Young people in particular are being affected at an alarmingly increasing rate as we battle to not only deal with the constant, relentless information that is supplied to us in unnatural quantities, but also with the pressures and obligation we are overwhelmingly aware of for our generation to solve a problem not created by us, and yet left for us and our children and their children to face.
‘Eco-anxiety’ presents a number of problems, each with important repercussions to unpack if we are to offer any kind of solution.
- When we are depressed or anxious and face hopeless and helpless feelings, we cannot create solutions and we ultimately lose an essential mechanism for progress: optimism.
- The effects of the constant stress and strain on one’s mental health from ‘eco-anxiety’ can not only lead to a lack of meaningful productivity, but also result in unsupportive communication and unhelpful responses like the ones below:
Anger is useful only when used correctly. Being angry at the circumstance we have inherited, or at the large corporations and governments ultimately responsible, is good and healthy; it fuels us to galvanise change. But if we are so angry that our rage turns into hatred for those who do no agree with us, or who are not in the same place as us on the journey, our fight becomes one of ‘Us versus Them’. We direct our useful energy into proving them wrong or simply hating them rather than creating positive progress.
If things become too much for our brain to process, one easy way our primitive mind deals with this is through denial. People will turn to denial as a means of escaping reality if the reality they face feels insurmountable in some way. Not only does a culture of denial, specifically around climate change, pose grave and serious risks (after all, we need an acceptance of the science as a basic requirement for large scale action) but it also ‘takes people out of the game’. In times like these we need every individual to be working within their communities to make small incremental steps towards change, and that can only happen if we all agree there is a problem.
Thus, climate change needs to be presented and discussed in a way that is scary in the right degree. We should be fearful of the crisis our planet faces, and we should be concerned about the role we play in it – how we will change drastically and quickly in order to save our Mother Earth – but we should not be so terrified that we become paralysed. There is hope, and there is growing evidence that the changes being made are already having positive impacts (https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-good-news-about-climate-change). More of the victories, no matter how small, need to be reported and spread among us on social platforms so that we avoid being sucked into and overwhelmed by the historically negative news loop that the media feeds us.
Be scared but not paralysed: use the fear in a healthy way to drive forward and fuel yourself.
When we feel threatened, our natural instinct is often to blame. If we blame someone else, it decreases our own mental strain, not only relieving us of some of our own stress, but also giving our brain a task that seems more able to manage: it seems easier to judge someone or revert to ‘call out culture’ about their use of a plastic cup for example, than it does to solve the climate crisis on our own.
While a healthy sense of judgement and accountability is undoubtably required in times of crises, we need to be careful about how we inflict it.
Firstly, we should never be unaware that while individual efforts are certainly impactful, there needs to be an altogether larger focus on the capitalist companies that feed off of consumers, and the governments that perpetuate this economic cycle. It is imperative and necessary that we all try and reduce our single-use plastic consumption, but the inescapable truth is that the influence of our efforts has a cap. People will always buy what is convenient and so long as single-use plastic is legal, and that there is no money funded toward finding sustainable affordable alternatives, there progress will simply not be meaningful enough. Perhaps our judgement should extend more pervasively and aggressively to those companies and governments that are in power.
Secondly, there is a difference between (a) pointing out to someone that they could be using a glass water bottle instead of a plastic one while still compassionately considering human mistake and imperfection, and (b) telling someone that by using a plastic bottle they are being entirely reckless, careless and are ultimately problematic as a human being.
In the first instance, we create a culture where it is ok for people to mess up, and thus by doing so, we allow for individual growth in a safe space. It is unlikely that you can bully someone into changing; realistically, people who get shamed in any way will either become unwilling to help, as they feel that the group who is ‘helping’ is judgmental and unwelcoming, or they will become secretive of their habits which others might deem ‘abhorrent’, thus creating a subculture of people who cannot have their unchanging behaviour challenged because we do not know it exists secretly so as to avoid judgement.
Finally, this pertains specifically to the culture of perfectionism that is polluting a portion of the vegan community at present: there is a group of vegans (certainly not all, and for those who are not of this group it must be incredibly frustrating and disheartening to have such a positive movement be tainted by the loud voices of a small number) who have spread the idea that anything less than ‘perfect’ is not acceptable when it comes to diet and lifestyle.
Given our environmental crisis it is undeniable that reducing animal products and moving to a more plant-based way of eating is not only beneficial but somewhat of a requirement in order to combat the problems we face. However, by implying that becoming vegan must be a black and white commitment with no grey area, or even to say to those people that eat plant-based and would like to once in a while have a slice of pizza; that they are morally compromised in some way and thus shunned from the community, creates a resistance to the movement as a whole. A group of ‘perfect vegans’ will achieve far less than an entire population trying to reduce their animal product consumption.
This is deeply concerning as the notion of reducing our animal product consumption is a necessity and should be made accessible to everyone; however if the condition for entering into the conversation and movement of reducing animal product consumption is one of perfectionism, there will be too many people who are cast aside as unworthy of participating, or who simply opt out to avoid being shamed.
Small changes by a lot of people are better than monumental ones by only a ‘perfect’ few.
‘Eco-anxiety’ is a natural response to the crisis we face and the urgency of it, and its span is representative of the largely empathetic response and inherent nature of our generation. But the potential responses to this issue, as outlined above, need to be addressed if we are to collectively overcome not only the environmental crisis at hand, but also our ‘eco-anxiety’.
There are effective ways we can combat this together!
- Being kind to one another as each individual tries to figure out what changes they can realistically make in their daily lives in order to help, and refrain from resorting to ego-based fear responses such as anger, denial, and judgement that are entirely unhelpful in effective communication and progress.
- Reminding one another of the small victories, and using the fear we feel to fuel progress rather than become paralysed into inaction – optimism is essential for activism.
- Finally, if you feel that your ‘eco-anxiety’ is becoming too unbearable, reach out and ask for help. We need each and every individual we can get to help combat the environmental challenges we face and we want you too! So make sure you take care of you mental health before anything else… the more healthy minds we have on the problem, the greater our solutions and chance at victory will be.
Fawbert, Dave. “‘Eco-anxiety’: how to spot it and what to do about it” Medical News Today (19 Dec 2019) [Online] <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327354>
Huizen, Jennifer. “What to know about eco-anxiety” BBC (27 March 2019) [Online] <https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/b2e7ee32-ad28-4ec4-89aa-a8b8c98f95a5