Climate Anxiety might be expected, but please don’t tell me that the way I feel is reasonable.
Content Warning: This post talks about ableism, mental health issues, and the death of a family member
We’re hurtling down the tracks to existential climate horror, and the only people able to do anything don’t seem to care. People are dying because of the climate crisis. Whole species are ceasing to exist because of human actions. Fires rage out-of-control all across the planet. And yet, we hear virtually nothing about it. I’m terrified, and I’m right to be. However; Climate Anxiety began to inhibit my abilities to reason, and blinded me to my privilege. Constantly hearing that “climate anxiety is reasonable in these conditions” strengthened these feelings – but, spoiler alert, it can be highly unreasonable. Mine was (and still is).
If, like me, the thought of the state of our climate, and global ecology, keeps you up at night, puts you off your food, or makes you feel immense guilt for flying, then you are probably experiencing some degree of Climate Anxiety, or “eco-anxiety”. Many of the youth strikers I know personally, or have connected with online, have personal experiences with Climate Anxiety; once you become aware of the power-coupling sent straight from nightmares (the United Science and Lack of Meaningful Government Action), it is hard not to feel totally terrified. Feeling this terror is quite natural. Anxiety manifests itself as fear, one of our most primal triggers, and so it is not surprising that Climate Anxiety quickly becomes so toxic in daily life. When one moves in circles where the climate and ecological crisis is discussed regularly, there is rarely good news. And when one leaves one’s house, there is no shortage of contributions to the crisis; a lorry’s exhaust here, single-use-plastic litter there. The very air we breathe simultaneously becomes the thing we fear most, yet the thing we swear to protect. It’s exhausting.
However; while anxieties about the massive threat to the future are expected, once these anxieties become debilitating, your anxiety becomes unreasonable. Let me be clear; no mentally ill person is, in any way, responsible for their illness. You are not unreasonable for having Climate Anxiety – rather, your Climate Anxiety begins to alter your thoughts and behaviours in ways that are beyond your own sense of reason, and out of your control. For instance, I have missed a train because I felt unable to stop picking up empty crisp packets and wrappers along the platform. While this might seem reasonable, in reality, it affected my ability to exist normally that day. More than that, however, it is a good example of how Climate Anxiety threatens to place the blame on ourselves rather than the system. Did disrupting my day to pick up four or five extra bits of rubbish make sense when the companies that produce them show no interest in changing their packaging? Perhaps. But the overwhelming sense of guilt I felt, when, as the train I eventually boarded pulled away from the station, I saw a bottle I had missed near the end of the platform, was nonsensical. And hearing people say that it is reasonable to feel this way also made me feel guilty, because it vindicated the idea that I was contributing to the climate and ecological emergency by not picking up that one bottle.
Activism is such a crucial tool, probably the most crucial, in managing Climate Anxiety, and I would encourage anyone struggling to try to find an outlet in some form of climate action. However, it is very important to remind ourselves that individual actions are the junior partner in the solution to the climate crisis. It is virtually impossible for anyone to live totally zero-waste, emission-free existences until the system changes, and you are never a terrible person for buying plastic-bottled water if you need to, nor for driving a car when you live somewhere with terrible public transport links. There was a moment where I did feel like a terrible person, and it is something that I will probably never forget. To be quite honest, I hope I never do, because it is a cutting reminder to me just how much my Climate Anxiety caused me to be blind to my privilege.
My darling Gran, whom we lost at the beginning of this month, was very sick in hospital for the month leading up to her death. As she was so ill, she could only drink through a plastic straw. Rather than being grateful for the fact this item facilitated my Gran’s ability to take in liquid, my brain would scream “Why not a metal straw? What about a paper one? Isn’t there something else?”, although thankfully, I never said anything out loud. If any part of me reasoned that “Gran needs this plastic straw”, it would be quickly silenced with thoughts of how plastic straws were totally unacceptable. Hadn’t I watched the video of the turtle with the straw in its nose?
The sad fact of the matter is that not only did Climate Anxiety insidiously wind its way into the last few memories of my Gran, but it also made a part of me want to deprive her, and countless other people, of something that is very much essential. You see, thousands of disabled people rely on plastic straws as they fulfil criteria that no other type of straw matches. My knee-jerk reaction was actually ableist and based on my own privilege as an able-bodied person. This reaction, I now realise, was straying into the territory of eco-fascism, something that I thought I strongly opposed.
Blindly believing the flight-or-fight instincts presented to us by climate anxiety because we’re constantly reminded that it’s “reasonable given the circumstances” threatens our ability to adhere to our values. No sort of chronic anxiety is something that should be reasonable to us. As someone who has struggled with GAD, social anxiety, and panic attacks for a considerable portion of my life, I can attest to the fact that Climate Anxiety is very similar in nature to its equally as slimy cousins. It is, however, less clear how to tackle it, as the fears are not irrational. In a rare occurrence, however, the most common coping mechanism also appears to be the most likely to lead to a solution: joining, or starting, a climate strike to demand climate justice and meaningful action in line with the best united science. You won’t suddenly be cured. You probably won’t stop feeling that knot of fear and sadness when you hear about the latest causalities of the climate crisis. You almost certainly will still have sleepless nights and a terse relationship with single-use plastics. But, by joining the movement, you will be doing more to achieve a solution than you ever could while being completely isolated by your anxiety. Since joining SYCS, and particularly since I started striking daily for the Congo Rainforest, I have been able to challenge my Climate Anxiety more effectively. When Climate Anxiety tells me that I am personally and solely responsible for the current state of the planet, I can remind myself that, no, actually, the system that allows the extractive industries to remove the carbon from the soil is far more to blame than I could ever be. And, once I am feeling less in crisis and more able to apply my rational perspective, I can ask “does this reaction take into account the experience of others?” I am far from perfect. I still have to challenge a plethora of my initial reactions, and doubtless many slip through when they should not. However; I have, through a rather unpleasant exposing of my own flawed reaction, gradually begun to come to terms with the fact that Climate Anxiety, like all types of anxiety, can quickly evolve from understandable concern into isolating, debilitating, unreasonable thought patterns that undermine the very values that make us who we are.
Perhaps you are experiencing Climate, or eco, Anxiety too. If so, I would whole-heartedly recommend engaging in some sort of climate action, or at least connecting with the community of people, young and old, of all nations. You are not alone, and you are not personally responsible for the climate crisis. We are all facing a great, and very real, threat, but the people most affected by climate and ecological collapse right now are also the people most at risk from decisions made by a well-intentioned, but panic-blinded majority. There is no climate justice without justice for marginalised communities, and that is why I challenge the assertation that my Climate Anxiety is “reasonable given the circumstances”. Perhaps you feel the same way?