The Rising Interest in Eco-Anxiety is Happy News

The rising interest in eco-anxiety is happy news.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The rising interest in eco-anxiety is happy news. Image: Unsplash

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The rising interest in eco-anxiety is happy news.

The title may sound contradictory. Indeed, it has to be emphasized that eco-anxiety can feel so terrible that people may even be at risk of suicidal behaviour.

But the reason for the title is that just 6 years ago, things were very different in relation to public discussions and eco-anxiety. Ecological distress was not recognized, save in some small circles: ecopsychologists had discussed the substance of eco-distress already in the 1980s. Lots of people felt isolated because they experienced eco-anxiety, but their communities and the media did not recognize that. Many felt that there was something wrong with them – instead of something wrong with the world, which is the actual case. 

Now, there are psychological organizations working with eco-anxiety, peer groups providing recognition, and many responsible journalists covering the topic. People who feel eco-anxiety don’t feel so alone. 

This all coincides with my own work, and it has been good to be a part of a global movement towards more recognition for eco-distress. I facilitated my first eco-anxiety workshop around 2009 with my dear environmental education colleague Essi Aarnio-Linnanvuori. Since the beginning of 2015, the topic has become the main focus of my academic work. I had to battle through disavowal, and many raised eyebrows between 2015 and 2017, but luckily, I persisted with the help of some good friends. Things really changed for me in Finland in the Autumn of 2017, when my book about Eco-anxiety and Hope (in Finnish) came out and became much discussed in the media. 

We had a kind of golden time in Finland with public discussions around eco-anxiety between 2017 and winter 2018-2019. After that, especially the term climate anxiety became politicized and started to be strongly affected by identity politics. Some people denounced the term and phenomenon, and some people acknowledged it and gained strength from having a word for real experiences. 

Globally, there have been many kinds of discourses about eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. (By the way, I define eco-anxiety as a broad phenomenon, and climate anxiety is the climate change–related parts of it). Some of these discourses are highly problematic. Below is my attempt to characterize some discourses.

Various discourses around eco-anxiety
(1) “People who feel eco-anxiety need validation and support”
(2) “We have this new kind of mental health disorder which needs treatment”
(3) “Eco-anxiety is good because it is linked with progressive environmental politics”
(4) “Eco-anxiety is unnecessary and we need attention to other things than environmental politics”
(5) “Eco-anxious people are neurotic”
(6) “As researchers, we need to analyze various forms of this phenomenon and various discourses around it”

Personally and as a researcher, I emphasize the importance of options 1 and 6: the need for validation, support, and research. Together with emotion scholar and philosopher Charlie Kurth, I’ve also made the case that a fundamental aspect of eco-anxiety is “practical eco-anxiety”, echoing option 3. Practical eco-anxiety is related to experiencing problematic uncertainty and threats, which can lead to the gathering of new information and behaviour change. However, because the ecological crisis is so vast and there are limits to individual efficacy, eco-anxiety can easily become overly intense.

Thus, there is a need to critically analyse various usages of the word eco-anxiety, and there are many problematic discourses about it. Other words, such as distress, may well be used, and place-related ecological grief has a good word to describe it: solastalgia. But still, I think that the raised interest is happy news. National and global recognition has helped many people. There have emerged practical projects, for example, in social and health sectors, to support people, both proactively and reactively. Examples include the Finnish national project on eco-anxiety in social and health sectors and the work of Australian psychologists on coping with climate change distress.

The rising interest and recognition are seen also in the research world. A growing number of scholars are exploring eco-anxiety and other eco-emotions from a wide variety of viewpoints. Personally, I find inspiration from younger researchers who specialize in the study of various ecological emotions, coping, and action. They know the subject first-hand, they are able to utilize the studies already performed, and there is a lot of promise in their work.

Of course, there are also obstacles, such as resistance in some disciplines and institutions towards the subject and lack of research funding and research organizations, but many people are also working to change these factors. I believe we’ll see in the near future the generation of research networks around eco-anxiety; there are already signs of this.

Image: Panu Pihkala
Image: Panu Pihkala

Education has been one of the sectors where eco-anxiety has had special interest. As the Swedish pioneering scholar Maria Ojala has shown, teachers may have different views about emotions in general and eco-emotions in particular. Some teachers devalue emotions in general and difficult emotions in particular. However, a growing number of educators and education scholars are engaging deeply with eco-emotions. The Existential Toolkit for Climate Justice Educators network and website is one example of this, and there’s a forthcoming book arising from that network.

I have personally worked much with environmental education and eco-anxiety and reviewed ways in which eco-emotions could be engaged constructively in education. One of the pioneers in this has been Elin Kelsey, an environmental educator, communicator, and writer, whose emphasis on solutions journalism is very close to the agenda of HappyEcoNews. 

My own recent work has focused on creating a process model of eco-anxiety and grief, which luckily has been helpful for many people, along with the recent Climate Emotions Wheel designed by Climate Mental Health Network on the basis of my climate emotions article. Perhaps I could invite you to take a look at the Process Model and the Climate Emotion Wheel and reflect on climate emotions experienced by you and the people near you. Emotions are great sources of energy, even the dark ones, and we need their power in our joint work for the world.

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