Powerlessness and loss in our changing climate

09/08/2021

Climate anxiety. Eco-anxiety. Ecological grief. Solastalgia. The names are proliferating, as the climate crisis and the emotional distress it brings grow more prevalent. Many people throughout the world are experiencing anxiety about the crisis of climate change, enough so that the American Psychological Association has recognized climate-related mental health disorders as a significant new problem. 

We are more tangibly aware of the fire danger and water shortage knocking on our door, and we feel other unseen potential catastrophes looming down the block. The mix of the known fear with the unknown fear is a potent recipe for anxiety. The philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined the term “solastalgia,” referring to a type of homesickness one feels when one is still at home, but experiencing profound loss and powerlessness over the degradation of our home environment.

Recently, a friend shared that her daughter had decided to not have children because of concern about climate change and the world her child might inhabit. Though not having children is a personal and complex choice, it represents a growing tide of anxiety that younger people in particular are feeling acutely. For some teens and young adults, the future is looking a bit bleak, and they are questioning their life plans. At the same time, youth are at the forefront of mobilizing to address the climate crisis, such as in the Sunrise Movement.

Here are some numbers. A 2020 Yale study notes that almost 70 percent of Americans are “worried” about climate change, with 26 percent being “very worried” and almost 51 percent feeling “helpless” about it. That is coupled with 64 percent of Americans who rarely or never talk about climate change with friends or family. 

My entry point into awareness of the climate crisis came only five years ago, after reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sixth Extinction,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, in which she eloquently describes what is now considered to be the current extinction event on the planet. (The current extinction rate of species is calculated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the normal natural extinction rate.) That illuminating book led me to more investigation, and various involvements in climate change work brought me to West Marin Climate Action, where I currently volunteer on the steering committee.

From eco-anxiety to eco-action

My own small journey highlights an important response to climate anxiety, which is to get involved. Anxiety is an emotional or somatic state of diffuse, uncomfortable energy with no label or outlet. Naming the energy and giving it an action can significantly help moderate the anxiety, thus transitioning it from eco-anxiety to eco-action. Consider the following suggestions. 

What  to do about climate anxiety?

Educate yourself. Start anywhere. Simply Google “climate change” and you will find numerous resources. But do start somewhere.

Get involved. Taking action is the best medicine, for yourself and the world. There are numerous organizations, local and national, where you can offer your time and energy. For starters, check out our local westmarinclimateaction.org, a grassroots group of your friends and neighbors dedicated to addressing the causes and building the resilience of our community, or the local chapter of 350.org. There are hundreds of other organizations to choose from, all working to face the challenges in the climate crisis. Search “climate change organizations.” 

You are not alone. Reach out to others, open the conversation. As in any other life-changing event, sharing your experience with fellow travelers helps manage the feelings. The changing climate is affecting everyone. Some may be averse to joining that conversation. As in other overwhelming topics, broaching the issue can be taboo. Even so, try to find your people. Invite connection.

Stress-reduction activities. As with any other anxiety, engage in practices that help ground and integrate your energy, such as yoga or exercise or meditation, all of which help to transmute the diffuse discomfort into life-affirming experience.

As I became more involved in climate work, I was surprised that more people, including myself, weren’t doing more in their personal lives to reduce their carbon footprint or the harm their choices were adding to this crisis. I came to believe that the realities of climate change were too much to bear, and were causing people to shut down and disengage. It reminds me of when, as a kid, I would close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears, and loudly say “la la la la la,” trying to close everything out.  

My main interest in the climate work is trying to help people open their eyes to see and feel the truth of what is happening, for the sake of waking up to positive engagement. To that end, I’ve developed a sharing circle, called “Climate Cafe: a Compassionate Sharing Circle,” which is a supportive process of small-group sharing. Check out our website, westmarinclimateaction.org, for upcoming offerings.

Keep your heart open

The fear and despair can make your heart want to close down in self-protection. Anxiety and contraction go hand in hand. Unfortunately, this can also cause you to become emotionally disengaged and immobilized, the antithesis of positive action or actual anxiety relief. Closing your heart is the last thing the world and your fellow beings need during this crisis. Though it may seem counterintuitive, work to stay in compassionate connection with the suffering, and the beauty, you see around you. Continue to love the world. It is the best medicine for what ails us.

 

Greg Smith is a former psychotherapist and grandfather to two young future climate justice warriors. He lives in San Geronimo.