Eco-anxiety and denial
A spectrum of psychological and social consequences of the current climate
Writing: Eilish Newmark
Illustration: Amelia Morgan
The climate crisis forms a crucial part of the social and political zeitgeist of our generation. Rightly, the climate emergency has been lorded as an issue that surpasses political philosophy because of the catastrophic global impact it will have on future generations, having devastating consequences on our existence in a way that is unprecedented and frankly unimaginable. This realisation of impending doom - long known by environmental scientists but only picked up by the mainstream and social media in recent years - has provoked a spread of so-called ‘climate anxiety’.
“Solastalgia” is a neologism coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht giving a name to the phenomenon ‘when your endemic sense of place is being violated’ due to change in the natural environment, resulting in feelings of distress and unease.1 Whilst Albrecht’s term is yet to be picked up by the Oxford English Dictionary, the concept of climate and eco-anxiety as a mental health phenomenon is prevalent in current discourse around climate change.
The reaction to the climate crisis is portrayed by the media as a dichotomy. At one end of the spectrum are the activists, influencers and vegans who are suffering from eco-anxiety, protesting and disrupting the status quo of those at the other end who deny the crisis even exists. Whether it be denial like Trump and Johnson’s with convenient implications for their own short-term political and economic growth, or simply due to disinterest or lack of awareness in the climate crisis; turning a blind eye seems to be more prevalent than one might expect from the perspective of their echo chamber of like-minded opinions. The dichotomy that is depicted by the media and replicated on social media is oversimplified and unhelpful. In my experience, the majority of us are concerned about the climate emergency we face, but at the same time numbed by the difficulty of engaging with the facts laid out clearly by climate scientists that by the time our grandchildren, or even children reach our age, they will be living in a changed and largely uninhabitable world.
As students, we show up to the climate marches, retweet Greta Thunberg, write articles, use Keep-Cups and debate the future of the planet because we are genuinely worried about the scientific evidence that confronts us. Yes, we have moments of anxiety and panic that lead us to make positive changes in our lifestyles, but the scale and intangibility of the crisis overwhelms our sense of urgency. Perhaps it is a sense of nihilism and egotism combined with the seemingly distant and impossible nature of the crisis that drives us to become living contradictions of ourselves and continue to take flights, eat meat and order clothes from sites such as ASOS and Boohoo, whose fast-fashion values are toxic for the planet we are so passionate about protecting. It feels almost impossible to break these everyday habits we have always known as the norm in our capitalist society.
I for one am very concerned and unsettled by the statistics that pop up daily on my Instagram and now palpable changes that I see in the UK’s climate. Yet, that concern exists alongside a creeping sensation of denial and a perhaps nihilistic view that fuels selfish decisions to make choices that help myself and not the planet. This is not a case of denying the existence of climate change but instead a fear and struggle to accept the reality of it. I book flights to South America to have an opportunity to live and speak Spanish in Buenos Aires even when I know that Spain could be reached by bus and train. I feel that like most of us, I have no notion that the ability to fly such long distances is an extraordinary technological feat, and it is scary how accessible it is to us.
How can I envisage and access a flight across an ocean so easily and yet struggle to fathom the damage of the ecosystems in that same ocean itself? Maybe this is an act of rebellion on my part and a show of frustration towards the restrictions and judgements that have been put upon our generation as a result of the climate emergency. Equally, it could be a reflection of my human inability to psychologically process and picture the reality of the facts and figures I see and the direct consequences of my actions. What is it going to take for us all to see the urgency of the crisis as clearly as Thunberg? Is it even down to us as individuals to harbour the anxiety and shame that should be reserved for the ‘big-polluters’ and institutional climate denial?
In Sweden, the ideas of flygskam and tågskryt (flying shame and train bragging), sparked by the influence of Thunberg’s promise not to fly, led to the number of domestic Swedish flights to drop by 8% in the first 4 months of 2019.2 There is undeniable value in applying the age-old philosophy that individual change has a cumulative impact through voting with your pound. Every pound you spend sends a message to our capitalist driven society that your purchase is a reflection of your morals and future economic decisions. Tesco will not stop selling overly packaged beef burgers if we are all still buying them.
However, it is easy to see how eco-anxiety and the pressure on individual change is an unjust consequence of today’s society when you realise the monopoly that multinational corporations have over the economy and its effects on the environment. A recent video by Vox outlined how on Earth Day 2019, in a PR stunt that can only be described as greenwashing, Google released news that they were now being entirely run by renewable energy sources and increasing their data efficiency by using artificial intelligence to drastically reduce overall energy use.3 In reality, this artificial intelligence has enabled Google to sign lucrative deals with huge oil companies such as Total in order to streamline and speed up oil and gas exploration using machine learning technology. Microsoft and Amazon are also guilty of this collaboration with Big Oil. Therefore, it appears that fossil fuel exploration and exploitation of our planet are inextricably linked with all of our daily activities. We have only greed, manipulation and a never-ending human desire for improvement to blame. This short-sighted improvement, defined in terms of increased efficiency and capital that Big Oil and Tech seek has disastrous long-term consequences for our planet. As Margaret Atwood philosophises in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘better never means better for everyone, it is always worse for some’, and in this case it is hard to see how “better” will not end up becoming worse for all.
The battle that climate change presents is complicated and multifaceted because we live in a world fuelled not by the extreme empathy that causes climate-anxiety and the radical lifestyle changes of Greta Thunberg, but a world which is plagued by greed and egotism at all levels, both individual and systemic. I recognise the pessimism in this standpoint, however whilst it is hard to ignore the sobering facts of the climate emergency, it is equally difficult to deny the fact that in the face of such crisis, relatively little is changing. It seems that our house may be on fire, but we are away on holiday and the news hasn’t quite sunk in yet.