People often ask me, how do climate activists “keep going” in the face of so much inaction and indifference? It’s a good question. In Greek mythology, princess Cassandra was bestowed with the gift of being able to see the future, but she was cursed because her prophecies would always come to pass but no one would believe her.
Climate advocates, scientists and activists perform this tragic role every day. “Seeing” the future means simply following the science and daring to think about the future transformed by global warming. Yet we encounter denial and disbelief every day. The stress this brings about is bad enough — think of Jennifer Lawrence in the film Don’t Look Up yelling in anguish from a TV studio. One climate scientist I met at Cop27 openly admitted to feeling panic — but climate anxiety, or ecological distress as I prefer to call it, is much more prevalent than we realise.
Ecological distress manifests itself in many ways — distress, apathy, grief and a profound sense of dread that is as much physical as psychological. I experience it as a lump in my chest, tears that are easily triggered by sometimes unrelated bad news, and a pervasive feeling of sadness for all that is being needlessly destroyed, and the human suffering that I cannot prevent. It probably amplifies depression in some people who are prone to this. But this condition is not pathological: this is a normal human reaction to crisis and loss.
There is no “treatment” except the work of processing fear and sadness and channelling difficult emotions into empathic connection. It’s a very first-world condition though since we are mostly at a remove from the unfolding catastrophes in far-flung places where lands, livelihoods and lives are being wiped out by climate and ecological breakdown.
For Indigenous groups, in particular, wildfires, flooding, forced migration and ecological destruction cause deep psychological wounds that rupture identities. According to Australian academic Blanche Verlie, this is a distinct kind of ecological grief, and it is a violence that is further amplified by the intergenerational and ongoing trauma of dispossession and neglect.
In western societies, there is little evidence of this type of communal grief over the sixth mass extinction or climate breakdown. But we do see unprecedented rates of anxiety among young people, often leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms and growing alienation, perhaps as a result of the need to suppress the discomfort of watching on helplessly as your future crumbles around you.
Surveys show high rates of eco-anxiety, but our individualistic culture dismisses this as a problem of our own making. Get therapy! See a doctor! Sort yourself out! We are not encouraged to think about it as a form of crisis that we must all learn to cope with together. It doesn’t help that the scientific rationality that is appealed to as a justification for transformative action also distances us from our emotional pain. After all, we can’t relate to statistical humans only real ones. As Blanche Verlie points out, the scientific explanations have failed to engage the masses in part because they do not offer relatable, connective or inspiring accounts of human-climate relationships. And human-nature relationships are as intertwined as ever, it’s just that we’ve unlearned them.
Much of the distress we experience might be more noticeable as apathy. However, psychologists who’ve researched this point out that what appears to be apathy can actually be feelings of grief and disempowerment that are too difficult to engage with, leading to denial as a mechanism for short-term emotional coping. Verlie says “if there is a lack of care, it is not that most of us do not care, but that we do not know how to care”. This presents an interesting challenge. How can we encourage people to confront the frightening reality of climate breakdown without a supportive community?
The work of caring, and building communities that care, is also a form of climate action. It is emotional work and also political work. The two need to go together. Caring requires a profound re-evaluation of the neoliberal ideology of growth and progress and the notion that moral agency rests with individuals only.
The remedy for our distress is not hope of a miracle rescue, however, but courage. As climate scientist Kate Marvel points out, hope is a creature of privilege: it allows us to project responsibility on to others for fixing everything. “Grief”, says Marvel, “is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending”.
- Sadhbh O’Neill is a specialist on climate policy