Writing by Ellie Bye. Illustration by Heather Baillie.
As a species, we often think of ourselves as separate from nature. We have usurped a god-like power over the planet, erecting huge towers where we choose, and bulldozing across acres of land to make way for motorways, destroying any sign of life in the process. We have traded natural selection and evolution for technological advances instead. As a result, we have seemingly condemned ourselves to a Faustian fate. We have exchanged the wellbeing and harmony of the planet in return for a handful of years of comforted living. Now, face-to-face with the consequences, we must try to change the course of the planet.
Nonetheless, this massive task has had the opposite effect. It has caused a sort of stasis as many of us feel immobilised by the magnitude of the ever-worsening climate crisis. This condition of negligent idleness finds two main reasons. Firstly, many become overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and feel paralysed by a sense of impending doom. Alternatively, in this huge world, many believe themselves to be too small to be able to do anything effective or worthwhile. Both these reactions are fuelled by ignorance, and the latter is often the result of laziness too, but both result in reckless inaction.
In this huge world, it is easy to feel impossibly small. Earth’s human population is edging closer and closer towards eight billion people, projected to reach this milestone by the end of this year. Yet, this number has almost no significance because of it’s grandness. Ultimately, will we really feel the difference between when there was a population of seven billion versus the massive one billion increase to eight? Probably not. As a numeral, it is written like this: 8,000,000,000. If I didn’t exist, the number would be 7,999,999,999. If none of my followers on Instagram existed, the number would be around 7,999,999,299. If none of The Rattlecap’s followers existed either, the number would still be around 7,999,998,099. Or indeed, if we removed every single account on Instagram from that number, of which there are 1.386 billion, it would still be 6,614,000,000. No matter how we manipulate that number, it remains as incomprehensible as before. Likewise, no matter how much the population increases, we feel just as small and insignificant as before.
In the same way, however, the unimaginable size of such a huge number is paralleled by the unimaginable and unexpected power of our actions. It is undoubtedly much easier to lazily take the high road by sitting back and pointing the finger towards our governments and big corporations rather than making huge lifestyle changes and accepting culpability. However, we frequently forget the influence we have on these large bodies, be that through consumer demand, or voting for our government.
These bodies exist because of our acceptance of them. One of the most visible examples of this is the growing market for meat-free alternatives. Every year, we see more and more alternatives introduced, and it’s no surprise when 11% of the UK population follows a vegetarian diet as of 2022. This number more than doubles amongst gen Z, with 25% of this demographic avoiding meat. The launch of veganuary this year continued this theme with the participation of many big brands offering up their vegan alternatives, including Babybel, Burger King, Gü, Krispy Kreme, Dominos, and many more. Even if you feel you hardly add to these statistics, a recent report found that you save 20.6 million animals by eating vegetarian once a week for a decade. This immediate and more tangible gratification of avoiding meat gives us a sense of autonomy and control that both alleviates our guilt and soothes our anxiety. Just by avoiding meat, therefore, we exercise our own control, make an impactful difference to the environment, and influence big corporations to invest in a more sustainable future.
It is clear, therefore, that this forceful push into a more environmentally friendly mentality is one that is genuinely starting to work in persuading these corporations to act. That being said, for businesses and governments alike, the climate crisis is principally a capitalist nightmare. Actions to preserve the environment are really veiled efforts to preserve their profits and the economy. This is a precedent that is projected back at us, and one that we blissfully embrace. Bringing your own reusable mug to Pret A Manger, for example, entitles you to a 50p discount, which is an enjoyable and significant reduction from the full price cost of a £2.35 latte. Schemes like this one are overall much more beneficial than any harm they create, but it is worth noting the narrative that this creates: helping the environment can only be done when convenient and economic to us. That is not to say there are no cheap and easy solutions. As I write this, a couple in Pret A Manger just benefited from receiving 50p off their coffee after bringing their own china mugs in - no £30 hydro-flask necessary, even if it is potentially more “aesthetic”.
That being said, the hard truth of the matter is that there are no easy alternatives that will be effective enough to change the current course of destruction we are heading down. Significant change requires significant action. Despite the immense popularity of the marvel series in which the Earth is constantly on the brink of extinction, we are still somehow under the impression that saving the planet will be an easy task. Are we waiting for a superhero? A martyr? We cannot continue acting like this is an issue that can be solved by one person in one quick fix. Nor can we act as if we can oat milk our way to climate restoration. This crisis demands bigger solutions, bigger lifestyle changes, and massive shifts in mentality.
It is something we are all, understandably, guilty of. Making these big lifestyle changes is an overwhelming task. Furthermore, accepting the full extent of the emergency and committing yourself to be as environmentally friendly as possible will almost inevitably lead to developing eco-anxiety.
This condition is caused by the “extreme worry about current and future harm to the environment caused by human activity and climate change”. Eco-anxiety is a growing problem and could potentially be fatal to the environmental movement. We need to be galvanised into action, but instead rigour mortis is setting in and we’re being incapacitated by our own fear. The more we learn, seemingly the bigger the issue becomes. Furthermore, it can often feel like no matter what we do, it is a misstep.
No matter what action we take, we end up triggering a number of unintended and often unknown consequences. For example, the clothing industry is one of the biggest industries, but also one of the most harmful. From materials, to working conditions, transport of the products, and everything in between, there are a thousand questions you are faced with when considering the moral value of an item of clothing. It is a lot of pressure to put on a t-shirt. Even after all these question, in the end, no matter how we choose to buy our clothes, there is always a way of making an error. Organic cotton feels like a safe choice, until you consider the 2,700 litres of precious water needed to make a singular t-shirt. The solution cannot lie in plastic materials either, which leak incredibly harmful microplastics into our oceans. Not to mention, they are less durable. We are seemingly suspended between a rock and a hard place.
That being said, it would be more accurate to say we are between a hard place and a slightly less hard place. It may not be a perfect solution, but opting for natural materials is by far the better choice. Even better if you buy organic materials second-hand. We must seek to minimise our impact. Inch by inch, we can claw our way back to a harmonious relationship with the environment.
In order to conquer eco-anxiety, we must hold onto these inches, we must celebrate every victory, and challenge every fault. Ignoring the problem will have the double effect of both intensifying the damage, and the eventual return of those anxious feelings, only strengthened. The more we do, the more we help the environment, and the more in control we feel over our future. Exercising autonomy is the best remedy for eco-anxiety.
To conclude, I’d like to leave some words taken from the recent publication Climate Adaptation by the Arkbound Foundation:
Have you seen the detail of everything inside of me, look at the sky,
see the clouds so delicate and unique
Look at the sea, watch the intensity of colour, I am so deep that
even light can’t get through
Now look at your hands
Everything I do and have ever done is with the greatest intent
These words serve to remind us of the power we hold, but also the beauty of nature around us. Many of us see only skyscrapers and trimmed hedges, but we must be reminded of the nature we are trying to save. Life is the result of evolution, and so we must continue to evolve by falling back into nature, rather than halt the future in this dangerous stasis we find ourselves in.