If you immerse yourself in the facts of the climate crisis, what can be done about it — individually and at governmental level — things can look downright hopeless. Any decision you make to try to make your life more green has pluses and minuses and every day brings out a new area where the planet’s life is at greater risk.
This article does a nice job of pointing out the areas where panic may be appropriate, others where the best choice is pretty obvious, and yet another set where individual effort can make a difference. In many ways, it’s not that different from the pressures of the rest of our lives. The keys seem to be to Zen when you can, make decisions when you become comfortable with them, and never ever ever give up.
A-Z of climate anxiety: how to avoid meltdown
With the climate emergency putting our mental health at risk, Emma Beddington presents an everyday guide to eco wellbeing
Sun 8 Dec 2019 04.00 EST Last modified on Wed 11 Dec 2019 10.28 EST
Much like the planet, people have a tipping point. Mine came last summer, when a respected scientist told me matter-of-factly that he thought it was “at least highly unlikely” that his teenage children would survive beyond late middle age. At that point, three decades of climate unease crystallised into debilitating dread, and I’m far from alone.
“There are hundreds of people contacting us, looking for support,” says Caroline Hickman of the Climate Psychology Alliance. It’s not just individuals either. “We’ve reached a level where organisations are asking for professional help to support their staff: civil servants, museums, universities… They’re noticing massive increases in anxiety and concern.”
Eco anxiety isn’t pathological: it’s a legitimate reaction to the climate crisis. “It’s mentally healthy to feel this way,” says Hickman. “It’s a sign of empathy.” The real problem is how we manage our feelings.
We know that global species extinction – already at a rate that is unprecedentedover the past 10m years – is accelerating, but here’s a chilling example: the UK has lost 97% of its hedgehog population since the 1950s.Advertisement
“You look at these horrific headlines about habitats and mass extinctions,” says Emma Mitchell, author of The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us. “People say, ‘What can we do, we feel completely powerless?’ My answer is: we can do a great deal.”
If you have outside space, follow gardener and author Kate Bradbury’s advice and plant native. “Native plants have specific relationships with native moths, which lay their eggs on the leaves,” she says. “Birds then feed the caterpillars to their young, and hedgehogs, frogs, mice, wasps… pretty much everything eats caterpillars. So by planting native shrubs and trees you’re creating a food chain in your garden and, literally, preventing further decline of species.”
Avoid peat-based compost: peat stores vast amounts of carbon and peat bogs are precious habitats for wildlife.
If you don’t already, support local campaigns to preserve habitat. An area of exceptional biodiversity near me is currently under threat, so I’m signing petitions, protesting and sneaking it into articles (save Askham Bog!) . Incidentally, as Mitchell says, “There’s research that shows that if the biodiversity in a green space is higher it has more of a positive impact on your mental health.”
The climate crisis is happening to all of us and experts agree the most effective responses to it are collective. Acting together helps us feel less powerless, but there are also real benefits to expressing our anxiety, anger or grief with others.Advertisement
“Many people report that actually finding that they are not alone in this thinking, talking to other people about it, finding like-minded communities, is really powerful,” says Dr Emma Lawrance, a fellow at Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation. In the US, the Good Grief Network hosts climate anxiety groups based loosely on the AA model, with a 10-step programme, from “Accept the severity of the predicament” to “Reinvest in meaningful effort.”
Despite overwhelming evidence, truly terrifying institutional denial of the climate crisis continues. The Trump administration has blocked a congressional testimony warning about climate change, suppressed peer-reviewed government-funded studies on its effects, and fired a scientist who refused to alter reports to downplay its human causes. Worse, the administration likes to have its climate cake and eat it, denying the science while simultaneously pointing to the advanced state of ecological devastation as justification for not blocking fossil-fuel projects, whose incremental impact, they argue, would be negligible.
For the UK, at least, you can downgrade your anxiety on this score: things are improving. This year we went two weeks without using coal to generate electricity, and in the last quarter, for the first time, renewables generated more energy than fossil fuels. Increased efficiency and an evolving economy mean demand for electricity is falling, too, so there is some good news.
We need clothes, but the fashion industry is regularly rated as one of the world’s worst polluters, with textiles producing an estimated 1.2bn tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. “Solving the problems of fast fashion can often feel like that puzzle where you’re trying to get a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain across the river. Just when you think you have an answer (Cotton! Clothes rental! H&M!), someone pops up to tell you it’s problematic,” says Lauren Bravo, whose book, How to Break Up with Fast Fashion, is published soon. It’s a funny, achievable guide to reducing our fabric footprint, and covers swapping, mending, washing less and, most importantly, resisting the urge to shop.
Does brilliant, furious Greta Thunberg make you feel uncomfortable? She should. She should be making TikToks or something, not crossing oceans to shout at the UN, or becoming a beacon of misplaced “hope” for a generation too feeble to acknowledge its catastrophic failures. No wonder she makes a certain type of middle-aged person incandescently angry and many of the rest of us profoundly guilty.
“Is there any good news?” I text my father, sorrowfully. An ecologist who predicted a “perfect storm” of food, water and energy shortage within our lifetime 10 years ago, he’s not inclined to boundless optimism. Nostra-dad-mus flagged the UN-REDD programme, which is making real progress in fighting deforestation worldwide. Ethiopia, too, planted 350m trees in one day in July this year. And a new ocean clean-up device has shown promise in collecting plastic in the Pacific.Advertisement
If that’s not cheering enough, how about “le blob”, the self-healing, problem-solving, 720-sexed organism no one understands? New biodiversity! I for one welcome our new yellow overlord.
The onslaught of information on extreme weather events, dire research findings and ecological catastrophes fuels our sense of panic and powerlessness, every forest fire or starving polar bear is a jolt of stress. “Obviously people want and need to be informed and understand the facts, and it’s normal to feel strong emotions in response to those facts,” says Dr Emma Lawrance of Imperial College. “But it’s important when people are finding it too much that they feel like they are able to step back and take breaks.”
Decide how and when to engage with climate-crisis information and seek out good environmental news: it is out there.
Feel sick on planes and not because of turbulence? You’re not alone. The Swedish concept of flygskam, flying shame, has gone mainstream, though we’ve yet to assimilate the associated tågskryt (train bragging) or find an equivalent for #jagstannarpåmarken, meaning “I stay on the ground.” Flygskam works: the number of domestic Swedish flights dropped by 8% in the first four months of this year. I wonder if there’s a Swedish term for “paying a fortune for a terrible service provided by amoral weasels”? Probably not… lucky Swedes.
In her work as a research fellow at the University of Bath, Caroline Hickman frequently talks to children (and their worried parents) about climate anxiety. Her advice? Resist the natural impulse to try to protect them. “Children are online and finding out about this stuff. You need to learn how to take them towards painful things, show them how to navigate, but not to get overwhelmed and terrified.” It’s important to tell the truth, but balance it with positive messages and activities. As Hickman says, “Reminders to still play, even though we’re dealing with painful things, are absolutely crucial.”
The funeral that Iceland held for the Okjokull glacier this summer, after it was lost to climate change, was a pure expression of “solastalgia”, a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht and defined as “The pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive solace from, the present state of one’s home environment.” In parts of the world where the impact of climate change is physically unavoidable, loss and grief are the dominant emotions: we’re lucky we’re just anxious.
‘Dairy is bad, but plant milks frequently mean destructive monocultures.’ Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer Advertisement
Ooh, tricky. Dairy is bad, but plant milks frequently mean destructive monocultures. Even oat milk, the current great off-white saviour, comes in hard-to-recycle Tetra Paks. Maybe just moisten your muesli with your own tears?
Some view choosing not to have children as a positive act to reduce environmental impact: a Swedish study in 2017 estimated that having one fewer child per family can save an average of 58.6 tonnes of carbon every year. Others consider it unethical to bring children into a world whose future is so terrifyingly compromised.
For many more, it’s a fraught question. On its website, BirthStrikecollects testimony from those struggling with the issue: “Over the past 10 years or so, all the accumulated knowledge around climate change and global warming has made me increasingly nervous to have children,” says one.
For eco-anxious parents, it’s another source of guilt and worry: have we ruined the planet by having kids, or our kids by having them at such an awful time?
We’ve mistreated the ocean for decades and now it’s coming for us: recent research has indicated that 300 million people (rather than the previous estimate of 80 million) are at risk from rising sea levels. The IPCC has also predicted that extreme events linked to sea level will be annual by 2050. Then there’s acidification, plastics and bleaching of corals. How anyone still finds ocean sounds relaxing is beyond me: you might as well meditate to revving chainsaws.
‘We’ve mistreated the ocean for decades and now.’ Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer
That feeling of helplessness is a common response to catastrophic ecological news. I often stand in the supermarket overwhelmed: is all fish terrible? How about bananas? It feels as if there are no simple decisions now, but according to Imperial College’s Grantham Institute, there are a few, actually. The Institute (which is working towards “a sustainable, resilient, zero-carbon future”) has published a list of 9 Things You Can Do About Climate Change. They are things “absolutely everybody can do that can make a difference,” according to Institute co-director Martin Siegert. Some are covered here (eat less meat, preserve green spaces, avoid flying); others – invest your money wisely, use your voice – aren’t. “They are relatively small steps,” says Siegert. “If anything, they’re going to improve your life.”
Gluten-free, high in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, the nubbly South American grain soared in popularity in the health-conscious 2000s. Soon, reports emerged that its cultivation was bad for Andean farmers, then there were counter-claims that it wasn’t. There now seems to be a consensus that its “super food” status contributes to unsustainable farming techniques, meaning fewer llamas.
Can we finally stop eating Satan’s cereal? Llamas are great and we need some good news.
“Building resilience is essential to address the physical and mental health impacts of climate change,” said the American Psychological Association in 2017.
But how? Experts agree on broad strategies: acknowledge your feelings, take action in ways that feel meaningful, be part of a community and occasionally run around screaming until you’re hoarse (OK, not the last bit).
It’s terrible, but guess what? It’s also complicated. An Environment Agency report concluded you’d have to use your cotton tote 131 times to take its global warming potential below that of a plastic bag. Or what about cucumbers? 2011 research for the Journal of Food Science and Technology indicated plastic wrapping increases shelf life by six days, so what’s more important: avoiding waste or eliminating plastic?
Then there’s the opacity and inconsistency of recycling policies. Recent BBC research found that 47% of people argue about what plastic can be recycled, which seems low – I know 100% of my household is sick of me uncovering their recycling transgressions and complaining about them.
The UK Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 report on progress makes for dismal reading. The Government has implemented only one of the committee’s 25 recommendations from 2018 and runs its climate crisis preparations “like Dad’s Army”, according to committee chairman Lord Deben. The “net zero” law promises to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the fracking ban looks like good news (if it doesn’t turn out to be a short-lived election stunt), but the CCC’s prediction is that 2025 and 2030 targets will be missed by an even bigger margin than last year’s.
Greta said it: our house is on fire. But, of course, right now, your actual house isn’t. It’s quite chilly in mine and there’s a blue tit pecking a fat ball outside. That’s part of the problem: we – at least in the north – can ignore the climate crisis much of the time, which makes the eco-anxious feel like those chaps who march around wearing sandwich boards saying the end is nigh.
Ah, veganism, the most emotive of dietary regimes… yes, worse than cannibalism. A recent Guardian investigation asked: “Why do people hate vegans?” From Waitrose Food magazine editor William Sitwell’s notorious “killing vegans” email, to Piers Morgan’s boggle-eyed outrage at the launch of Greggs’s vegan sausage roll, there’s a profound discomfort around vegans (they’re better than us and we don’t like it, basically), which often becomes open hostility.
Plant-based eating isn’t an environmental panacea, either. As the head of the Food Climate Research Network, Dr Tara Garnett, brilliantly summarised in a recent article for Brain Food magazine, recent concerns about intensive monocultures and highly processed vegan foods have led some eco-thinkers to conclude that “Veganism is the vacuous entitled daughter of Big Food and Agribiz… Vegans are the problem.”
Should we be eating grass-fed beef and dumping facon and not-dogs? It’s complicated, and many UK farmers are thoughtful stewards of native habitats and feel unfairly demonised. But eating fewer animal products is almost certainly a good thing.
They’re not strictly a climate issue, but wipes are unequivocally terrible, changing the shape of rivers and threatening marine wildlife. We use an energy-gobbling 11bn a year, but they’re easy to avoid. Let’s just not, eh?
Extinction Rebellion has only existed since October 2018, but swiftly shook off its “uncooperative crusties” reputation, with a series of high-profile protests showcasing its transformation into a global campaigning force.
October’s UK fortnight of protest had moments of controversy (the Canning Town tube protest was widely considered a misstep), but it also showed that XR now attracts mass support, including from unexpected places: 77-year-old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman and 91-year-old John Lymes were arrested, and there are XR doctors, lawyers and farmers.
Of course, that makes climate worriers who haven’t become climate warriors feel even more guilty: why aren’t we getting involved? Is it hypocritical to complain about government inaction from the comfort of our own homes? Almost certainly.
My teenage years were spent sulking to a Smiths sountrack and buying ra-ra skirts in Miss Selfridge (we didn’t know about fast fashion then). Teenagers now don’t have the luxury of solipsism: they’re facing a world in crisis. A UK survey found 40% of 16-24-year-olds feel “overwhelmed” by climate change.
For Jake Woodier of the UK Student Climate Network, the energy young people pour into activism is a product of the fear and anxiety they live with, from both the increasingly dire warnings in the media and from witnessing, “The destructive effects and consequences of climate breakdown suffered by their peers around the world.” Taking action is an important outlet. “I think that a lot of young people feel that they’re suffering it alone,” says Woodier. “Organising with a group and a movement gives quite a comforting sense, in a way.”
For the rest of us, it’s a case of trying to understand what young people are going through and supporting them: and that means no muttering about not turning the lights out. We left the planetary lights on for decades; we’re in no position to lecture them.
Zero waste is a seductive idea, but unsustainable unless you’re an off-grid gardener-slash-engineer happy brushing your teeth with a twig. Limiting your food waste, however, is eminently achievable. Food and science writer Ann Storr turned her decades-long eco anxiety into an excellent, practical food waste blog, the Storr Cupboard.
“Half of all the UK’s food waste happens in the home,” says Storr. (That’s 7.1m tonnes a year, according to waste campaigners Wrap.) “Meal planning is the best way to reduce your waste: 10 minutes spent meal planning so that you know what to buy and when to eat it will save you money and reduce your food waste.”
It’s a small gesture; they all are. And that’s OK, I think: for most of us, small change is all we have. “These most dire future scenarios are not set in stone,” Emma Lawrance reminds me. “That means that even as the climate changes, at every step we can be looking at what world we want to create from that point. There’s never a moment it’s OK to give up; there are always steps to take towards the better trajectory.”
We can’t save the world as individuals, but we can make it a tiny bit better; and perhaps save our sanity in the process.