A Little Green

Eco-anxiety & the mental health toll

Episode Summary

We’ve heard about the physical tolls of climate change; the catastrophic weather events like wildfires and heat waves. Now, Christina wants to know about how it’s affecting our mental health. How do we cope with all of the big emotions that climate change brings up? What do we do with feelings like anxiety, grief, anger, and fear? And, is there a role for the other side of the emotional spectrum to play; the joy, hope, and love?

Episode Notes

We’ve heard about the physical tolls of climate change; the catastrophic weather events like wildfires and heat waves. Now, Christina wants to know about how it’s affecting our mental health. How do we cope with all of the big emotions that climate change brings up? What do we do with feelings like anxiety, grief, anger, and fear? And, is there a role for the other side of the emotional spectrum to play; the joy, hope, and love?

Christina talks with author Michele Wucker about one of the first reactions many people have when faced with climate change: denial and avoidance. She likens these big crises to gray rhinos. They’re right there, charging at us, so how do we get from denial to action?

Many young people have been raising the alarm about this “rhino,” after all, they’ve been saddled with the worst effects of this crisis. Georgia Wright, co-creator of the podcast series Inherited, shares insight into the generational psychology of climate change. She brings up an important term that many people of all ages are grappling with: climate anxiety.

Christina looks to Professor Sarah Jaquette Ray for a definition. She helps uncover the wide range of emotions that we might be feeling when it comes to climate change. Professor Ray emphasizes an alternative way of approaching climate change, one that moves beyond urgency, dystopia, and despair. 

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Episode Transcription

[00:00:00] Audience: How do I feel about climate change? 

Climate change terrifies me...

...Disheartened, worried, overwhelmed...

What I feel about climate change is that it's something that I feel on my shoulders, kind of all the time as this looming, kind of, like, impending sense of doom. 

...Despairing, angry, but also hopeful. 

...Overwhelmed and scared, um, and then I think constantly anxious that I'm not doing enough to help. 

Climate change is really scary to me. I think it's something that a lot of people think is far away and not affecting us. But climate change is already here. 

I think it's not only the sort of challenge of the decade, it's the challenge of this generation and future generations. 

Climate change is, period, the, period, moral, period, imperative of our time.

[00:01:11] Christina Thompson: A couple weeks into making this podcast, I started to notice some physical reactions I was having, like, my shoulders would tense up every time I heard the latest climate news report, or I'd feel my chest start to tighten hearing about that week's climate event. Floods across Europe and in my subway stations, fires sweeping through California, heat waves devastating Portland, hurricanes in the South. It has started to feel all encompassing and, frankly, a bit overwhelming. The environmental effects of climate change are pretty obvious these days, as we see our planet expressing herself in ways like never before. But there's another less visible toll playing out right now. And it's one that has to do with how we're managing our feelings regarding climate change and the cost it's having on our mental health.

Oh, hi. What are you doing? 

[00:02:04] Gus: Nothing. 

Oh hiii. 

[00:02:06] Christina Thompson: Um, I just want to know, Gus, do you know what climate change is? 

[00:02:12] Gus: Um, it's like the air changing, the water getting, like, dirty. Nothing is good in climate change. I don't want our planet to be ruined, because also we'll die, well like, won't, we won't have a place to go and we'll die and yeah. Also for our planet.

[00:02:35] Christina Thompson: Yeah. 

[00:02:36] Gus: I want everything to be, like, the oceans clear as water and like, um, everywhere you look, there's no garbage. 

[00:02:49] Christina Thompson: Is that something that you think about a lot? 

[00:02:52] Gus: Yeah. 

[00:02:53] Christina Thompson: Really? 

[00:02:54] Gus: Yeah. 

[00:02:55] Christina Thompson: Is it something you worry about?

[00:02:57] Gus: Yeah, I don't want that to happen.

[00:03:00] Christina Thompson: [Deep breath]

Okay. So in this episode, I want to know, well, how we're all doing. How we are, or rather how we should be processing and talking about these harsh realities that we're faced with. How do we cope? And what do we do with all these big, dark, complex feelings that come up along the way?

I'm Christina Thompson and this is A Little Green podcast.

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[00:04:24] Christina Thompson: Looming. It's a word that's been used a lot -- I've actually used it myself -- to describe the climate crisis. It evokes kind of a dark cloud, a shadowy shapeless mass that threatens to engulf you. But it's just far enough away to stay out of focus. And it's an appropriate word in many ways. This crisis is complicated and can be hard to wrap your head around. It's big, and way too big for any one person to carry alone. I've also heard this crisis compared to a great big rhino charging at us. 

[00:04:55] Michele Wucker: The gray rhino is really a metaphor for the challenges that we face. When there's something big and scary with the horn pointed straight at us, what are we going to do about it? 

[00:05:06] Christina Thompson: That's Michele Wucker. She's the author of The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore and You Are What You Risk. She was kind enough to speak to me about how she's communicating from a crisis anticipation perspective. 

[00:05:21] Michele Wucker: Are we going to let ourselves get trampled? Are we going to get out of the way and maybe let somebody else get trampled? Or are we going to harness the strength of that threat and use it to create something better? And it should be fairly obvious which of those three options I think is the best one for most situations.

Climate change is a very clear -- perhaps the biggest -- example of a gray rhino, something that's big, very impactful, that's coming straight at us. And that some people are jumping up and down and doing their best to deal with, but that other people are still denying. And the goal is really to get people from the denial stage into the action stage to doing something about it.

[00:06:06] Christina Thompson: So, obviously, big crises like climate change are clearly playing out right now, but it definitely feels like people just ignore or avoid it at times. That's something I’ve fallen into myself. You know, I get up out of bed each day and I live my life. And admittedly, I'm not thinking about climate change at every second of the day.

Do you feel like denial is actually kind of a form of coping with these big, obvious events? Like, do you feel like that's a common reaction? 

[00:06:31] Michele Wucker: Absolutely. Denial is such a common reaction because we're humans. And people sometimes get defensive when I say that we, we deny that obvious problems exist. And my point is no, I'm not criticizing you. I'm saying this is human. I'm saying it's okay that that's happening, but it's not okay if, once you recognize it, you keep denying things.

[00:07:09] Christina Thompson: If there's one group of people who are faced with a rather unique aspect of climate change it is our younger population. I mean, they are the future, and with a future that's continually forecasted as being quite grim from a climate perspective, I wanted to know more about how they are dealing. 

Um, so I would love to just chat with you just about your experience, and Inherited, which I listened to and I love it, I love it so much. I've recommended it to so many people. It's such a beautiful podcast, so rich. 

[00:07:38] Georgia Wright: That means so much. Thank you. 

[00:07:40] Christina Thompson: So yeah, if you, if you don't mind, maybe just introduce yourself, tell me about yourself a little, how you got to working in the space that you're currently in now.

[00:07:46] Georgia Wright: Sure. Um, so my name's Georgia Wright. I am 26, nearly 27, and I'm an audio producer, storyteller, writer, uh, wearer of many hats. 

[00:07:56] Christina Thompson: Georgia and her collaborator, Julianna Bradley, are the creators of another climate related podcast that I highly recommend you check out. It's called Inherited, and it's about how young people are confronting the weight of the climate crisis.

[00:08:08] Georgia Wright: You know, me and all my peers and almost all of the people I know who are, who are young are experiencing these cycles of grief and fear and rage in the face of, you know, being handed this massive crisis that is endangering all of our lives. 

[00:08:24] Christina Thompson: As I learned from our climate justice talks, young people are one of the more vulnerable, at-risk groups when it comes to climate change. And I imagine that the toll on their mental health is intensified by the fact that they are young. They should be imagining their futures with excitement and hope, but young people today have grown up in conditions that they did not create, in an emergency that is asking everything of them. 

[00:08:46] Georgia Wright: We're experiencing so many different feelings and anxieties that intersect with our mental health in a really severe way, I would say. And I've certainly felt that in my own life, but I also know that that's true for a lot of other people as well. And yeah, I think that a lot of people don't really know how to talk about it. They get immobilized with fear and anxiety and they don't feel like they can take a step forward. At the end of the day, our generation, you know, is going to see things that no other generation has seen, is going to bear witness to and experience so many climate disasters, and it's inevitable that we're going to be going through emotional processes in that regard. And so Inherited, you know, through storytelling, we're hoping to give a space for young people to share those feelings and work through those feelings in community with one another. 

[00:09:39] Christina Thompson: What Georgia, Julianna, and so many young people have recognized is that these feelings have to be acknowledged in order to move forward. It's like grief. And the only way to process grief is to face it and go through it. 

[00:09:50] Georgia Wright: There is an element of yes, like, as individuals, we have to work through our own climate emotions and psychology, but then also as a community, we want to prepare ourselves to be able to work through this going forward.

[00:10:04] Christina Thompson: Georgia explained to me that her podcast and her work in climate action is one way that she's able to work through this. Not from a, "I have all the answers" angle, but to share and tell stories of a generation facing the biggest threat of all. 

[00:10:16] Georgia Wright: I absolutely was just floored and, you know, kind of beside myself with climate anxiety for a couple of years, but I had no idea really what to do about it because I had been studying fiction writing. But I was, I was struggling with it and it really wasn't until post-college when I had sort of already made a little bit of a foray into the world of narrative podcasting that it occurred to me that really an interdisciplinary approach would be the best way for me to make an impact in this world. 

I was thinking, "oh, you know, the right angle for this podcast is not necessarily me coming in and being like, let me explain all of the climate science to you," because, like I said, that's not my area of expertise. What I can speak to is the generational psychology around climate change. You know, when Julianna reached out, my collaborator for Inherited, we very quickly came to the idea that, you know, having a specific focus on young people and the youth climate movement, not just politically, but also again, sort of generationally and emotionally, that was something we hadn't really seen before. And that was something that we had seen so much in our own lives, but hadn't seen reflected in the audio world. And so it became sort of this confluence of things. 

[00:11:27] Christina Thompson: I mean, pretty much all of the climate related narratives that I'm used to are either super scientific and jargony or they're blockbuster movies that paint a wild picture of what a doomsday apocalypse might look like from The Day After Tomorrow to Waterworld.

Georgia mentioned a specific term though, and I'm glad she did: climate anxiety. I love a good definition on this podcast, so I found an expert to help us define this one. 

[00:11:55] Sarah Jaquette Ray: My name's Sarah Jaquette Ray, and I'm a professor of Environmental Studies at Humboldt State University up here in Arcadia, California. 

[00:12:02] Christina Thompson: Sarah works with students every day and she wrote the book on climate anxiety, aptly titled, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety. And I could have talked to her all day. She's the best. 

Can you define climate anxiety? 

[00:12:16] Sarah Jaquette Ray: Yeah. Climate anxiety is a term that folks are using similar to eco anxiety. Eco anxiety, I would say, is more broad than climate anxiety. And it's this notion that in some untold, amorphous future, amorphous untold predictions of, of dystopia are going to unfold, right? I mean, that's kind of what, when we see the IPCC reports or we look at the films that predict this, because it turns out that Hollywood has a lot to do with what people think will happen with climate change, the sort of dystopian unfolding future that people are worried about having to do with the destruction of ecosystems. 

And, will we have air to breathe? Will there be rain? Will there, the things that we rely on as tried and tested aspects of the environment, will they even be there, you know, anymore after a certain point? And then what will unfold for human civilization if that's not there? So anxiety is distinctively something that doesn't necessarily have an object of worry. So worry is different from anxiety in that it has a particular thing; you're worried about something. And climate anxiety is partly so intense because people don't know quite what to worry about. It's this sense of amorphous doom that could affect anything and everything. 

[00:13:29] Christina Thompson: Sounds like that looming shapeless cloud we keep trying to push away.

[00:13:32] Sarah Jaquette Ray: Americans don't like negative emotions. Most people don't, but different cultures feel differently about negative emotions, you know, or welcome them in different ways. At least for me, as a person who is sort of a classic Anglo-Western, you know, privileged, college-educated person, I've always been taught that the pursuit of happiness is my inalienable right and that, you know, the point of my existence is to try to achieve happiness. 

This is, you know, that's the way I was raised too. And so, um, I struggle, myself, with negative emotions. And it wasn't until I started researching climate anxiety did I start to think, you know, I was really allergic to my student's negative emotions. It caused me great anxiety to be in classrooms where students were so despairing. I immediately thought I had to fix it. I mean, I was just like, "this is not comfortable for me. Your despair is freaking me out!" You know?

[00:14:20] Christina Thompson: Yeah. 

[00:14:21] Sarah Jaquette Ray: And so it has taken me a lot of unlearning and retraining to think of negative emotions like anxiety, despair, fear, grief as really the portal through which we're going to do the changes we need to do. And I believe firmly, I mean, Renée Lertzman and lots of people that are doing climate psychology are basically saying that our denial of climate change is actually denial of the negative emotions around climate change. Like, our aversion to grief, our aversion to anxiety, our aversion to despair, powerlessness. All of this sense of apathy, um, I would say apathy is a brand of denial. You know, we have this feeling of, this problem is so big and it's so awful that I can't even face it. 

[00:15:03] Christina Thompson: This feels very much in line with Michele's charging rhino. 

[00:15:07] Sarah Jaquette Ray: We haven't been taught in this culture how to deal with negative emotions. We don't see the negative emotions around climate change as a positive sign that humanity might be waking up to the reality of what's going on, and we might need to dive right in and use the negative emotions to address and mitigate this problem. So I think the negative emotions are certainly the channel to get there, and that denial is a function of not wanting to go there. And so is apathy. I have to say that apathy and denial are a major part of my daily life too, so... 

[00:15:36] Christina Thompson: Just a healthy dose of denial to start the day!

[00:15:40] Sarah Jaquette Ray: You know, I have, I've benefited a lot from an extractive economy in ways that I'm not comfortable with giving up my privileges. I'm not, in many ways, I have to be honest, I'm not really thrilled about the prospect of never flying again, or, you know, lots of things that, um, your sort of average, privileged American, relative to someone from anywhere in the rest of the world, sort of seems as normal, you know? 

And so, what it would require us to do to change is significant, and no one has the imagination for how to do that. And so of course denial is a logical response to the anxiety of what, that we would otherwise have if we really faced it, you know. Psychologically we have a negativity bias because of our reptilian brains, we tend to look for whatever's threatening on the horizon. That's often not what actually is threatening because risk perception contorts or distorts what's actually a threat to us. 

[00:16:34] Christina Thompson: We do seem to be pretty good at imagining all of the hypothetical negative futures ahead of us, whether it's Mad Max's desert wasteland or Waterworld's, well, water world. I've read somewhere before that for humans, when it comes to how we absorb positive or negative news, bad things have about two, three, or four times as much impact as good things. Meaning for every one bad thing you hear, you need a solid four to five good things to help balance things out. But when it comes to our climate, good news feels in short supply these days. So how do we gain a more positive outlook, genuinely, where we can actually envision adapting to and preparing for the climate crisis? 

[00:17:13] Sarah Jaquette Ray: Reframing the climate movement as a movement of building utopia, of abundance instead of scarcity, of pleasure instead of fear, desire for the future instead of, you know, anxiety about the future. All of these things I am very much hoping will happen in the climate movement. What would it look like to think about a future that you desire rather than fear? What would it take to actually build that future? Or, you know, what would it be like to think of what we're doing here as creating abundance rather than operating in a world of scarcity, scarcity of resources, scarcity of time, scarcity of everything, you know? 

[00:17:47] Christina Thompson: I think this is so important. Imagining this quote unquote utopia isn't necessarily some naive or Pollyanna effort. It's critical. It's saying we actually do have the power to shape our future and we're not giving up or resigning ourselves to some Hollywood cliche.

Speaking as an American, it feels like we live in a culture where everything is expected to be immediate, especially in New York, where enough hustle, enough sprinting will get us what we want. And many of us have the convenience of life at our fingertips, just a button click away. Couple that with our propensity to avoid things that are quote unquote difficult or complicated, when there isn't a neat and tidy solution to something, especially something that feels so threatening, it's really hard to accept that the path forward might look a little messy. 

[00:18:41] Sarah Jaquette Ray: This is going to be up and down, two steps forward, five steps back, five steps forward, one step back. It's going to be this messy, clunky unfolding of both crisis and positive things as long as we are alive, and as long as our children are alive, and, you know, this is going to go on for some time. So we have to kind of make a decision about how we're going to approach this with our lives. And we want to use urgency deliberatively and effectively and not overdo it, you know, we think of urgency maybe as a tool rather than like an objective condition of reality. 

[00:19:13] Christina Thompson: Okay. So maybe we do need to separate ourselves from that constant state of urgency while acknowledging and accepting the fact that this is still, well, a crisis. But how?

[00:19:23] Sarah Jaquette Ray: Robert Bullard, he talks about this being the marathon, not the sprint. And then even some others who are thinking more about the collective talk about the relay race instead of the marathon, right? That this is like, we're constantly passing the baton, taking a break, resting. Urgency doesn't let us rest, right? I really reject urgency as just an unsustainable way to live our lives. And while of course we want to act urgently on climate change, what the planet actually needs more for us is that we can engage in this work every day for our time on the planet, you know. So what would it take to do that is more of the important question. 

[00:19:59] Christina Thompson: I've never had a discussion about urgency in this way before. And it's, I feel like it's, in the same way it makes me feel urgent, but at the same way it's also like freeing it, like, takes the air out. It, it feels like I should be urgent about how I can make my life, um, able to be, to be moving in the right direction. 

[00:20:18] Sarah Jaquette Ray: Yes. Like, even if you were the most amazing Al Gore politician making changes everywhere, John Kerry, Christiana Figueres, or whoever it is that you idealize as having a lot of impact around climate change and you feel like you're paling in comparison, in scale, right? Even those people know darn well that the job is never done, and they're going to keep having to do it, and they feel driven by urgency. I mean, we just can't tick off something off a box, “okay job's done,” You know? We're going to be doing this our whole lives, we're going to engage in this work for our whole lives, and the emotional roller coaster of burnout and urgency and despair are not good for the planet. You know, how do I protect my inner resources so I can be of best service to the things I value the most in life? 

[00:21:03] Christina Thompson: Yeah. 

[00:21:03] Sarah Jaquette Ray: That is the question. 

[00:21:05] Christina Thompson: I love that that's, that's like a whole reframing. Uh, I feel like I had a very different relationship to the word “urgency” before this conversation. 

Can we answer that question that Sarah posed? How do we connect to and engage with this work every day for as long as we live? How do we face the rhino, contend with it, feel the feelings and channel them into positive action? Can we sustain ourselves in this crisis, grow and thrive and even enjoy our lives while doing this important work? 

[00:21:33] Sarah Jaquette Ray: So what would it take to make sustainability fun and pleasurable and joyful? That is really a great question. 

[00:21:40] Christina Thompson: That is on my list of questions here. Um, is there a role of joy in all of this? 

[00:21:45] Sarah Jaquette Ray: Yeah. Well, so joy is the reason why we're alive, right? 

[00:21:48] Christina Thompson: Theoretically, right?

[00:21:50] Sarah Jaquette Ray: That's kind of an important one. We are constantly in a despair and joy balance all of our lives. And if you really dive deep into despair and grief, you actually come out the other side realizing that joy is really urgent, you know. It is necessary. And these are not “either/or” things. We think, “oh, we are either in despair or we're happy, one or the other.” You really need both. The problem has been that the environmental movement has deployed emotions of guilt and despair and urgency and doom and gloom and fear. It has deployed those strategies to get people to act. And it has been very effective. I'm not dismissing its effectiveness. But it's had a backfiring effect and it's made people give up. And so there's a real, I have a real sense of, this isn't working, so can we imagine an alternative model of the climate movement that really centers using that despair to get to joy?

[00:22:48] Christina Thompson: It feels like the discussion around climate change is so dark and that there hasn't been a lot of room for that joy. This joy is being embraced and encouraged by many in the climate movement. Like Katharine WIlkinson. 

[00:23:01] Katharine Wilkinson: So we think a lot about kind of the constellation of power and joy. So power being what we need to make change, but joy really being what we need to stay in the work, right? And frankly, to do the work in a way that feels in alignment with the kind of future we're trying to create, right? To me, the aspiration is really to nurture a just and livable future. And that means we need to be doing the work in ways that are life-giving in the present, otherwise like the means and the ends aren't going to line up. And I just don't really think that ever works. 

[00:23:46] Christina Thompson: No, it's just not sustainable. Like it's not, yeah.

[00:23:49] Katharine Wilkinson: Yeah. Um, and you know, and when you sort of dig deeper beneath whatever feelings people are having; anxiety, fear, anger, often the thing that is sitting beneath all of that is, is love, right? For place, for community, for people, right, for the things that right now feel that they are at risk. And also for a different kind of society. 

[00:24:21] Christina Thompson: So what do we love? What brings us joy? What sustains us and makes life worth living? Makes life worth fighting for? Well, that answer is up to you. But I, of course, had to ask some of our friends what their answers were.

[00:24:36] Georgia Wright: We all have our own ways to connect to this crisis and we all have our own ways of processing this crisis. And none of those ways have to look the same, you know, everyone can find their individual connections. And so I think that, for me, that creative element is what makes me feel like this could be something sustainable that I can continue working on for the rest of my life. There is this wide open door where we are able to create community and art and care for one another. And I guess for me, that is where the sort of joy and sustainability comes in. 

[00:25:19] Vivek Shandas: I find joy through being outside. I find joy through connecting with friends, family, and making new friends. 

Jade Begay: I prioritize rest, taking time away from the work to heal, to spend time with the people I love, to be out in the land, in nature. It's simple stuff, but it's, it's important and it makes all the difference. 

Anthony Rogers-Wright: To be in this struggle is part love, cause we still love our city, and part masochism of I will do whatever is necessary to protect my people in my communities. 

Kate Williams: Love is always going to create power and energy and you know, and that is what's going to kind of keep us going, love for the planet and love for the, you know, future that we get to give to our kids.

Esther: I find the most joy just spending time in nature and reminding myself that what we do have is still beautiful. And also the New York Times crossword. 

[00:26:07] Nephew: I just like that there's, like, trees to climb and there's birds. 

Aaron: Being outside brings me joy, um, doing creative endeavors, painting, making music, cooking, and, uh, connecting with people I love. 

John: I think joy and wonder still surround us every day.

[00:26:33] Christina Thompson: Since the younger generation is our future, I want to end this episode with some words of wisdom from Georgia. 

[00:26:40] Georgia Wright: There is a really common misconception that people see people who work in climate as pessimistic. And I think that that's complete hooey, you know. I think that that's really silly because people who work in climate are the most optimistic people. If they were not optimistic, if we were all completely certain that our future was slipping away before us, why would we be fighting? Why wouldn't we just be, you know, kind of living our day-to-day lives and being nihilistic about it? 

I think that particularly young people who are in the climate fight, this idea that they're just like all full of negativity and sadness and rage and whatever, it's like, yes, that's some of the fuel that allows us to fight, but the action of fighting for a better future means saying, "listen, there is something that I love here, there's something worth living for, and there is something worth fighting for here.” And it's really up to us to take it into our own hands.

[00:27:37] Christina Thompson: Next time, in our penultimate episode of the series, we're going to think about what this future might actually look like and who can lead the way there. 

Thank you to everyone who shared their joys and anxieties with us. I want to know where you are finding joy these days. What are you fighting for? Find us on Instagram and let us know @AvocadoGreenBrands. You can also connect with us and learn more about climate anxiety on our website at ALittleGreenPodcast.com.

A Little Green is an Avocado Green Brands podcast. This podcast was written and produced by Anna McClain and myself, Christina Thompson, with the help of Kelly Drake. The music you heard is by Aaron Levison.