You’ve just finished reading a particularly disturbing article online about industrial agriculture and its unsustainable practices and you’re furious. You spend an evening watching the movie Collapse on Comcast On Demand and you feel slightly depressed about your future. You’ve been talking to your friends about the economy and now you’re worried about what’s going to happen when the recession ends and inflation kills the value of the money you’ve been conscientiously saving in the last few years.
It just seems like it’s always something that’s ruining your optimism and desire to feel that everything is right with the world.
You feel pretty good about your job, but someone just told you that there will be no use for your profession after Peak Oil. You have been living within your means but now you worry that you own no land and won’t be able to grow your own food when food shortages strike. You’ve been buying “green” and organic products for years but just read a headline that Whole Foods is destroying the planet.
Argh! You’re this close to giving up on everything you’ve come to believe and just going back to a life of blissful ignorance about the state of the Earth. What’s the point to green living then? You tell yourself. You are only one person and you can’t save the planet. And besides, all this is stressing you out.
Sound familiar? If so, you’re experiencing eco-anxiety. That’s what ecopsychologists call that underlying feeling of fear and anger over the injustices and destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. I suspect this is fairly common, but the problem is that there are no statistics to back that up, because quite simply, no one likes to talk about it.
So if you know you’re feeling eco-anxiety, what can you do about it?
The Problem With Doing Something About It
I read an article in Time Magazine online a couple years ago where ecopsychologists were treating people with eco-anxiety. The article advised that in order to feel better, you should choose to do something to help a cause you feel passionate about, or prepare some kind of personal action plan.
So let’s say you do that. Let’s say you prepare for collapse by paying off debt and learning how to grow food. Or, you donate money to the World Wildlife Fund or the Wilderness Society because the thought of hundreds of species of animals going extinct every year is too grim to even contemplate.
You join a group or an organization, even a movement like the Transition Town movement (that’s what I did). But sooner or later it will dawn on you while you’re boiling jars of home-grown pumpkin in the pressure cooker or learning how to fix a bicycle fat that it’s not enough. It can NEVER be enough.
You’ll be sitting in a seminar where you’re learning about how to circumvent the illegalities of rainwater catchment and you’ll suddenly be hit with how ridiculous it is in the face of what you know is coming down for all of us.
The scope and breadth of the problems we’re facing as a civilization won’t be solved if by magic suddenly everyone grew their own carrots and peas, stored rainwater in a barrel and occasionally rode a bike to work. That’s because when the sh** hits the fan, your job will cease to exist and there’s no way in heck you can grow all your own food on a suburban plot and hope to survive for more than a week. There are people in the modern, Western world right now who are burning furniture to heat their home because they can’t afford to eat and keep their thermostats set at a comfortable temperature.
You soon come to the realization that even if you were to do a little something every day (like reducing your trash or eating less meat), or even change your life completely (by moving away to a self-sustaining communal farm and totally disconnecting from everything and everyone you know), it still won’t stop the destruction of the rainforest or the fact that when the climate switch gets flipped (and it will) and starts a negative feedback loop, we will have been too late.
An Atypical Bit of Advice
In our fast-paced, “gotta-have-it,” “have-no-time culture,” we love problem-solving with the quick fix. I know, because I have spent the last three years writing attention-getting marketing copy for internet-based companies that sell information and self-help products.
What I learned during that time is that people don’t want to hear about how to fix their deep-seated issues or spend long hours slogging through intense and painful therapy. They want to know the “3 Easy Tips” for making the person of the opposite sex INSTANTLY attracted to them. They want to know the 1-step plan or the 5 mistakes to avoid and by doing so, change everything forever. If anything I was selling even smacked of sounding complicated, it had at least better be entertaining.
We want the quick fix, and we want it to be fun. AND effective.
There’s no quick fix for eco-anxiety. Sure, there are stop-gap solutions such as taking a walk in nature, volunteering at a nonprofit or learning a new skill for self-sufficiency. But unless you get out of the mode of doing and actually stop to confront your feelings and talk about them, you will become what I call an “angry activist.”
Angry activists are those blessed souls who have spent hundreds of hours in thankless service to a cause, only to feel utterly helpless against the onslaught of ignorance and continuing environmental destruction. Angry activists develop a contempt for those they see as being the “cause” of all their frustration: namely, people who drive SUVs or watch blue ray DVDs on their high-definition televisions. You know—“those people.” I have no such contempt because a) I’m one of those people and b) I am a product of our culture—we all are. I have compassion for all of us. We are all doing the best we can with what we know. There was a time not too long ago when I had no inkling of such terms as global warming or Peak Oil. There was a time not too long ago when I thought recycling was a pain in the ass and a waste of time, and so did most of my neighbors. Times have changed, I have changed, and I see everyone I know (SUV-owning and not) professing some level of concern over what they know is wrong with our system.
Angry activists are no help to their cause. They can’t help but sound judgmental, even to those who agree with their ideas and feel an affinity with their philosophy.
Therefore, you can spend your time doing, doing, doing, but still feel like you’ve gotten nowhere. You’re still bitter and scared and furious and sick with worry.
The best chance you have to deal with eco-anxiety is to actually admit you feel it and talk about it. Talk about it to yourself, then with your spouse or partner, then with your community. If we ignore and repress our feelings, they will only come back stronger and in other ways.
A caveat: just be careful who you talk to. Not everyone is aware of all the issues facing our civilization. Sometimes trying to tell someone how worried you are about your future because of Peak Oil will backfire if the person dismisses you because they don’t know enough about it. “What are you talking about? We won’t run out of oil anytime soon. We’ll be using alternative energy before that happens, anyway. Chill-ax, dude.” They smirk at you and you kick yourself for even opening your mouth, because now on top of feeling eco-anxiety, you worry about being labeled an “alarmist” or a purveyor of “doom and gloom” by someone you like.
Find someone you trust, who shares your knowledge and viewpoint about that which most makes you feel despair. If there are workshops in your area on Awakening the Dreamer or The Work That Reconnects, participate in them. Get online and find websites that write about the issues you’re most concerned about and post comments and share ideas. Get a group of friends together with the expressed intention of “venting” your feelings on the state of the world.
By participating in such communal discourse, you’ll find you feel so much better, at least for a while. You’ll be amazed at what a relief it is to know there are others out there who share your concerns and frustrations. After being in the Transition community for the last year and a half and having sat through many lectures and discussions on various eco-topics, I know how energizing it is to be a part of a community that’s taking steps toward a positive direction, however small. It is heartening to listen to someone voice the feelings I myself have been hiding for months, maybe years, and finally be able to admit them to myself and to someone else in public and NOT be ridiculed.
It is only after we’re able to face our fears that we can be a force for change in the world. With denial and repression, there is only anger and despair.
Margaret Emerson, MA is a freelance writer and ecopsychologist who lives with her family in Westminster, Colorado. She facilitates workshops on issues related to eco-anxiety and ecopsychology, and is in the process of writing a book on contemplative hiking along the Front Range.