When I was little, I begged my dad to build a bomb shelter. I had just seen an animated film on the effects of nuclear destruction, and I was terrified. My Dad, a World War II veteran, tried to reassure me by saying we’d be fine if we just hid in our basement but, deep down, I knew he was wrong. I sensed my fears scared my parents, so I began keeping them to myself. As a result, all my life I’ve had to work hard to shake off feelings of some kind of looming disaster. That’s the scarring effect of apocalyptic anxiety on a vulnerable child.
Environmental activist Greta Thunberg – the first teenager to be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year – experienced something similar when, at age eight, she first heard about the climate crisis. Her father reports that she went into a deep depression, eating and talking very little, eventually refusing to attend school.
Eco-anxiety is not primarily a mental disorder but instead a realistic response to the reality of human-caused environmental disaster.
Psychologists are calling this “eco-anxiety,” which the American Psychological Society defines as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Symptoms can include feelings of fatalism, anger, cynicism, guilt, emotional paralysis, and even panic attacks. While these symptoms can spiral out of control, I contend that eco-anxiety is not primarily a mental disorder but instead a realistic response to the reality of human-caused environmental disaster. Perhaps we should simply call the condition “eco-awareness.” However we name it, the distress is spreading.
A recent large national survey by Yale University, “Climate Change in the American Mind,” reports that almost 70% of Americans feel worried about climate change. A majority are also worried about natural disasters affecting their own area, including extreme heat, droughts, flooding, and/or water shortages. Often some of the most concerned are those who work outside: farmers and fishermen, emergency workers, and medical personnel. Especially affected are young people, like Greta Thunberg, who feel their future is at risk and may even, as she did, wonder if it’s worth it to get an education or train for a career.
The fears can be so overwhelming that many turn off the news, put these scary thoughts out of their minds, or try to simply ‘think positive.’ Some distract themselves through over-work, fantasy, substance abuse—whatever it takes. Many have developed such a strong psychological or social defense that they just don’t talk much about it, but instead – just like I did as a child — keep these feelings inside. Others expect that people in authority, market forces, emerging technologies, or even an all-powerful Creator will take care of things just in the nick of time. At first, Greta, too, figured adults would take dramatic action. When she realized they weren’t going to, her depression deepened.
Less than half of Americans feel any social pressure or expectation to do something about the looming problems.
Perhaps the most troubling thing the Yale survey reports is that less than half of Americans feel any social pressure or expectation to do something about the looming problems. In fact, 51% of Americans say they feel “helpless.”
So what can be done? The emerging field of eco-therapy is one response to this eco-anxiety. Providers recommend such things as spending time outdoors, focusing on beauty, fostering a sense of self-agency, creating adaptive and resilient scenarios, and other means of self-care. This makes sense because it is hard for a suffering person to foster healthy action. Another response is individual action, such as getting really focused on food choices, consumer behaviors, or energy use. While small changes made by individuals do add up, many implicitly know that simply working on a personal level is not enough.
We need to turn eco-anxiety into eco-action on at least three additional levels: the communal, the market, and the governmental. Changes on the communal level include talking about your proactive efforts with others. We should not discount the influence we have on friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and even casual acquaintances. Another important action is to join community groups focused on change. Side benefits are that these groups build relationships, reduce loneliness, and give others hope.
When action is determined and carefully organized, it can work.
Starting at the grass-roots, though, builds not just community but courage and momentum. As Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Research proves that when action is determined and carefully organized, it can work. Recent documentaries highlight such activities, for instance, From Paris to Pittsburgh, Ice on Fire, and River Between Us.
Since big business and government share a large part of the blame for the climate crisis, it is crucial that we also extend our agency there. Individual consumers can object, for instance, to single-use non-biodegradable containers, but a joint effort may more quickly cause a company to rethink its practices.
Without wide scale legislative changes, however, all other actions will be piecemeal. We must work, then, to influence our elected officials. Calling, writing, and visiting legislators to express concern and suggest positive changes will hopefully push them to prioritize their public duty to address climate change. By far, the most important thing we can do is vote for candidates who recognize the severity of the climate crisis and pledge to take action.
Religion and spirituality have an important place in addressing eco-anxiety. The human emotions involved in eco-anxiety are not new nor unhealthy. It is beneficial to break our constructed silence around these feelings. References to grief, sorrow, and guilt, for instance, are replete in the Bible. Guilt that leads to change can be a beneficial spiritual response to the ways we have sinned against God’s creation and indirectly caused harm to vulnerable populations, such as the poor, the marginalized, the disabled, the elderly, children, and fragile species. Compassion towards them may prompt us to repent and help create a better future.
Grief, too, has an important place in our spiritual lives as the normal response to sin and loss. Jesus grieved, God grieves, and we can even grieve the Holy Spirit when we hurt ourselves, others, and God’s creation. Faith communities that take a holistic approach to human emotions and specialize in addressing the large existential questions of life are the best places to ground this essentially theological work.
While we cannot guarantee the results of our action, it is crucial that we take it, because the results of inaction are easy to predict.
But what about hope? It is clear we need to increase hope rather than heighten apocalyptic fears. This is probably the only thing that can break the hold of the emotional and ethical paralysis that keeps us from acting. Christianity is a religion that declares there is always hope since hope comes from God’s benevolence towards humanity. In addition, Christianity teaches that faith and hope are synergistically linked. Faith is hope in things not seen. Some of us may find hope through meaningful work, volunteering, or eco-activism. And while we cannot guarantee the results of our action, it is crucial that we take it, because the results of inaction are easy to predict. As for me, I long ago realized I needed to practice a vocation – in my case, ministry, writing, and teaching – that not only reaches out but also helps me feel hopeful and proactive rather than apocalyptic.
But one does not need to feel hope before taking action. That’s what Greta Thunberg learned when she turned her deep concerns outward, deciding at age 15 to spend the time she would have been in school to instead stage a one-person climate strike outside the Swedish parliament. Now, her father reports, Greta’s careful preparations, speaking engagements, and climate activism, has caused the depression to lift. In fact, he says, Greta is happy. As a result, she is inspiring both young and old to take action. When eco-anxiety is turned into eco-action, the benefits are experienced not just by an individual, but by all those encouraged and touched by that action.