This June, Watkins are proud to be publishing A Guide to Eco-Anxiety, a timely look at how you can help the planet and protect your own mental health around the often overwhelming topic of climate change. Read on for Anouchka’s introduction to the book, and remember you can preorder the book now!
I’m writing this at the end of the first week of the UK’s official COVID-19 lockdown. The world outside seems to be changing beyond recognition. I go out once a day to walk the dog and the streets are all but empty. It’s the beginning of spring. Cherry trees blossom and wilt without their usual audience. Strangers cross the road to avoid one another. Last night I attended my first Zoom dinner party. There have been just under 31,000 deaths worldwide so far and we hear that the crisis in the UK is just about to tip over into barely manageable levels. I have no idea what kind of world we will be living in by June 2020, when this book is due to be published – let alone by autumn, Christmas, next year. Already all films and TV shows look a bit weird: crowds, cheek-kissing, bars and restaurants. So quaint! Where are the facemasks? Things whose existence we took for granted, even while recognizing their inherent dodginess – flights, fast-fashion, the high street – might barely exist once we emerge from this for all I know. Or maybe, we’ll experience the ultimate gaslighting from governments and corporations and we’ll be fast-tracked back to capitalist business as usual, no lessons heeded.
This is a book about the apocalypse or, more particularly, about the apocalypse we feared before it started to happen. People who suffer from eco-anxiety are acutely aware of how fragile our systems are, both man-made and natural. This horrifying knowledge is what keeps us up at night. The COVID-19 crisis has already revealed how rapidly everything can change. Schools can close, exams can be cancelled, jobs can be lost, businesses can buckle, right-wing governments can switch to socialist principles overnight. (And then, maybe, they can flip back again with equal alacrity.) Those of us who are attuned to the looming climate disaster have been dreading all this stuff for years – pandemics are very much on our list of things to worry about. Global heating and other environmental disturbances such as humans interacting with wildlife due to trade or habitat loss on a scale that was never meant to be, could facilitate the development of more novel viruses such as COVID-19, and the transmission of infectious diseases is likely to be increased in ferocity due to the extreme weather events of a hotter planet.
So how useful is it to have a book about managing our sense of dread, now that we find ourselves in something very much in the guise of the future we are desperate to avoid? My hope is that our anxieties will at least have primed us somehow – we haven’t exactly been taken by surprise. And on the bright side, if the book is about managing our fears around massive change, we’re definitely about to be given plenty of chances to test the theory.
Our individual lives are played out in the context of the wider world, and our innermost thoughts are interwoven with perceptions that arrive from outside. If the very planet we live on seems to be on course for total ecological, socio-cultural, economic meltdown, how can any of us hope to keep going? Why would we get up, go to work, study or do anything short of clinging to a tree and screaming? Whereas “talking about the weather” used to be synonymous with having a boring chat, nowadays it’s just as liable to incite panic. Like many of my colleagues, my friends, my family and the people who come and talk to me in my therapy practice, I’m anxious about climate change. In fact, I find thinking about it almost unbearable. If people come to my office and describe staying awake all night worrying about burning forests and melting ice caps, I’m not going to tell them to stop. They’re right: it’s the people who aren’t worried who are crazy.
The problem is how to respond to these kinds of anxieties in a way that’s actually helpful – both to the person, and to the environment. For instance, perhaps a responsible therapist shouldn’t be trying to offer easy relief. Maybe a person’s anxiety can be put to good use, doesn’t need to be immediately dismantled, and is actually an adequate and sane response to a dire situation. It’s possible that a certain level of psychological distress can be part of the process of dealing with things. As Greta Thunberg has said, “I don’t want your hope, I want you to panic.” Maybe we can’t, or shouldn’t, expect to feel happy, safe and well all the time, because that’s just delusional: a fantasy fed by the irresponsible socio-economic ideologies that got us into this whole mess in the first place. There’s no rational reason why humans should expect to live our whole lives like pampered pets. Still, staying awake, tearing your hair out, is unlikely to make you an effective activist, let alone a regular, (mostly) functional person. There has to be a position between climate-related nervous breakdown and ostrich-like denial: a serviceable state from which you can think and make changes, communicate and act.
Climate disaster, and its accompanying social upheaval, is a problem that none of us will be able to deal with on our own. Talking about the reality of the changes that we face, according to certain studies, can be helpful. And staying informed, although often alarming, is a vital part of constructive engagement. Storms – both meteorological and political – are brewing, and we might as well prepare to weather them as graciously, intelligently and humanely as our uncertain futures will allow.
This is intended as a book that helps you think differently about the escalating crisis, and offers ways to respond to it thoughtfully. My own carbon footprint is far from neutral, but I’m as worried as the next person – to the point where I don’t own a car, I only buy second-hand clothes, and I’ve been mostly vegetarian since 1985 (apart from a dreadful long-term lapse while I was married to a meat-loving Argentinian). I also hear a great deal about other people’s climate anxiety in my practice as a psychotherapist, as well as sometimes being lucky enough to hear about the ideas that help them to stay above water (literally). So, while I can’t promise to be a beacon of climate virtue, I can promise to want to understand all this stuff better, and to present some information that might help you.
I can also promise to be open to any intriguing ideas, however idiosyncratic. In my opinion, therapy should emphatically not be used to normalize people, nor to support the status quo. Therapists are often able to help people far more by being prepared to put norms into question, rather than by cajoling their clients into fitting in better. So I believe we need to be thinking about critical cures – not about quick symptom relief, and not about placating people either by downplaying the problem or by blotting it out with medication. Any serious response to climate anxiety has to set out from the premise that ecological breakdown is real, and the people who are worried about it should have their thoughts and fears taken seriously. And of course, not everyone has the luxury of being in therapy; we’re all going to need to be there for each other in whatever ways we can, listening, understanding and taking action when necessary.
As we speak, research is being done on the ways in which humans have dealt with other kinds of overwhelming change; for instance, how Native Americans have dealt with being ripped out of the environments they and their ancestors grew up in, and relocated to reservations. What could those people do to help themselves tolerate their new circumstances? You can fight to the death, but you might be the loser. Or you can find ways to convert your shock, rage and helplessness into some kind of transformative experience, enabling you to think about life on completely new terms. So, alongside all the work that needs to be done on changing economic systems, changing consumer behaviours, changing laws and changing farming practices, we also need to work on learning how to manage, and even harness, our feelings and, above all, to learn to tolerate uncertainty. The kinds of conversation that seem most likely to be able to meet that challenge are those that open up radical questions about existence and coexistence, and that definitely don’t discourage people from thinking difficult thoughts.
If you suffer from eco-anxiety, this book alone won’t “cure” you. It may be that it would be helpful for you to talk about it in therapy, join a group with other sufferers, practise meditation, get more involved in activism, or all of the above. But I hope that I can at least point you in helpful directions, and make you feel less alone with the problem.
Some of the suggestions in this book might sound a bit incongruous coming from a psychoanalyst – we have a reputation (deservedly) for being dubious about human “goodness”. However, above and beyond my Freudian leanings, I’m a huge Jane Austen fan and actually believe she might have more to offer the climate movement than a lugubrious Austrian pessimist such as Freud. While both thinkers are engaged with feelings, change and self-improvement, I think Jane has a particularly astute take on being a good person for other people, while not making yourself miserable in the process. If this book has a bottom line, it’s that. Call me naive, but I actually believe it’s possible to decide to be a better person – if Emma Woodhouse can do it, we all can. So I apologize in advance if I get into an overly Freudian, morally ambiguous tangle here and there. I promise I will eventually come out the other side with a sincere and simple message: let’s all try to be really, really nice, even if we have to suffer a bit in the process. (Great, now I’ve frightened all my colleagues away, we can have a proper talk …)
Being upset is OK. Being upset is actually part of the solution. Anxious people unite! Denial, distraction and disavowal are the problems – although a certain level of “functional denial” is undoubtedly necessary – whereas anxiety, unhappiness and even anger are all states that can work against complacency; in themselves, they seem to demand change. So be anxious, be very anxious, because your anxiety can be a brilliant resource. And I hope this book can help you – and me – to see how …