Eco-anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental catastrophe”. It’s not a peculiar phenomenon – a recent YouGov poll of over 2,100 Britons found that 78% of people report some level of climate anxiety. There is little division according to class or age, but women feel it more strongly than men. A study across ten countries by the University of Bath found that 83% of young people aged 18-25 agreed that “people haven’t taken care of the planet”, more than half of them believing that humanity is doomed and four out of ten are reluctant to have children. I know I am.
Could this imbalance be the cause of our various health crises? Every day brings news of death, habitat destruction, floods, wildfires and storms. The latest flying insect study from Buglife and the Kent Wildlife Trust suggests that populations have declined by 65% between 2004 and 2021. We have a 50% chance of a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next five years. Activists at last year’s COP26 demanded that we ‘keep 1.5 alive’ – 1.5 are practically dead. We have reached the era of profound adaptation; billions of people are now regularly affected by deadly heat waves, and climate-related crop pressures have already contributed to huge food price hikes. Pollution now causes one in six deaths worldwide. We have every reason to fear this imbalance.
There is a sense of grief even among our animal cousins; in cetaceans – the aquatic order of mammals – who find fishing increasingly difficult among depleted coral reefs, in the hungry polar bear whose hunting grounds have melted, or the orangutan clinging to the last tree of the rainforest. Do they know something is wrong, and have we Earthlings ever been more convinced of our hopelessness for the future? In reality, we may be the only species to truly grasp our sad natural state, but escaping this cataclysmic fate seems increasingly distant, sometimes impossible.
There’s a geological nod, before the Holocene – the 12,000 year temperate period that fostered developed civilizations – our climate was a more changeable place, and we’ve probably already passed the tipping points that push us away quickly from this “Goldilocks”. period. Zooming in on the Holocene may be, or could have been, intended to be what’s called an interglacial period – warmer periods between ice ages – and deep history being something to do, we’d end up going back to a world largely frozen by tens of thousands of years.
However, within this short window, human populations exploded. 2,500 years ago, in less than 100 generations, there were 100 million relatively insignificant humans on Earth, less than 1.5% of the nearly 7.8 billion we are today. Social and technological developments have allowed us to proliferate, live longer and consume more. We probably warmed the Earth since the agrarian revolution – which roughly follows the Holocene – thanks to the methane produced by livestock, and that’s before the industrial revolution burned fossil fuels on a large scale releasing greenhouse gases Greenhouse. We now live in what geologists call the Anthropocene, where human activity is the dominant geological force.
Mass extinction events like the one we’re experiencing now are so rare that humans have never even come close to witnessing them – the last was around 65 million years ago (modern humans have been around for around 300 000 years), and there are tens, if not hundreds, millions of them. We may not be the first life form to cause catastrophe, however – it is thought that the first wave of Devonian extinction (which took place around 375 million years ago) may have been caused by the rapid colonization of land by once aquatic plants, which has deserted the ocean and with it the creation of soluble oxygen, starving its life while removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so efficiently that global temperatures have dropped.
Instead of trying to escape the state of our environment, let us familiarize ourselves with it as if life depended on it – because it
But the difference between us and the pioneer earth plants is that we know, albeit belatedly, exactly what we are doing, so we have a unique power to prevent disasters. Therein lies the power of eco-anxiety – perhaps the best way to meet the momentous challenge before us is to let that worry settle deeply, to look death and destruction in the face, and to stop distracting us with the madness of consumption and excess. In the dark, our eyes adapt and become hypersensitive to light, and so in our bottomless desperation, we might better see those faint stars through the cloudy sky that can guide us to solutions.
By demonstrating human ingenuity, it is (still, roughly) possible to solve the climatic and ecological emergency that we are causing; otherwise, why wouldn’t we succumb to extinction as 99% of the more than 4 billion species that have ever inhabited the Earth already do? A little nihilism can sometimes seem like a friend – some form of life will continue beyond us, after all. But if we want to proliferate, as is our evolutionary tendency, we must face up to our mess and behave harmoniously. Mother Nature gave us this challenge.
We can help the world and ourselves by tackling climate anxiety head-on: picking up litter on the street, cycling or using public transport more, or reducing meat and dairy consumption – everything that helps. Having a positive impact on the environment and alleviating the underlying dangers that cause stress are among the most effective cures for climate anxiety reported so far according to studies. You don’t have to do it alone, whatever your schtick – there are online groups for every interest, and small armies of litter pickers, tree planters, seed bombers and watchers. of birds, all hidden in your area.
I enjoy the mycorrhizal feeling (the types of fungi that inhabit roots and connect plants) of participating in group actions like tree planting, and the ongoing community care and bonding that follows. We are all like trees, in a way, looking for a forest to thrive in. The other big issue is spending time in nature, so this type of restorative action is a double win. Helpful, nature is everywhere – Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust runs 38 local reserves, and there are dozens of community gardens dotted around the county, often looking for volunteers, while programs like wild.NG, Ignite! and Green Hustle promote ways to engage with urban nature when you don’t have easy access to green spaces.
Humans can enjoy ecosystems and live well, and the Earth can support large populations, but this requires a paradigm shift – towards simpler, more interdependent and deliberate ways of life that don’t extract, but give back. Fast-growing movements like permaculture advocate designing systems that don’t have negative environmental impacts and strive to permanently grow and regenerate the ecology – and it all starts with careful observation. of nature and work with it. Instead of trying to escape the state of our environment, let’s familiarize ourselves with it as if life depends on it – because it does. Then one day the world might actually be a less terrifying place.