Waking Up …

Guest Post by: Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology

For 40 years witnessing the destruction of the natural world by humans has caused me to feel blind fury, profound sadness, disbelief, and many more emotions. Often, my feelings have been dismissed by others. I’ve been told I’m too sensitive, I’m naïve, I need to face up to the fact it’s a dog eat dog world and I should grow up and accept reality – which if course only added to my feelings of outrage at the injustice of it all. 

Why has so much environmental destruction been allowed to happen, and worse still why are so many people not waking up even with the ever mounting scientific data about the consequences to all life on Earth?

I do understand that being aware of the scale of what is happening can be depressing and totally overwhelming but how can be problems be dealt with if they are avoided?  This problem isn’t going away.

A newly published study funded by AVAAZ (2021) conducted research on 10,000 young people aged 16-25 in 10 different countries from all over the Globe who were asked in an online survey for their views on climate change and eco-anxiety. The overall finding is that young people feel betrayed, and one of the biggest causes of their eco-anxiety is a lack of Government action. Crucially, eco-anxiety in this survey meant 56% felt powerless, 51% felt helpless and 75% feel the future is frightening (for full details see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONbPVPJsEx4&t=45s )

It’s quite impactful isn’t it?  

Not only is climate change causing anxiety but a lack of meaningful action is a significant factor in determining growing numbers of young people’s state of mental health and well-being. Could research such as this be the alarm call that those who aren’t listening hear?  We are certainly getting closer.

But why is the destruction of the natural world still happening? What is it going to take for the majority to acknowledge the magnitude of the issues, to take more immediate action, to stop this destruction and work towards a fairer Earth for all who live here?  

Reading about studies on Eco-anxiety has helped me understand why. It has helped get why more action isn’t being taken. I would like to share a brief flavour on what I’ve discovered because believe it or not, it gives me hope.  

I found out there are many more studies in the last few years suggesting more urgency to make sense of it all. Different types of eco-anxiety have been identified in diverse fields of research such as eco-trauma, climate change anxiety, and eco-grief.  

What personally causes me most pain is the harm done to non-humans but it is not the same for everyone. Studies show for those who don’t connect with nature, climate change is a cause of uncomfortable feelings due to a sense of a loss of control and a fear of change to a way of life they don’t want to let go of.  

Professor Susan Clayton and colleagues have dedicated years to this field including creating an actual measure of eco-anxiety. A 2020 study established where the threshold is between what is healthy, and what is unhealthy when it adversely impacts daily living (1). The study found eco-anxiety was common especially with younger participants. There is a theme here. I really hope people in all areas of life shake themselves more awake, with their eyes wide open. It can’t mostly be left to young people to be the ones who are hearing the alarms go off, carrying the burden of the future on their shoulders, whilst those around continue to sleep walk.    

A really interesting finding from part of this same research was that when people were given empowering messages about climate change they were less likely to avoid or deny the issues involving it as opposed to the others who were given information that was framed in a powerless context.

Climate change isn’t going away regardless of whether a person believes it exists or not.  Analysis of 163 studies focused on the threat to public health because of climate change found it caused a number of people to have higher levels of anxiety and depression, PTSD, and even suicide (2). There is also evidence that those who already have underlying mental health issues are disproportionally affected. 

Where you live on the planet also means you may be disproportionally affected. A study on the direct impact of climate change to Native Canadians found changes to the environment meant the Innuit people who hunt Caribou have experienced numbers drastically declining in the last 20 years, meaning this food source and way of life is not sustainable anymore.  Suicide rates increased up to 11 times more than the Canadian average. “Eco-grief” is used to describe the reaction to the loss of their place, their culture, their knowledge, the loss of security and food, and in addition the anticipation of further losses. All of this can compound the trauma of environmental change for Indigenous people (3, 4).  

It isn’t just Indigenous people who are affected in this way. An Australian study on adverse changes to the environment found farmers were at a higher perceived risk of depression and suicide (5). And that was before the wildfires the country has recently suffered.

In a study with a different focus on the causes of eco anxiety using 1500 Australians measured people’s identification with nature. The study found people who related more to nature had higher levels of mental wellbeing but were also more prone to stress and anxiety due to owning the knowledge of so much destruction to nature (6).  In a similar study of almost 5000 people in the UK also found a connection to nature was linked to higher levels of wellbeing but more positively, it was also linked to higher levels of pro-environmental behaviour (7). This study advocated “eco-therapy” interventions by advising people to re-connect with the environment by being outside in nature to improve human health which in turn positively impacts the health and wellbeing of the planet.

Sociology perspectives gave me really interesting insights into eco-anxiety and why it isn’t more prevalent than it should be. There is a view that when the existence of the rapid increase in climate change is denied then a comforting social order is maintained. Facing the realities of the consequences of the destruction to the natural world could mean the loss of work for many, big lifestyle changes, a lack of favourite products and foods amongst other things. Denying climate change, apathy, or avoiding the issue, is a strategy deployed collectively as a “socially constructed silence” and a defence mechanism used by society to avoid negative emotions and threats to perceptions of identity (8,9).  

I am more conscious now about how I chose to discuss the issues and with what I have learnt as I want people to take action and believe a positive difference can be made.

Interviews of young New Zealand Environmental Activists found Climate change denial in society caused the Activists despair however being part of a group who were taking action generated hope for them (11). Instead of a perceived lack of agency for the environmental situation the activists used anxiety and hope as a source of power instead of allowing it to let them feel powerless.

An analysis of many studies on eco-anxiety found most forms were “healthy”, and can be used in practical ways to take action or make changes. Eco-anxiety is considered to be a moral emotion based on an accurate appraisal of the severity and magnitude of the ecological crisis (12). The Author, Dr Pihkana believes that in dealing with climate change we should focus on how to improve the positive adaptive potential of experiences of eco-anxiety and learn how to minimise the paralyzing forms of eco-anxiety. 

Climate changes are here and it is getting harder to shy away from it and keep hitting snooze. Real positive change is possible because we can learn how to deal with it, or why we are avoiding it and deal with that, then move on. This consciousness is becoming more common, the studies are evidence of that and I am feeling more and more hopeful than I have for a very long time. I invite you to read and nourish your curiosity and move maybe yourself or assist others to move from what seems like a powerless position to a more powerful one. One where we can transition towards a world that has woken up and healthy as it can possible be.

 

  1. Clayton, S., & Karazsia, B. T. (2020). Development and validation of a measure of climate change anxiety. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 69, 101434. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101434
  2. Cianconi, P., Betrò, S., & Janiri, L. (2020). The impact of climate change on mental health: A systematic descriptive review. Frontiers in Psychiatry; Front Psychiatry, 11, 74. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00074
  3. Bourque, F., & Cunsolo Willox, A. (2014). Climate change: The next challenge for public mental health? International Review of Psychiatry (Abingdon, England); Int Rev Psychiatry, 26(4), 415-422. doi:10.3109/09540261.2014.925851
  4. Cunsolo, A., Borish, D., Harper, S. L., Snook, J., Shiwak, I., Wood, M., & The Herd Caribou Project Steering, C. (2020). “You can never replace the caribou”: Inuit experiences of ecological grief from caribou declines. American Imago, 77(1), 31-59. doi:10.1353/aim.2020.0002
  5. Ellis, N. R., & Albrecht, G. A. (2017). Climate change threats to family farmers’ sense of place and mental wellbeing: A case study from the western australian wheatbelt. Social Science & Medicine (1982); Soc Sci Med, 175, 161-168. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.01.009
  6. Dean, J. H., Shanahan, D. F., Bush, R., Gaston, K. J., Lin, B. B., Barber, E., . . . Fuller, R. A. (2018). Is nature relatedness associated with better mental and physical health? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; Int J Environ Res Public Health, 15(7), 1371. doi:10.3390/ijerph15071371
  7. Martin, L., White, M. P., Hunt, A., Richardson, M., Pahl, S., & Burt, J. (2020). Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 68, 101389. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101389
  8. Norgaard, K. M. (2006). “People want to protect themselves a little bit”: Emotions, denial, and social movement nonparticipation. Sociological Inquiry, 76(3), 372-396. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2006.00160.x
  9. Norgaard, K. M. (2011). Living in denial: Climate change, emotions, and everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge: The MIT Press.

(10) Haltinner, K., & Sarathchandra, D. (2018). Climate change skepticism as a psychological coping strategy. Sociology Compass, 12(6), e12586-n/a. doi:10.1111/soc4.12586

(11) Nairn, K. (2019). Learning from young people engaged in climate activism: The potential of collectivizing despair and hope. Young (Stockholm, Sweden), 27(5), 435-450. doi:10.1177/1103308818817603

(12) Panu, P. (2020). Anxiety and the ecological crisis: An analysis of eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 12(7836), 7836. doi:10.3390/su12197836

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