Eco-Anxiety as a mental health problem
Disclaimer: This article does not give medical advice. If you suffer from any anxiety symptoms or you are experiencing a sadness that won’t lift, please seek professional help.
Eco-anxiety as a mental health problem has reportedly been on the rise. It is defined as a depression brought on by the climate crisis and other ecological threats such as plastic pollution and the decline of ecosystems also known as the 6th Mass Extinction. Those suffering from it describe feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, existential dread and despair.
As the climate crisis is becoming ever more difficult to deny or argue away, there are both mental and also physical health issues being brought on by changes in the environment. Difficulties to cope are being caused by heatwaves and nutritional problems, which arise from the strong connection between nutritional status and mental health.
There is compelling evidence for rapid climate change and the human contribution is, according to scientific consensus, undeniable. It is happening right in front of our eyes.
- Glaciers are melting and the arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of 12.85 per cent per decade.
- Freak weather phenomenons are on the rise.
- Whole ecosystems of insects are collapsing. We are facing the Sixth Mass Extinction, which is also the death knell to species that haven’t even been discovered by us yet.
- Estimates are that we only have another 100 harvests left due to soil degradation caused by our invasive farming practices, although there are claims that those estimates are just a fantasy.
- Also, think of all the other pressing problems such as deforestation, social inequality, modern slavery, the ocean plastic crisis and so on. It is difficult to know where to start.
“End-of-the-world” scenarios in history
If we look at it historically, the apocalypse is ever-present to the human historical narrative. Just think of Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar or the Book of Revelation. If that all sounds too much like mumbo-jumbo to you, it is interesting to see that every era throughout human history has had their own idea of the end of the world, whether people called it Ragnarök or Armageddon.
We might argue that is was never as imminent and real as it currently is, but humanity has faced scenarios of near-extinction before. There was the threat of nuclear war in the cold war period (1947-1991). Of course, the nuclear threat exceeds that of warfare, as disasters such as Chernobyl, or more recently Fukushima Daiichi, have made all too clear. Both are good examples of how our belief in our capacity to control nature by means of technology can so easily backfire in the face of the unpredictability of the forces of nature.
So, what is our place in all this? How can we still act without going completely crazy?
The point is that there is so much resilience in the human spirit to overcome it and find solutions. There is a capacity for change. Firstly, we need to identify the cause. Scientists agree that the carbon emissions would have to be brought to net-zero by 2050 to keep the warming within the limits of 1.5 degrees. Regular assessments are being provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The cause of the predicament we are in is mainly our reliance on fossil fuels which have been our main energy source since the onset of the industrial revolution. It is, however, very interesting to learn that fossil fuels have been in use by humans even before the industrial age, all be it in smaller quantities. Since then, our hunger for more has increased. Our current economy is addicted to growth which is not necessarily replicated in natural life cycles. There are different types of growth such as exponential growth (which is the case for bacteria) and logistic growth which reaches a plateau as the carrying capacity is reached. In simple terms, this means that unlimited growth is only possible if unlimited resources are at hand, which is evidently not the case as far as our energy resources are concerned. There is a limit to growth.
The good news is: we have identified the cause. The bad news is: the more we look into it, the more we feel crushed by it.
Many of us feel like throwing in the towel, giving up completely. A lot of us just continue with “business as usual”, believing that we are too far gone anyway. Or some of us go on babystrike. But are any of the above the right ways to go about it?
Where do we start?
To get us out of our paralysis, we need to examine the cause or causes, as we have seen above. These issues are so difficult to solve as it will require a complete overhaul of our way of life.
We need to look at how we feed ourselves, how we keep warm or cool (both in a way of clothing and housing) and how we get from A to B. For all of this, we need energy which needs to come from somewhere, either manual labour or machines which need to be powered by some energy source. So, how do we generate energy, how do we grow our food, how do we make the things we consume, how do we communicate and how do we share our knowledge?
The interesting thing is that in all of these lies the very key to necessary innovation and solutions to take us forward and thereby get us out of this mess, while there is also a threat. Infinite possibilities and options of how we spend our time, and being constantly on tap with our mobile phones and being overloaded with consumer goods and information may actually be the reason for the anxiety or at least aggravate it.
Below are a few thoughts I want to share with you which may help you to regain your footing. The problem of energy, transport, food and consumer products are all spoken about, either directly or indirectly. Some of the ideas also include communication and decision making processes. Of course, there is still a lot of scope for discussion. You may disagree with some of it or have better ideas (I hope you do). You may not want to do it in the same sequence. I have just found some of which I am going to outline below helpful in regaining a sense of security and to grow stronger in the process.
We will need to break the loop or vicious circle through continuous change and resilience and adaptation to circumstance.
- Try and come to terms with the uncertainty of the human condition. This may sound a bit abstract, but it simply means that we have a natural aversion to uncertainty and unpredictability. Nothing ever stays the same as much as we reel against it. We constantly need to adapt and change and react, whatever life and its complexities throw at us.
- Try and limit your exposure to sensationalist news. This is a very important point. Constant availability of news at an ever-accelerating rate can be harmful. Reduce it. Be selective of what you read, watch and listen to. Maybe limit it to certain times of the day. Choose reliable channels and subscribe to a few magazines but don’t exceed a number you won’t be able to handle. I won’t be able to tell you how much reading you should do, as we all differ, but there is a reason why binge-watching and technology overload is harmful no matter what the content is.
- Find your own boundaries, don’t take on too much and don’t get scattered. Don’t expect miracles overnight. This is pretty much in the same vein as the above, but it predominantly points at your personal efforts to make a change. Yes, you can try and go zero-waste, do permaculture, become a vegan and go completely DIY but that is not an option for all of us. We need resources and supplies to make this feasible. We need to do little baby steps and be satisfied with it. Yes, the situation is pressing, but we need to be sustainable and that means we need to start with ourselves and not deplete our own resources (just as we are doing with the planet).
- Concentrate on your community and family unit. This is very important and helps with no. 2 and 3 of the above. That is where you can really make a change. All the measures we need to take to redesign and overcome all the different ecological challenges are, of course, too much for the individual and families alone. So we need to go half-way and do what we can do on a local scale first. XR (Extinction Rebellion) is thinking of a remodelling of our decision making systems into a so-called ecolocracy which is an integrative decision-making process (IDMP). Proposals are integrated by way of different rounds until an agreement has been settled without raising objections. Read more about this process here.
- Learn about alternatives to your life-style. Seek out people in your neighbourhood and community to learn more about the complexity of the problem and find out what you can contribute, however insignificant it may seem at first. Make this an ongoing practice. This can come after the points above. Once you think you are on track in your own community, it is time to think global. Be part of transforming a degenerative economic system into a regenerative one. Degenerative means we lose out. We take away and do not return it into the cycle which destabilizes our life-supporting systems. Regenerative means that we restore, repair, reuse, refurbish and (only as a very last resort) recycle. This is a very complex one to handle if we can imagine a shift into a more equitable economy that is not dependent on growth.
In nature, nothing grows forever. Everything is cyclical. We will need to think differently in terms of ownership, distribution models and our own identities as part of an overarching system.
Practical steps that may help you and prevent you from losing the plot altogether
- Start at home with making more ethical and greener consumer choices. The Ethical Consumer and Permaculture Magazine can be of great help.
- Think about a more minimalist approach to things. Think about what you need and what can be classified as luxury. This does not mean you will have to look like a scruff and abandon your self-respect (this is, unlike vanity and pride, a good thing). Don’t binge buy and reuse what you have already got.
- Plan your food week. Write down your meal plan and stop buying food willy-nilly. It is very hard to resist the temptation and supermarkets are of course designed in this way too, quite literally, whet our appetite. It will give you some structure and cut down on food waste considerably. Fit it into your daily routine and this will also free up money to spend on luxuries (yes, this may even be the truffle sauce if you fancy it).
- Home-cooking. Maybe get a bread maker. Maybe you would like to learn how to ferment some of your own foods (kefir, yoghurt or their dairy-free options). The idea to grow some of your own veggies is always good but unfortunately not feasible for a lot of us. It helps to remind oneself of the “baby steps”. Keep it on a small and manageable scale.
- See how you can save some energy. That said, our need for energy has increased immeasurably due to the multiplicity of electronic devices we use. It is also possible for only a few of us to live off-grid or invest in solar panels. You may consider switching your energy provider though. I am currently looking into this myself. Living in an old house without proper insulation this is a real challenge but there are grants available to change this too.
- Look into water-saving. One of my oncoming projects will be a rainwater collector in the garden. I also use the water from dehumidifiers to water plants or soak nappies. The cistern in the toilet is another thing to think about. The best thing I have seen so far is to try so-called greywater action, so the water you use to wash your hands fills up the cistern.
And last but not least I would like to recommend some books that are definitely worth reading on this topic.
- There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee
- This Is Not A Drill. An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. Read the review here.
We are all in this together. There will be a change to the world as we know it and we have to try everything to make it a better place.
I would like to finish by quoting Martin Luther (not Martin Luther King, I mean the Renaissance guy! :).
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”