Snowstorms in Texas? Heatwaves in Los Angeles? The world is on fire?
Addressing climate change head-on can be extremely difficult, and many are left feeling so hopeless and burnt out that they are unable to grasp possible solutions. UW Bothell environmental humanities professor Jennifer Atkinson, recognizing the emotional toll of eco-anxiety and its implications for students, created BIS 293: Environmental Anxiety and Climate Grief.
“The sciences put so much emphasis on objectivity and detachment that there can be a stigma around discussing subjective responses,” Atkinson said in an email. “So both established scientists and the students working under them are concerned about compromising their professional credibility by appearing too emotional.”
Atkinson wanted to create a space where students and colleagues could openly grieve and discuss their anger and sadness surrounding the climate crisis. This environment has given students permission to sit with their thoughts instead of jumping straight to action, which, Atkinson said, makes all the difference. Accepting the facts and reintroducing new technology for our changing climate is one thing, but grieving the loss of our long-established way of life is another.
“The problem is when we try to jump straight to the final step without first processing the emotional toll of all this lost beauty and life, we're bypassing the very insights that motivate us to fight for our world in the first place,” Atkinson said. “We can't act creatively and honestly in this new reality if we still believe we're living in the old one.”
After she debuted the course, some people were confused why Atkinson decided to focus on grief rather than hope. She argues that collective action is the necessary response to the climate crisis, but collective action may not be possible if we are too overwhelmed by the problem. Atkinson insists we must lead with “intrinsic hope,” living within what we can control and letting our choices on Earth define who we are.
“Guided by hope generated from within, we commit to climate solutions not because we're convinced we'll win, but because fighting for a livable future is the only sane and moral way to live in these times,” Atkinson said.
Environmental studies student and vice chair of UW’s Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG) chapter Sydney Porter echoed these thoughts regarding climate anxiety.
“There is some climate anxiety that has driven me to want to make a change, but I pretty strongly believe that you cannot have a meaningful impact on something if you are primarily driven by fear because you end up in this place of feeling frozen and overwhelmed by all the problems [where] it is hard to palate the solution,” Porter said.
Porter thinks that we can all contribute to a better future. She urges people to view themselves as not separate from the environment. Everything in our environment has the capacity to positively contribute to our ecosystem, and we can too.
“Confronting your anxiety and understanding its source will lead you to discover what is so meaningful to you, why it is worth protecting, and what you want to do about it,” Porter said.
Porter recommends that people dealing with climate anxiety envision what a positive relationship might look like between themselves and the environment. For her, it means learning more about plants native to her area, spending time outside, and picking up any trash left behind from her outings, or anyone else's.
“My work with WashPIRG is about stopping harm and working towards a better future, but it is in my actual engagement with the environment where I can begin to understand what a positive relationship looks like,” Porter said.
Reach contributing writer Aspen Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @aspenwanderson
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