Editor’s Note: It is an undeniable truth that the spiraling thoughts about the current environmental crisis entangling our planet have become an unwelcome bedfellow — one I would so love to get rid of. Dearest tree-huggers, climate change opposers, and unaware residents of planet Earth, this multi-series column, which broadly encompasses environmental topics, searches for a way to create a deeper understanding of this big pile of rocks and grass that we call home.
Headlines signal extreme environmental degradation, climate change warnings flash in obtrusive fonts, and government policies contract previous promise. All the while, public apathy rips through in bursts of sadness and anger. Immersed in a vacuum of panic, I begin to sink into intense hopelessness, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the problem.
Ecoanxiety is commonly referred to as the psychological stress induced by the presence of climate change, felt within a range of intensities, and can be caused by both physical events and blurred cognition of environmental issues.
“Students say they feel like they're living in a bad dream where everyone around them is sleepwalking through an unprecedented emergency,” Dr. Jennifer Atkinson, a professor of an environmental anxiety and climate grief course at the UW Bothell, said.
Individuals, like Atkinson’s students, experiencing ecoanxiety are hyper-aware of the impacts of climate change, locally and globally. These people become so paralyzed by its sheer existence and the lack of substantial community and governmental response that they grow discouraged.
“You have this colossal gap between the scale of the threat on the one hand and the persistence of inaction on the other,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson recounted her first time experiencing ecoanxiety during the winter holiday, shortly after the Thomas Fire in 2017, when she had to evacuate the Nutcracker Ballet in Santa Barbara because of the toxic air.
“It was bizarre to see a massive wildfire like that burning in the middle of winter; and the next year when we went back to the Nutcracker, my youngest niece asked if there was going to be a fire again,” Atkinson said.
The global effect of ecoanxiety is tangible in many different ways which is why it can be so isolating for individuals navigating these emotions.
“I have experienced ecoanxiety as a gnawing [feeling] in my gut at the end of quarters or classes where I learn the hard science of ecosystem destruction and climate catastrophe,” Andrew Grueter, a senior studying environmental science, said.
While in my experience I have not personally endured a physical environmental catastrophe, I have researched and analyzed smaller changes in the environment that have stemmed from the root of climate change. As I cyclically consume media that spotlights loss of biodiversity or the ways environmental issues deepen social inequities, the difficulty in forgoing this knowledge in day to day life becomes a primary concern.
“The premise of planetary hospice is simply that life as we know it is ending and that seems pretty undeniable to me,” Zhiwa Woodbury, author of several papers and a novel that focuses on climate sense, said.
The definition of “life as we know it” varies vastly among people, but the ongoing generational gap between parents and children contributes widely to the disparate understanding of the phrase. Environmental generational amnesia, coined by UW psychology professor Peter Kahn, attributes this phenomenon with subsequent generations having less understanding of what they believe is abnormal, according to Atkinson.
I now consider the perspective of my parents, having visited Yosemite National Park for decades now, as they have often made distinctions in the reduced waterfall flow and vegetation that they recall being more abundant. Their ecoanxiety with regard to preserving this park, therefore, would catalyze much differently than my own, as I have already grown accustomed to a decaying environment.
Another large factor of ecoanxiety is commonly the product of anger toward older generations that have industrialized and expanded with seldom notion for the planet. Atkinson has adults in her class that didn’t realize their ecoanxiety until they thought about their loved ones.
“[The parents] admit that climate change wasn't a big issue for them until they had kids, but now they're very worried, and also wrestling with a sense of guilt when they think about the diminished world their children could grow up in,” Atkinson said.
Acknowledging the depth of planetary fear in our society is imperative in properly appraising climate change and exercising adequate judgment in its relationship with individuals. The notion of ecoanxiety does not have to be entirely negative and is not an actual disorder, but rather what I consider to be an unconditioned state of being, highly permeable to the changing natural systems.
“This kind of anxiety and panic can cause people to be more conscious of their actions,” CJ Morgan, a sophomore studying environmental health, said. “We don’t always have to settle on the fear.”
An appropriate way to act in accord with the information internalized and the anxiety felt, is by engaging with service-based projects and promoting solidarity within the community.
“Most everyone knows that this happening, but burying your head in the sand doesn’t snuff out that knowledge,” Atkinson said. “You can’t unknow what you’ve learned.”
While I can foresee ecoanxiety covertly rising in society, propagated by unremedied environmental worries, I find that this existing chamber of emotions may be promising in the long-term.
“I think this growing anxiety may become useful as it pushes people into action, or it may make things harder as people retreat further into denialism,” Grueter said.
By recognizing blissonance, quantitative data, and all the little instances of climate change, a greater movement can be made toward effectively salvaging a collapsing world.
Reach columnist Suhani Dalal at email@example.com. Twitter: @DalalSuhani
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