Ecoanxiety

or the quest to align

one's life with climate action

By William Gagnon

Building engineer LEED AP BD+C, LEED AP ND, LFA, ECO Canada EPt

Environment | Society | Case file

Reading time : 15 minutes

Text by William Gagnon

Published September 26th 2019

The health, economic, political and environmental impacts of climate change affect us all. They cause stress, depression and anxiety related to the deterioration of the environment and the evolution of our planet.  Psychological reactions to climate change are increasingly recognizable, defined and common in society. Ecoanxiety is the fear of addressing the root causes of the environmental problem. It is time to face the truth and find solutions for our mental health.

 

Here is a complete file to demystify ecoanxiety. Better understand to care better, and how to become resilient as an individual in the face of climate change. 

Ecoanxiety and the ecological grief, the new state of mind

Imagine you are walking through a forest by yourself in the woods, with your earphones on, lost into some deep thoughts.  Suddenly, a bear appears a few metres ahead and it’s running towards you. Your body gears into a reaction, survival mode that we call fight or flight.   This is how various animals fled from predators, and survived.  This fight or flight mode is a constructive unpleasant emotion : it’s allowed us to evolve and survive up to this day.

 

Now you’re on the bus home reading the news.  Melting glacier. Rising sea levels. Increasing carbon dioxide levels, and politicians stalling more than ever.  You’re getting this very uncomfortable feeling. Depressed, anxious, sad, outraged : Ecoanxiety is also a Constructive Unpleasant Emotion; but you need to know what to do with it. However uncomfortable it might make us feel, however annoying it might be (we have a strong tendency to avoid thinking about it), we as a species need to figure out ways to react to it.  It might just save our existence on this planet. 

 

Watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations, may be an additional source of stress (Searle & Gow, 2010). Albrecht (2011) and others have termed this anxiety ecoanxiety. Qualitative research provides evidence that some people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change (Moser, 2013).

Now humans are faced with the threat of extinction -- yet we are slow at running away from the danger.  We are bombarded with negative news on a daily basis and this is causing a lot of anxiety. We are slowly building a set of emotions that is helping us as a species survive this existential threat, and ecoanxiety is one of them: it’s a constructive unpleasant emotion, if you know how to channel it. 

 

Some of us have an easier time expressing it, like Greta Thunberg; she is very open about her Asperger’s syndrome that allows her to see only black and white. In her TED talk, she explains that it is one of the reasons why she is speaking up about climate change.

Rubber stamp of Greta Thunberg by Savvas Verdis

Ecoanxiety: an evolved version of the fight or flight

Ecoanxiety and ecological grief are new concepts for the conventional medical community.  There is a lack of research in this area, but this is a common sense approach. Some actors in the field are working to increase the number of research projects, such as Dr. Courtney Howard. 

 

"If you are concerned about climate change, and many people are, I don't think your doctor should give you psychotropic drugs. Instead, you should spend half an hour of your time each week doing something about it. If it is really an "EDC", an Unpleasant and Constructive Emotion, we want to listen to it and work to change the circumstances." 

 

- Dr. Greg Dubord, Ultra-brief CBT for Worries and Fears, Family Med Forum, Wed Nov 15, 2018

 

 

 

 

Physicians prescribing climate measures

 

A few months ago, I intervened in a dog fight and ended up in the emergency room, covered in blood trying to separate the two animals.  Nothing serious! Just a few chews on my hands (I later discovered that the best way to break a dog fight is to put your finger in their buttocks, but that's another story).

 

When I get to the hospital, my friend Courtney screams my name all over the department.  She is one of the most inspiring climate activists I know, and she is president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.  She also works in the ER in Yellowknife. I put her in my category of friends who are "too stimulated".

 

So I sit there, covered in blood, talking to Courtney about climate change while she takes care of my thumb. 

 

It's getting better and better: Courtney is one of the first doctors to wake up to climate change.  She is responsible for some of the work on the "Lancet Countdown", and essentially involves the medical community in climate change. Recently, Lancet Magazine, the world's leading medical journal, recognized climate change as the greatest health opportunity of the 21st century. 

 

Courtney prescribed climate measures for her patients suffering from solastalgia, the experience of a change perceived negatively in the family environment. It appears that the action reduces anxiety; the climatic action reduces ecoanxiety. Courtney's schedule is full; this says a lot about her eco-anxiety.

 

And Courtney is not alone. 

«

I prescribe climate actions to my patients suffering from solastalgia,

the experience of a negatively perceived change in the environment. 

It appears that actions reduce anxiety,

climate actions reduce ecoanxiety.

»

- Dre Courtney Howard

Not alone 

In a meeting in Toronto with Innovation Norway, Alana Prashad shares with me her experience of dealing with two chronic immune diseases.   Her body gets triggered when she is exposed to high levels of stress — climate change news, populist politics, and other bad news. 

 

Our conversation drifted away from green, clean business in the Norwegian trade context to a discussion about ecoanxiety, and turning it into something meaningful: 

 

Alana tells me that she had to find ways to uses her anxiety about the state of the planet, and turn it into something good; she tells me that she tries and sees beauty in desolated landscapes: plastic floating in oceans, rising sea levels; she finds in these bleak images the elements that are worth fighting for — the beauty, the little bits of light in the darkness, the “okay, what do we have”.  

 

Again — action alleviates anxiety.

 

In Alana’s case, she had to quickly get adapted because she was becoming very ill.  

 

Now Alana is aligning her work on fighting climate change through Innovation Norway’s business development agenda.  I thought this was very inspiring — turning ecoanxiety into climate action. I was stunned. I left our meeting empowered, and convinced that we’d change the world together, somehow. 

CLIMATE ACTION ALLEVIATES

ECOANXIETY 

Where to start

 

In the last few months, I felt that a lot of my experiences were pointing out the link between ecoanxiety and climate action. I started being very intrigued by this ecoanxiety business — what if it was the starting point for our climate crisis.  

 

So I started digging more :

 

(okay, lies, I was watching TED talks on the couch).

Per Espen Stoknes is a Norwegian economist and psychologist.  His book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming depicts the 5 psychological barriers to climate action, and relevant tools to break them. The five barriers are distance, doom, dissonance, denial and identity. 


In my work in recent months I have been trying to reframe the conversation around these 5 barriers, and I feel that there has been a shift in how people respond to my interventions. Living in the Canadian Arctic has certainly opened my eyes to global warming like never before, because we can see it everyday.  It is also reflect in the recent climate change report in Canada: the North warms up much more quickly.

Tips
from an ecoanxious to an ecoanxious

Aligning career and climate action into one

 

If you don't believe you can bring change to an organization or project, chances are you won't. But if you share your concerns with the team with confidence and clarity, they will be well received - in most cases, in my experience, these concerns are shared by others. However, it takes a lot of courage to share them. 

 

I believe we need to de-stigmatize mental health before we can deal with climate change. I believe that this is why we should consider climate change as a multifaceted issue, and be careful to consider only one measure (greenhouse gas emissions, for example). 

 

Regardless of the area in which you spend most of your time, there is a way to find an alignment between work, play and climate action. I hope these resources will give you some inspiration.

Create your New Story — and don’t let anyone crush it

In a job interview for a private engineering firm, I ask what kind of projects I would spend my time on. Big firm, big bucks: my salary was going to double. The office associate tells me that they have “lots of projects” in the oil and gas sector, but that they were also “trying” to promote renewable energy. 

 

Uneasy, uncomfortable, I reiterate that I am not interested in work with anything that is even just remotely connected to the oil and gas sector.  

The HR manager then jumps in and she asked if I had ever worked on something that did not perfectly matched my values. 

 

“Yes.”, I replied.  

 

“So what did you do?”.  

 

“I quit!”

 

It’s important to create a new story for ourselves, and not live in the past.  The Great Transition is now. The Green New Deal is now. Renewable energy is now. Reversing climate change is now.  Don’t waste your time and career on something that is not worth it. What kind of future do you want? Write it down, and enact it. 

 

I turned down the job offer (and left before the end of the interview) with a strong sense of empowerment.  My mind was set on not letting myself be tempted by the financial gain, and I was really proud to leave this place feeling 100% aligned on my values.


 

Create your New Story, and don’t let anyone crush it.

Resilience

The ability of a person (or community) to function in the face of adversity, to survive and, perhaps, to thrive. 

(Hobfoll, Stevens, & Zalta, 2015)

Understanding the 5 psychological barriers
 

 

Although most people are generally aware that climate change is happening, it still seems distant: something that will happen to others, in another place, at an undetermined future date (McDonald, Chai, & Newell, 2016). Psychologists call this idea psychological distance. Terms such as "climate change" and "global warming" draw attention to the global scale rather than personal impacts (Rudiak-Gould, 2013). In addition, the climate change signal is obscured by the noise of daily and seasonal weather variations (Hulme, 2009; Swim et al., 2009; Weber & Stern, 2011). All this makes it easier for people to dismiss the issue, especially when they are faced with other pressing life issues.

 

To get rid of ecoanxiety, you must first understand that you must avoid conflict, fatalism, fear, powerlessness and resignation.

1. Psychological distance

 

Although most people are generally aware that climate change is happening, it still seems distant; something that will happen to others in another place (McDonald, Chai and Newell, 2016). Living in Yellowknife, it is very easy to see the effects of climate change. I have seen a real change in the reception of news about the impacts of climate change for audiences in the South (i.e. south of 60 degrees in southern Canada). I think we need to put the impacts of climate change here at home in Canada on the front page of the newspapers.  He must no longer feel like a distant threat. It has to be immediate, urgent, right now. Like a tap that overflows: you have to close the tap. You have to present the facts as they are!

« We are people of the ice sheet. How are we suppose to exist without ice ? »
 

- Member of an Innu community, Canada

2. Destiny and sadness

 

Politically polarized in the United States, climate change is perceived as a problem that belongs to the political left (Dunlap, McCright, & Yarosh, 2016), which can remove belief, concerns and discussions about solutions. I think it is important to present the negative impacts of climate change, but we must immediately remember that there are major solutions: solar panels, energy storage, electric aircraft, carbon capture and storage, permaculture, carbon culture, etc.  It is important not to let our audiences, whether small or large (it may simply be a colleague or family member), inspire our communities to act, regardless of our political beliefs. We must demonstrate that, even if things are not going so well at the moment, they will improve considerably when we act. 

3. Dissent

 

People are not sure about the threat of climate change. The media have been criticized for promoting an inaccurate perception of climate change (Antilla, 2005): for example,
that there is more scientific controversy over climate change than there really is. I think that's the most difficult obstacle to overcome - that's where the difficult conversations take place. Dissonance is about making sure that what you know is what you do.  How is your carbon footprint? Are you doing everything in your power to stop this crisis? What are your eating habits? Similar to the KonMari method (does it bring joy?), it creates a kind of dependence: how could I further reduce my carbon impact?

4. Uncertainty and denial

 

A recent study has shown that people who receive complex environmental information may experience some problems

1) feel helpless and powerless, which makes them inclined to leave the problem to the authorities and government; 
2) those who feel ignorant are more likely to want to avoid hearing about a negative situation (Shepherd and Kay, 2012). The complexity and fear of climate change pushes people to feel uncertain and in denial. Distress in the face of climate change can manifest itself in negative reactions to climate action. These reactions are reflected in social media exchanges, for example, and researchers believe that this behaviour leads others to deny it by entrainment. (Davenport, 2017). I think we need to treat Holocaust deniers with more empathy. We must act with our hearts; look at where the resistance comes from, and try to understand it better.

5. The identity

 

The final obstacle is identity - how to reconcile life, work, family and leisure with climate action.  I think that this certainly requires a lot of thought, and I hope that with this text we can share some starting points. 

I think it all starts with being the best of ourselves.  With small changes, by adapting and above all by taking action!

Change a little, little by little, climb the ladder and that's it!

 

 

People can feel empowered when they take positive steps to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and know that they are making a difference while accepting that the future is largely beyond their control.

«

Spending time in nature and carrying out projects to improve the planet, within its capabilities, can bring significant benefits.

»

- Clayton et al. 2017

Learn more

References

  1. Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance." Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.

  2. Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (2011). "The psychological impacts of global climate change". American Psychologist, 66(4). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-66-4-265.pdf

  3. Edwards, S. A. (2010, February 21). "Once awake: The waking up syndrome two years later". Retrieved from http://eco-anxiety.blogspot.com/

  4. Edwards, S. A., & Buzzell, L. (2008)." The waking up syndrome". Retrieved from http://old.relocalize.net/the_waking_up_syndrome

  5. Glaser, G. (2008, February 16). "Anxious about Earth’s troubles? There’s treatment". The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/16/us/16therapy.html

William Gagnon

Green Building engineer, Environmentalist

William is experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis in his community of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in the Canadian subarctic region. As an engineer, he leads the work for the Northern Centre for Sustainability, a space designed to support emerging entrepreneurs in achieving sustainable development objectives. The building aims to become the most sustainable building in the circumpolar North and the first building in Canada with negative carbon emissions. 

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