Environmental anxiety is now keeping many more of us awake at night than was the case 10, or even two, years ago. This is hardly surprising. We are living through a seemingly endless pandemic that has forced us to recognise that we are not an invulnerable species. Our sense of climate change has belatedly shifted from a vague future threat to a real and present danger. Biodiversity loss is now all too visible, almost everywhere we look, if we have eyes to see it.
And a healthy anxiety is a good thing: it alerts us to these existential challenges and prompts us towards effective action. For far too long, the lies from fossil fuel companies, echoed across mass media, and from politicians whose vision was crippled by short-termism, lulled us into lethal complacency. All this despite the increasingly compelling evidence that our species is sawing off the branch on which we sit.
But anxiety rapidly becomes unhealthy when it spirals into catastrophic thinking, and paralyses us from taking the steps that could avert the perils that aroused it. There is mounting and troubling evidence that many children and young adults, in particular, have already reached this point.
A recent global poll conducted by climate psychologist Caroline Hickman shows that more than half the young people surveyed believe that "humanity is doomed". This suggests that we need to be more careful about the rhetoric we use around the climate crisis, which becomes amplified and often warped on social media.
Climate change and ecosystem degradation are indeed already responsible for many deaths and incalculable impoverishment and misery. But even if we do not take all the steps that are clearly needed to slow climate change to 1.5 degrees, it is very premature to believe that we all face imminent extinction.
Much more to the point, there is a great deal that our societies can and should do to decelerate global heating, and to restore at least some biodiversity losses. It is vital that climate activists find more and imaginative ways to convert this widespread climate anxiety into controlled anger and constructive action. Even the most recalcitrant governments and corporations can be influenced – or removed – by well-informed, well-organised citizen movements.
This is already indicated by the progress under popular pressure, however agonisingly slow, at Cop26, and the Government's Climate Action Plan, both hardly conceivable just two years ago. It is evidenced by the ambition of the UN's declaration this year of a Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Meanwhile, engagement in local nature-based restoration projects relieves individual anxiety, just enough, hopefully, to empower us and our children to participate in campaigns that will finally force climate polluters of all shades to change direction.