Our awareness of environmental catastrophe brings us closer to solutions – but if climate anxiety isn’t the problem, then what is?
Climate change is a public health issue. Air pollution, water pollution, oil/gas extraction and use, drought, famine and other severe weather events all frequently make their way in and out of our lives like clockwork. However, one of the emerging but less discussed impacts of climate change is the strain on mental health, especially in youth. This phenomenon takes many names, but one of the most common is “climate anxiety”.
I grew up in Michigan, surrounded by vast freshwater lakes and pristine forests. When I went off to college, I selected an Environmental Studies degree – not because of a strong connection to the natural world, but because saving the planet was the only rational answer I found to the question: “what could I do for the rest of my life?”. Before that, climate change wasn’t even on my radar.
Over the next four years, I found myself among passionate youth and disinterested politicians, becoming more and more aware of the perils facing our planet and working to deliver solutions. Often, it all felt out of my control, despite being one of the people actively working to change the flow. Now, I see it differently, because I see the problem differently.
Climate anxiety is not a force working against us – it’s a natural and valid response to what’s unfolding, and even a healthy response according to climate psychologist Caroline Hickman. “It’s mentally healthy to feel this way,” says Hickman. “It’s a sign of empathy.”
To feel climate anxiety is to understand there’s a problem and it’s an understanding that should not be turned away from. However, climate anxiety experienced now is unique in three ways:
- It’s in response to the climate crisis as a whole, rather than individual events
- As a generation, Gen Z has grown up with the climate crisis and all of its urgency thrust upon them
- Psychological responses are diverse, and for many, a response to a future threat rather than an immediate one
These differences underlie a rapid shift in our environment and an increase in environmental reporting. Climate change, as well as environmental impacts, already disproportionately impact indigenous groups and oppressed communities. For communities experiencing climate change, inaction is not a privilege afforded – it’s a matter of survival. Now, we’re seeing rising amounts of emotional distress and anxiety in regions and populations that are witnessing all of this secondhand.
So, if eco-anxiety is waking us up to something real, what’s the problem? While experiencing these effects directly prompts anxiety, then action for survival, experiencing them indirectly prompts anxiety, then all too often, inaction.
Emotional shut-down, complacency and denial are all rooted in feelings of powerlessness. This powerlessness is born primarily from three things: our own psychology, a globalized culture and endless-growth mentality that has celebrated the values leading us into this mess, and self limiting beliefs that stop us before we ever start.
This inaction is a serious global threat and shows us what we should have pieced together years ago: We need to start talking about climate change differently. We need to start talking to youth differently. We need to start going after all of the broken systems that have resulted in climate change. We need to begin offering new narratives.
I’ve been thankful enough to engage this problem alongside Force of Nature, a Gen-Z led social enterprise seeking to facilitate these shifts in mindset. Through running workshops with youth around the world and working to improve companies with massive environmental footprints, we’ve seen how desperately we need a new vision of what’s possible.
The best way to navigate these difficult feelings isn’t to bury them – it’s to step into them. For the eco-anxious, often the problem is not being turned off, but it’s being turned on to the issues, then spread too thin after perceiving too many problems to solve.
I saw this in myself as I shared news articles and signed petitions in abundance. This was fair since the only direction offered by my degree was: try to save the planet. Now, I can freely admit I will not be the one to increase solar energy’s efficiency or revolutionize our agricultural systems, I won’t cure viral diseases or reverse pollinator decline, so it’s a matter of asking, what will I do? What problem do I seek to solve? What’s my why?
Having a clear sense of agency over one problem, having focus, allows us to create impact and feel empowered to show up and make a difference. By reflecting on our many anxieties and allowing them, we can often pinpoint what it is that we feel most inspired by. Where passion, or our pain, meets a problem, we can find our power. All of a sudden, there’s no reason not to act.
So, I leave you today with an open-ended question with no right answer (or rather, hundreds of right answers):
If you could solve any one problem in the world today, what would it be?
Article by Max Offerman. You can visit his website here.