Illustration by Massi Marzucco @hey.imateenager
The climate crisis is a growing concern for more than three quarters of the UK and is affecting our mental health, our social interactions and even our dating lives. As its impact grows is it better to fight for tomorrow or just say fuck the future and go back to playing ‘Which Disney character am I’ on Instagram?
According to a 2019 study by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), 76 percent of UK residents now state they are concerned about climate change. With more people suffering severe effects of eco-anxiety, both in their day-to-day health or major life choices, such as going vegan or not having children, the impact is undeniable.
“If we keep colluding with business as usual, we may have a mental health crisis at global scale on our hands very soon, as the danger is real,” highlighted Steffi Bednarek, a renowned Counsellor and Psychotherapist for Brighton and Hove who works with climate-change anxiety and provides expert support and advice for Universities, national and local Governments, the Council of Europe, the BBC, and more.
Commenting on the global situation, Bednarek explained: “The climate emergency is finally newsworthy. Uncontrollable wildfires, storms, floods and images of oceans covered in plastic have frighted many. The pandemic highlights our inter-dependence and vulnerability to pathogens, food shortages and adverse global events. More and more people sense that something is wrong without being able to name it. In lockdown we have taken actions that nobody believed were possible. Our future now depends on what we do next.”
“Research has show that there are mental health benefits in engaging in sustainable lifestyle and that people who have mobilised in activism feel the benefits of a supportive community”
In terms of what to do next, especially if people are susceptible to eco-anxiety, the question still comes down to whether you are better off ignoring or fully embracing a sustainable lifestyle in terms of one’s mental health. A 2020 study for the Journal of Environmental Psychology reported how climate anxiety, but not behavioral engagement, was associated with a general measure of depression and anxiety, a reasoning which Bednarek supports. “Research has shown that there are mental health benefits in engaging in sustainable lifestyles and that people who have mobilised in activism feel the benefits of a supportive community,” she said. “Many engage rationally with climate change data whilst not fully allowing it to disrupt one’s lifestyle. Positive bias, wishful thinking, denial or numbing are all ways to deflect from uncomfortable feelings. This reduces the urgency for dramatic change. The more reality is avoided in this way, the more anxiety builds up unconsciously. The need for further distortion increases. This process may maintain an emotional equilibrium on the surface, but it costs us the Earth and our future. Appropriate anxiety can therefore be a sign of psychological health in a dysfunctional and dangerous situation. It urges us to act.”
Echoing these sentiments, Lucy Lindley, Founder of local Brighton & Hove sustainable fashion community, Not So Sloppy Seconds, said: “I think a healthy balance is definitely key here. Focusing on the climate crisis can definitely be anxiety and stress-inducing but I think it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to live sustainably. I’m only one person and I can’t fix everything, as much as I think I’d love to! Since I started really considering the things I do on a daily basis I’ve actually found that it’s been good for my mental health. Trying to shop plastic-free, for example, has been a big one for me as I don’t have the guilt of throwing plastic packaging into the bin as often.”
Relating to this on a local, Brighton & Hove level, Not So Sloppy is working towards a supportive strategy bringing together people from all walks of life to focus on sustainable fashion, share tips and tricks, learn about the key environmental issues and “have a bit of reassurance that nobody is perfect”. Focusing on tips for reducing this anxiety when starting down the sustainable lifestyle route, Lindley said: “Around six months ago I was going through a rough patch with my mental health and part of that was definitely because I was trying to take on too many causes at once. I had a kind of environmental information overload where I just wanted to fix every problem on the planet at once. It’s not a healthy way to live and it ends up being counter-productive. So I’ve learned to pick my battles. It might not seem like much, but making small changes over time is a much better way of approaching a sustainable lifestyle. If we all try to go vegan, stop buying from the high-street and cycle everywhere all at once it’ll be overwhelming and we’re more likely to give up. An eco-lifestyle is about forming new habits, so start by getting yourself a reusable coffee cup, have a couple of meat-free days a week and take it from there.”
“An eco life-style is about forming new habits, so start by getting yourself a reusable coffee cup, have a couple of meat-free days a week and take it form there.”
It’s easy to feel helpless, just listen to After The Gold Rush and hear Neil Young’s plaintive cry to ‘look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s’. It’s now 50 years later and she’s still on the run. The Climate Crisis affects us all differently. Personality, political party choice, education, social standing, background, creed and so much more all factor into how much importance we lend to it and how much we accept our own impact. Writing for BBC Futures, journalist Christine Ro highlighted how her own flights between London and Guwahati produce roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as the average Indian emits in a whole year. So our jobs, lifestyles, hobbies and so much more, all play a part in our own personal footprints but no matter what our footprints are and where we produce them, the situation is a global one and our actions have ramifications not just on our own doorsteps but in communities across the globe – rich or poor, capitalist or communist, sinner or saint, alike. In tandem, how we allow this information to weigh upon us manifests itself all differently too. There are those, like Donald. J(oker) Trump, who can deny all in the face of facts and seemingly not feel anxious. Contrastly, there are those who allow it to shape their very existence. For many who have read Jem Bendell’s ‘Deep Adaptation’ paper, there’s little to be done but move to the countryside, grow carrots and cry. The thesis itself, which lays out in explicit detail how serious the climate crisis is and the inevitable societal collapse awaiting us in a terrifyingly short timeframe, is fascinating, controversial and makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road read like Spot The Dog. Suffice to say, if you’re partial to sleepless nights, maybe don’t read this.
But if you’re not reading doom-core environmental papers, what’s the answer to reducing anxiety? Many sustainably focused individuals feel they have nobody to turn to or their position as a vegan/zero-waster is viewed as extreme. Steffi Bednarek provides some tips for reducing anxiety whilst forging ahead with an eco-lifestyle. “This is not a time to advocate fitting into a state of normality that costs us the Earth,” she offered. “It is true that embracing one’s values more openly may alienate others. It may also liberate others to do the same. The more we live in integrity with ourselves, the more we will attract like minded people. The transition may be bumpy, but the times call for us not to play small. Living as though our future depends on the actions we take today is a form of soul rebellion against this numbing. Allowing anxiety to become an agent of change transforms it into a positive force. We become larger in the process of it.”
So there you have it. The climate crisis is real, as is eco-anxiety. It’s time to dust off your ‘I tried to save the planet and all I got was this lousy, micro-plastic free, t-shirt’ top and act. If anyone ever tells you there’s no use crying over organically grown, plant-based milk, remember to take your fears and mould them into agents of the future. There is no Planet B, it’s time to give a shit!