September 17, 2021, 6:35 Sep

Climate anxiety

I was around 10 years old when I watched "An Inconvenient Truth". I would be lying if I said I had concrete memories about it, but I do remember the fear it instilled in me. The fear that the world I was growing up in, which I was only recently getting to grips with, was heading towards disaster. In particular I remember the graphical analogy of a frog in a beaker of slowly warming water which does not jump out but instead is cooked to death. This analogy was in some way reassuring, explaining why it was that no one I knew was freaking out about this, while at the same time terrifying me with its assurance that humanity was sleepwalking into its own grave.

Since seeing that film I have grown older, I have learnt to tie my own shoelaces and I have hairs on my face which from some angles resemble a beard. That feeling of impending doom has not gone away though, and instead it has gnawed away at me slowly. It is only recently however that I've learnt, through personal experience and the occasional podcast, that this feeling is common and it has a name: climate anxiety. It is common because it is a natural response to the threat posed by climate change. If you do not understand what I'm talking about yet, indulge me for a second as I attempt to induce climate anxiety in you. Watch the following videos in order and just stop when you can't take anymore (or, more likely, get bored):

Even just looking at the titles your first reaction is probably to tell yourself that it can't be that bad, so let me try and convince you that it is. They say money talks, and the money says we're fucked: according to a report by the University of Cambridge and the Bank of England, around half of all investments are "unhedgeable", meaning that it is just not possible to insure against them. No matter how rich you are. And that's just looking to 2050. I feel obliged to mention that this was in a worst case "No Mitigation" scenario and that the above statement is conditional on a lot of ifs and buts. The point still stands though: people who have money care about this, because money is of little use when civilization breaks down.

Do you feel it now? That feeling of despair? Of impermanence? Of the suffering to come, the suffering which you will have to face or experience? I didn't bring this up to make you feel shit, I wrote it to confront you with a reality which I think most of us are aware of but don't want to deal with. Now that it's there, plain as day - what do you do? It's a question that I've skirted around for a decent part of my life and only inconsistently answered. I've also witnessed others answer it, either explicitly when talking to them or implicitly from their actions. I want to investigate those answers here, but let me be clear before I do - I'm not attempting to judge them. Of course, I have emotional responses to these answers and some appear to me more logical than others, but that's it. I just wish to be honest in outlining these answers so that I can be honest when I give mine.

The first instinct is to simply despair. There are 7.9 billion people on this planet, and let's be honest with ourselves: any action you take wouldn't be pissing in the wind so much as pissing into a hurricane (of which we can look forward to more of in the coming years). Truly there is nothing to be done except break down and cry in the face of what is to come.

When searching climate anxiety, I stumbled upon this article which suggested that this reaction comes from predominantly white people, asking the question:

... is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get “back to normal,” to the comforts of their privilege?

Comparing this to traditionally marginalised people, the author writes:

Oppressed and marginalized people have developed traditions of resilience out of necessity... They know that protecting joy and hope is the ultimate resistance to domination. Persistence is nonnegotiable when your mental, physical and reproductive health are on the line.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with the racial element proposed, but it is true that this response to the climate crisis, to try and address your own anxiety or give into it instead of fighting the root cause, is usually possible only if you have the privilege of not being directly affected by it. That category of people tends to be, like me, mostly white and well off. My feelings about this reaction are nicely summarised in the article I linked earlier: "A focus on individual mental health should not distract attention from the societal response that is necessary to address climate change."

You can of course choose not to despair. You can recognise what is to come and announce: "The world is fucked, but I'm going to enjoy myself anyway." I have to admit, this hedonist attitude is alluring. Everywhere around us and online you see people having fun, so why can't you? Why do you have to be the person who shoulders the mistakes of your grandparents, parents, and even your own generation? After all, the shit has already hit the fan, and it's only going to get worse. There's no turning back, so best to laugh and be merry while you can.

My gut feeling is that many people belong to this category. Not everyone can be Greta Thunberg and devote their life to fighting climate change, especially when the people around them aren't. The advice recovering addicts are given is not to hang around other addicts and I believe that's an apt analogy. We're all addicted to sticking our heads in the sand so we can continue to live our lives, though we know we would be better off confronting the problem head on and not surrounding ourselves with enablers.

There is also a more practical error being made there when we cast the climate problem as binary - either it's solved, or it's not. The phrase "every degree counts" counts is sometimes uttered, or, as I like to think of it, "there are many different shades of fucked" (though 50 seems excessive). If you want to get a sense of that grey area I suggest you read this Vox article or the this World Resources Institute chart. Once you realise this, perhaps you may be more inclined to announce: "The world is fucked, but I'll try to stop it getting worse."

Some of the people I know are much more optimistic. They're confident that the powers that be would never let anything as earth shatteringly bad as catastrophic climate change happen. Perhaps they also do their bit in a small way, recycling here and offsetting emissions there. Over all though, climate change is just one more thing to be concerned about, in the same category as "grade inflation" "social media use".

In some way I envy these people, because they probably really do believe this and so will be able to enjoy their lives to the fullest for a couple more decades. It is not surprising that most of the people I know who fall into this category will only live for that time anyway. While they may see the shit hit the fan in their lifetimes, they will at least be able to enjoy some or all of their pension, instead of explaining the concept to their grandchildren.

You may again think I'm exaggerating, but there is really very little to be hopeful about. It really is just a question of which shade of fucked we're going to be now, with hundreds of millions dying and displaced on the better end of the scale and full scale destruction of all life on earth on the other. The optimisc attitude I just described is enviable, but it really is fantastical. I began this analysis saying that I wanted to analyse people's responses to the threat of climate change, but really this is not so much a response to the climate threat as an ignorance of it.

Then there are people who, in my view, have the most logical response to climate crisis. I'm talking about the Greta Thunbergs, the Rupert Reads and the Extinction Rebellions of this world. These people react to the threat of what's to come with the appropriate amount of alarm, fighting to save what can while preparing for the grim future ahead. Insert bit about judging people here

So where do I stand? I have had all these reactions. At times I have fretted excruciatingly over what the world will look like when I'm 50 while doing nothing about it. I've taken the train instead of the plane and convinced myself that I was "saving the planet". I have also convinced myself that everything will be completely fine (for me at least).

I have never, however, really lived my life as if I believed in the scale of the crisis we're in. This article was partially motivated by a desire to be honest with myself about that fact, and see how I feel as a result. I wish I could say that I have since sworn to be a climate activist til the day I die, but I have not. What writing this article has done is prevented me from fooling myself anymore. If I eventually adopt any of the attitudes above, it will not be blindly but with a full appreciation of what I'm doing. I'm also interested in adding colour to those shades of grey and really trying to piece together what kind of life I can expect in the future thanks to climate change.

Talking about the climate crisis and how you feel about it is in itself immensely important. We cannot act collectively if we don't share the same appreciation of our collective future, but too often we don't speak up because we think we're the only ones worried about this. Let me assure you, you are not the only one, and if we don't talk about this we will definitely end up on the shittier end of the fucked scale.

Notes to self

This took me a really long time to write (almost 3 months!), partly because while researching I dived into many rabbit holes and partly because my thoughts on the matter kept changing. The result is quite a long and confused article in which I try to make too many points. My main takeaways then are:

  • Focus on one message that I want to convey.
  • Research beforehand.
  • Revise message (invariably this changes after the research).
  • Write everything in one go (no ones grading me on this anyway).

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