​​Alive at the End of The World

A picture of a protest against climate change. Collective action can be a powerful tool against eco-anxiety, according to Rebecca Solnit.

Grace Quantock explores the rise of eco-anxiety and suggests ways we can mitigate it amid growing evidence of the impact of climate change.

Some describe it as an unshakeable sense of something not being right. For others, it’s a rising panic every time there’s a news story about ecological crises. Eco-anxiety is being reported more and more frequently.

While not an official diagnosis, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) have nevertheless defined it: ‘the chronic fear of environmental doom’. These experiences can also be termed climate anxiety, climate grief, climate change distress, eco-trauma and ecological grief, names that speak to the myriad impacts of this situation, which can cause symptoms beyond anxiety.

The climate crisis is caused by wider systems and institutions, including socio-economic and historical structures, and impacts increasing numbers of individuals, communities and ecosystems. Therefore the climate breakdown creates numberless results for humans, including stress, anxiety, post-traumatic-stress, depression and trauma, resulting from the failing economies, climate-induced extreme weather, shifting weather patterns, damaged water and food resources, polluted air effects and species extinction, reports the APA. These issues strain relationships and communities, impacting mental health as well as physical health. This breakdown leads to hopelessness, helplessness, grief, loneliness and a sense of fatalism. The grief of extreme changes to places or environments that are personally important, like homes or workplaces, is increasing. Cherished lives, locations and landscapes get lost in climate disasters and professional identities are disrupted by climate crises or eco-migration. 

55% of people feel climate change has impacted their wellbeing to some degree. 58% worry about what the world will be like for future generations.

‘It’s understandable; worrying about the future, you can feel distress, grief, mourning, rage and even guilt at what mankind [sic] has done. It can evoke a sense of a lack of control and feeling powerless at the sheer scale of things, and you can feel hopeless,’ says British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) counsellor Linda Aspey, a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, speaking to the BACP online about eco-anxiety. 

According to a YouGov/BACP survey, 55% of people feel climate change has impacted their wellbeing to some degree. 58% worry about what the world will be like for future generations. Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman at the University of Bath undertook the largest survey to date investigating the impact of climate change on young people. 66% of the young people surveyed reported feeling anxious, afraid and sad. 40% said they felt abandoned, betrayed and ignored by politicians and adults. 

Refugees, indigenous communities, displaced people, disabled and chronically ill people, socio-economically deprived people and communities predominantly of colour are all more at risk from climate crisis and consequently more impacted by climate anxiety. Communities and ecosystems in the Global South are facing the most dramatic effects of the climate crisis. Young people are also more likely than older people to be struck by eco-anxiety, as they are going to have to live with and manage climate breakdown consequences. Activists like Greta Thurnberg are playing a fundamental role in shifting the conversations about the climate. But they bear a burden they didn’t cause, are frequently vilified or dismissed by the media – and all too often climate activists of colour are ignored. 

Sometimes climate crisis fear can be pathologised and treated as a personal issue, but of course its roots travel much wider, and go much deeper, than also-important individual concerns. Eco-anxiety is often a proportionate response to the world we are experiencing; an emerging and shifting form of psychological pain in response to the existential threats facing us. Among organisations to declare a climate and ecological emergency is the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and their research found that 60% of people in the UK say the crisis is impacting their mental health now and will continue to do so in the future.

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It was at the Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff, that the first million-pound deal in history was done and the first million-pound cheque signed, in 1904. The carbon at the heart of that deal is still inflicting impacts on our environment today. In west Wales, the village of Fairbourne is being called the first place in the UK to be lost to climate change from rising sea levels as extreme weather outpaces defences. 

Welsh Government declared a climate emergency in 2019. Sea levels are rising and Wales’ 2,700km coastline is vulnerable. Defending coastal communities, railways and roads will become more and more expensive. In many places in Wales, like Aberystwyth, farmland is becoming boggier, saltier and harder to farm. More rain, more storms and higher temperatures make futures for Wales’ farmers increasingly painful and precarious. By the 2050s, heat-related deaths in Wales could increase from a baseline of 2.4 to 6.5 per 100,000, more than doubling.

A sense of fatalism around the climate crisis can have devastating impacts. Unable to accept the scale of the problem, many of us declare the issue unsolvable.

This raises existential questions for many people. How to live in a world that is, in many ways, collapsing? Many therapists report younger clients struggling to see their future in a world facing ecological catastrophe in their lifetimes. The term ‘doomers’ refers to young people in their teens or early 20s who struggle with existential questions about what to live for when they fear dying from climate breakdown. Sometimes this can lead to risky behaviours and deep depression. Considering how we ‘take on and live with the likelihood of catastrophe’ as eco-psychotherapist Nick Totten describes it, is an increasingly necessary question. 

However, a sense of fatalism around the climate crisis can have devastating impacts. Unable to accept the scale of the problem, many of us declare the issue unsolvable. Such an attitude can function as permission to check out of holding our elected officials to account or as an excuse to keep living an unsustainable lifestyle (for those who have the privilege of choice to do so). The overwhelming sense of helplessness, common in eco-anxiety, can cause people to fixate on what is not being done and the seemingly insurmountable scale of the problem. Engaging a sense of agency in the face of helplessness is a significant part of finding ways to manage eco-anxiety and live in this world. 

Part of this way forward lies in noticing what’s already happening. Author Rebecca Solnit suggests focussing on the victories of climate activism at local, national and international levels, citing a recent report which noted that: ‘Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual US and Canadian emissions’. It was a major feat of campaigning and Indigenous leadership that went mostly unreported in mainstream outlets. 

‘If some past victories are hard to see, it’s because there’s nothing left behind to see: the coal-fired plant that was never built, the pipeline that was stopped, the drilling that was banned, the trees that weren’t chopped down,’ Solnit writes, suggesting joining in collective action and picking an area to focus on as an antidote to helplessness and overwhelm. 

‘The other way of avoiding the issue is less obvious,’ explains Nick Totten, author of Wild Therapy, who describes ‘climate activists [who are]… trying to ward off grief and fear through constant activity, which inevitably leads to burnout, exhaustion and despair.’ 

Much popular media attention on climate activism focuses on individual choices. It positions citizens as consumers of meat (or not), flights (or not), or other similar individual choices. These, while hugely important, can be used in mainstream media to reduce a global crisis into individual choices and distract from collective action. As Solnit writes: ‘Movements, campaigns, organisations, alliances and networks are how ordinary people become powerful.’ 

Holding onto hope is often recommended as a solution to eco-anxiety but Totten repudiates hope as a solution to the climate crisis, arguing empty invocations of ‘keeping up hope’ can ‘prevent us from processing our feelings and from acting creatively and realistically.’ He instead argues for finding ‘a path to constructive action that recognises the extent of the damage that has already happened and is still happening… the reality of living and dying on a damaged Earth, along with all the other species with which we are inextricably enmeshed, as this is what will produce the kind of thinking that enables us to find ways to create more liveable futures.’ 

As Solnit notes, ‘the future is not yet written’. But we are writing it.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Grace Quantock is a writer and therapist based in the Valleys. A contributing author to An Open Door, she was shortlisted for the Nan Shepherd Prize 2021 and her writing has appeared in The Guardian, New Statesman, Metro and Fabian Review.

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