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Climate activists: Canaries in the coal mine of mental health decline

Images: Roman Khripkov/Unsplash / Gabriel Matula/Unsplash / Sergey Shmidt/Unsplash

Those at the coalface of climate activism are exhausted, fighting amid society-wide inertia in what feels like the end of days. But the medical community is now giving unprecedented focus to the mental health fallout from the acute stress of surviving extreme weather events, or the chronic distress of facing the existential threat of our own extinction.

Patricia Westerford is a botanist whose life’s work made her an inadvertent champion for saving the old growth forests in North America. She’s spent her life proving that trees talk with one another, and trying to convince the world that these precious entities are more than just potential lumber. In spite of this, timber companies are allowed to keep clear-felling one swath of ancient forest after the next, milling a shared life-support system down into fashionable furniture.

After decades of careful science that fuelled the fight of a handful of activists, her government and an indifferent public are still complicit in allowing the corporate capture of this natural system so that a few big businesses can cream a profit.

She decides it’s time for a final stand. During a public lecture that has the attention of more than just a few supportive peers, her plan is to end a keynote address with an act of public protest, a kind of immolation-by-poison.

What is the single best thing a person can do for tomorrow’s world?” she asks the audience, as she lifts a brew made from lethal tree sap to her mouth. Her plan is to die before she leaves the podium.

This scene in the closing pages of Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory may sound like a piece of macabre theatrics. But reading it from my vantage of nearly two decades of writing about the unfolding climate crisis, it feels as though the novelist has his finger on the vein of an aching new zeitgeist. This is what many of us at the coalface of climate activism feel right now: sheer overwhelm, exasperation, and impotence in the face of the political and social inertia that’s allowing our extractive economy to drive us headlong towards an extinction level event within our lifetime.

If societal collapse really is on our doorstep, and many of us may not die of natural causes in the unfolding geopolitical mayhem, does it matter if I die traumatically in 20 years’ time, or now? Is it worth sitting at my desk day after day, as I have for the past 17 years, trying to change the cultural conversation when it doesn’t seem to make any difference?

I’m not usually this frank about my internal dialogues. But maybe it’s time to give you an unedited glimpse into the daily psychological grind, as headline after headline bombards me with what the science is now saying unequivocally: we are slipping into runaway climate collapse; atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations are now higher than they’ve been in 3 million years; we have just 12 years in which to cut our emissions by 45%, relative to 2010 levels, and need to bring them down to zero by 2050, if we want to avoid crossing a crucial 1.5C threshold in temperature increase, but we may already be slipping across into a new climate regime that is outside the stable state in which modern civilisation emerged; but our emissions are in fact growing year on year, and we’re set for a dramatic overshoot of increasingly impossible targets to stabilise our planetary life-support system.

I’m not the only one feeling this way. Lawyer and activist Brandon Abdinor posted this on social media this week:

The fibres of my being have finished screaming. They are exhausted. I’m trying to write another article on climate change and the law, and how things could be fixed. But I’m really battling to find the “we can do this!” in me right now. If we stopped GHG emissions tomorrow we’d be in some trouble. If we drop them by 5% per year we’d be in a lot of trouble but could make it. But we are INCREASING THEM. And cutting down 27 soccer fields of forest every minute. I honestly think we are finished.”

We chatted briefly by email. His life is feeling as shattered as mine is. In our wider circle of friends and colleagues, the anguish is palpable. We pepper our exchanges with words like “eco-grief”, “solastalgia” – coined recently by an Australian philosopher, a word which echos feelings of homesickness, and refers to the existential despair of being witness to massive environmental loss and “terrafurie”, the rage some feel towards our species as we blindly exact this destruction around us.

We’ve been toiling away at this for years, and the situation only gets worse by the day. This makes the threat of World War II look like a kindergarten pantomime.

I’ve started smoking again, after 20 years of clean living. I figured it’s a safer way, in the short-term, to self medicate through the stress of this. If I turned to alcohol, I’d be far more at risk of immediate mental breakdown. Besides, I joked to some friends recently, I’m unlikely to live long enough to even develop lip wrinkles from the smoking, let alone lung cancer.

Mental breakdown finally on the UN climate agenda

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is busy writing up the next big scientific overview of the state of climate affairs globally, which it releases every seven years. This time they’re giving unprecedented attention to the mental health fallout thats coming with climate change, which theyll publish in the Sixth Assessment Report in 2022.

Professor Susan Clayton is chair of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio in the US, and is part of the global team of academics in her field which is writing this chapter of the report. To ensure “clarity of the message” she told me in February this year, she can’t give the press too much detail while the report is being written, but much of the thinking about the mental health impacts are summarised in Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, realised by the American Psychology Association, amongst others, in 2017.

The study notes the likely increase in depression, anxiety, substance misuse, interpersonal violence, and suicide as we’re exposed to more and more environmental and existential stress in the face of climate collapse. Think: The acute distress that a person or community might face during an extreme weather event, like a flood, days-long heatwave, or wildfire, or the distress of having to relocate after your town is lost to a tidal surge or flooding the way Beira was in March this year. Think: The chronic, ongoing anxiety of living in a world that’s so uncertain, where starvation or war or forced migration or suicide replace traditional retirement plans. The way we were schooled to plan for old age don’t hold true anymore.

It feels as though our society has been given a terminal diagnosis and we’re now in a hospice situation.

People like me, who are facing this reality daily, are the canaries in the coal mine. There are days where it feels as though we’re falling apart. My day started with an anxiety attack brought on by feelings of the overwhelming futility of it all (more news headlines with dire climate projections; another pro-coal statement by our government; more media celebrating the extractive profits of another multinational that’s freely gobbling up the tiny bit of atmospheric space we have left for future emissions), it peaked at noon with a tranquilliser to settle myself enough to write this article, and ended with an editor wringing her hands about how low the readership has been on a series of opinion pieces I’ve been writing for her paper.

After 17 years of doing what feels like a doomsday audit of this unfolding catastrophe, with what appears to be little measurable impact, I’ve spent the past two years giving at least a third of my billable time to pro-bono writing, in an effort to turn up the temperature on our collective conversation. And still the editors are reluctant to commission or publish these pieces, and readership of these articles is distressingly low.

Try to keep your stories light, supporters of the cause suggest. Tell stories that put a human face on things. Package your messaging as funky animated videos or powerful short movies. People can’t read more than three paragraphs, so keep it short. Keep it upbeat and hopeful. Give people solutions, so they feel they have a sense of agency.

Honestly: we’ve done all that. We’ve used gentle, prompting language so as not to startle anyone. We’ve used evocative storytelling. We’ve used outraged thought pieces. Much of my writing these days is solutions-focused, and yet my social media newsfeeds are still filled with people throwing up their hands and saying they can’t do anything in the face of the enormity of it all.

In truth, we also can’t repackage these messages in catchy three-minute video clips when the newsroom budget for a feature-length idea barely pays for a basket of groceries, let alone what it takes to put out a slick multi-media package. It’s virtually impossible to deliver complex science or perspectives on how to tackle the political-economy driving climate collapse in Twitter-sized sprinkles. Although we’ve tried that too.

Eco-grief and the dawn of eco-psychology

There are small groups popping up around the country, led mostly by therapists who call themselves eco-psychologists, that are pulling together to support people as we confront the enormity of it all.

One group that I’m working with is designing a process that involves moving beyond the cold, brutal facts of climate collapse, ecological overshoot, and the reality that we are bringing about an extinction level event. It draws together a bundle of useful, everyday tools to deal with the grief, fear, and dread so that we can move through the kind of freeze response that psychologists like professor Susan Clayton say is typical in the face of emotional overload, so we can find our agency within the collapsing system. On the other side of dread and overwhelm, lie solutions, action, and hope. At least, that’s what I need to believe right now.

Nasa astronaut William Anders’ famous Earth Rising photograph, taken in 1968, was one of the seeding events of the environmental movement. It captures what has become known as the overview effect, something which many astronauts experience when they leave Earth’s atmosphere and look back at this blue-and-white swirled marble spinning through the darkness of space and realise that this is home. This is our only home.

Seeing Earth from space creates in many a profound feeling of connection with the miracle of this beautiful planet, but also brings an urgent sense of the need for better custodianship of it.

We need to create a collective overview effect, one that brings about a society-wide shift that will allow us to move beyond the extractive paradigm that has brought us to the point where, as Richard Powers describes in The Overstory, we have turned half the planet into a factory farm to support one species.

There are plenty of ways we can disrupt the cultural values that are driving us towards extinction. It starts within ourselves, and then must reach to those beyond us: we can draw on the experiential processes used by eco-psychologists; wilderness and nature-immersion is another (for everyone, not just rich nature-lovers); storytelling; revisiting other cosmologies that reflect our evolved and gut-level need for connection with nature and each other; we must draw on the views that acknowledge the rights of mother nature. We need this right now, and at scale.

And then we need to join arms and tear down the political-economy that’s devouring Earth’s systems and the life that depends on it.

We cannot afford to turn our gaze away from what seems inevitable. We must confront the reality of this unprecedented existential threat that our species has brought to all of life on Earth. But we cannot afford to freeze, either. We must move effectively towards creating what writer Jeremy Lent calls an ecological civilisation.

But more than anything, as each of us faces another few decades of this exhausting Sisyphean battle, we need to help each other survive the daily toil. We need to carry each other through the trenches and amplify our voices. Because if we don’t, the fatigue will, quite literally, kill us. I know it’s killing me faster than the cigarettes are. DM

Leonie Joubert is a science writer, author, trainer and public speaker.


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