them, of course. But the changing of the whole planet amplifies the sensation. Think of all the native people in the United States and Brazil who have been overrun by the ravages of industrial capitalism. They undoubtedly have felt the profound discomfort of their environment being degraded and changing around them, nevertheless, it is their home.
The anthropocene is a proposed new geologic age marked by the irreversible ways in which human beings have affected the climate and environment. It has not been approved by the International Geological Conference, yet, but the discussion continues. Some proponents would like to mark the beginning of the age with the Agricultural Revolution 12-15,000 years ago. But more would prefer it to begin with the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945.
If you were born between the early 1990’s and 2000’s (the GenZ/iGen marketing label), you are the first to have spent your entire lives within the cultural consciousness and obvious effects of climate change. You are the “climate generation” or the climate change anxiety generation. Stereotypes of this generation include: 1) linking climate change and social justice, 2) feeling financially insecure and being in debt, 3) being troubled by wealth disparity/the 1%, 4) growing up with smart phones, social media and internet access to everything, 5) being more stressed, lonely, depressed and suicidal than previous generations, 6) being more aware of and more likely to report trauma, 7) being more ethnically diverse and identity fluid, 8) being less likely to vote or trust any institutions. You are the humans who best represent the anthropocene.
Age of Overwhelm
Laura van Dermoot Lipsky wrote The Age of Overwhlem: Strategies for the Long Haul in 2018 and the description stuck. The following viral YouTube video of an overwhelmed child epitomizes what the age of overwhelm might feel like to children and to your inner child.
Pre-traumatic stress disorder
Lise van Susteren, co-founder of the Climate Psychology Alliance defined the term pre-traumatic stress disorder. The disorder is dread about the future combined with feelings of powerlessness to do anything to shape that future. I contend it is what we are all feeling as the evil fruits of capitalism continue to ripen, unabated. A similar idea is “anticipatory grief” – what you might feel when standing next to a forest about to be logged and you connect that event to all the other desperately-needed forests about to be destroyed. Such feelings of stress, helplessness, fear and fatalism are linked to physical ailments, even a weakened immune system.
This aspect of climate change anxiety is the exhaustion of having to make endless moral choices when they don’t seem to make a difference. It is the psychological rebellion against always having to worry about every choice when other people’s lack of concern negates your efforts. Per Espen Stoknes gave a popular Ted Talk on apocalypse fatigue, hoping to help us overcome it.
Fearing ecological Armageddon, singer-songwriter Blythe Pepino set up BirthStrike in 2018, an organization based in the UK for men and women refusing to have children because of the climate crisis and bureaucratic inertia over dealing with it. When she spoke to Tucker Carlson she assured him that BirthStrike is different from nihilistic anti-natalism. Rather than trying to convert the masses to childlessness, they are presenting people with a choice. They hope women (and their partners) will channel their mothering skills into activism. Women can soothe the grief of forgoing motherhood with something more active, regenerative, and hopeful for humanity. Pepino teamed up with Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli of Conceivable Future, a women-led network of Americans who come together to discuss the intersection of climate change and reproductive justice, to put their responses to climate change anxiety into a video.
[Sep 2022 update. Even before I wrote this, BirthStrike had morphed into a support group named “Grieving Parenthood in the Climate Crisis: Channelling Loss into Climate Justice” (see report). Their previous posture was criticized as white privilege.]
Piling up names for our maladies may increase, not decrease climate change anxiety! How did you do? As a Jesus follower I am joined with billions of people in history who knew where to turn in their own “ages of overwhelm.” Hold on to the Lord’s hand as you venture into the unknown threats of our troubling times. You are the beloved of God and God is with you.