There are few regions on Earth that haven’t been impacted in some way by climate change. Some impacts more catastrophic than others, of course, but the threat of mass displacement and regular, worldwide environmental catastrophe is no longer something of science fiction. It is the current reality of hundreds of millions of people.
For people who experience elevated levels of anxiety around the idea of climate change, it makes a lot of sense why this phenomenon is the source of their disquiet. While individuals enact the consumer patterns for mega corporations to continue razing the earth for energy and materials, it’s those corporations that have the infrastructure and capital to invest in critical innovations that put the environment at the forefront. 70% of all emissions are created by just a handful of companies, after all. The individual has significantly less power to make swift, large-scale change in this area.
It’s no wonder climate anxiety is so widespread. It feels like there are no options and no power to be had. It feels like it’s out of the hands of individuals. It feels like someone else is steering the ship right into danger. But there are different perspectives to explore from groups who have been working for decades or more to secure a safer future. The fear of an unliveable future is closely linked to the fear of change, and of a loss of social power.
The Role of Race & Privilege
For people who feel overwhelmed with dread about the climate situation, consider the following discussion by environmental research Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray on the role of race and privilege in climate anxiety. It appears in Scientific American, published on March 21, 2021. The piece is lightly condensed for brevity.
[Content warning for mentions of violence, racism, and extremism.]
Today, a year into the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, I am deeply concerned about the racial implications of climate anxiety. If people of color are more concerned about climate change than white people, why is the interest in climate anxiety so white? Is climate anxiety a form of white fragility or even racial anxiety? Put another way, is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get “back to normal,” to the comforts of their privilege?
The white response to climate change is literally suffocating to people of color. Climate anxiety can operate like white fragility, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and devoting resources toward appeasing the dominant group. As climate refugees are framed as a climate security threat, will the climate-anxious recognize their role in displacing people from around the globe? Will they be able to see their own fates tied to the fates of the dispossessed? Or will they hoard resources, limit the rights of the most affected and seek to save only their own, deluded that this xenophobic strategy will save them? How can we make sure that climate anxiety is harnessed for climate justice?
The prospect of an unlivable future has always shaped the emotional terrain for Black and brown people, whether that terrain is racism or climate change. Climate change compounds existing structures of injustice, and those structures exacerbate climate change. Exhaustion, anger, hope—the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment. What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future.
It is a surprisingly short step from “chronic fear of environmental doom,” as the American Psychological Association defines ecoanxiety, to xenophobia and fascism. Racism is not an accidental byproduct of environmentalism; it has been a constant reference point. As I wrote about in my first book, The Ecological Other, early environmentalists in the U.S. were anti-immigrant eugenicists whose ideas were later adopted by Nazis to implement their “blood and soil” ideology. In a recent, dramatic example, the gunman of the 2019 El Paso shooting was motivated by despair about the ecological fate of the planet: “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist.” Intense emotions mobilize people, but not always for the good of all life on this planet.
Today’s progressives espouse climate change as the “greatest existential threat of our time,” a claim that ignores people who have been experiencing existential threats for much longer. Slavery, colonialism, ongoing police brutality—we can’t neglect history to save the future.
RESILIENCE AND RELATION AS RESISTANCE
I recently gave a college lecture about climate anxiety. One of the students e-mailed me to say she was so distressed that she’d be willing to submit to a green dictator if they would address climate change. Young people know the stakes, but they are not learning how to cope with the intensity of their dread. It would be tragic and dangerous if this generation of climate advocates becomes willing to sacrifice democracy and human rights in the name of climate change.
Oppressed and marginalized people have developed traditions of resilience out of necessity. Black, feminist and Indigenous leaders have painstakingly cultivated resilience over the long arc of the fight for justice. They know that protecting joy and hope is the ultimate resistance to domination. Persistence is nonnegotiable when your mental, physical and reproductive health are on the line.
Instead of asking “What can I do to stop feeling so anxious?”, “What can I do to save the planet?” and “What hope is there?”, people with privilege can be asking “Who am I?” and “How am I connected to all of this?” The answers reveal that we are deeply interconnected with the well-being of others on this planet, and that there are traditions of environmental stewardship that can be guides for where we need to go from here.
Dr. Ray offers a way to reconcile the feeling of climate anxiety and both the past and current realities of different groups. There are, indeed, ways to ease one’s own fears by considering what justice can be sought through collective action. What feels hopeless in the context of anxiety can turn hopeful in the pursuit of change alongside the folks who have been at the forefront for a long time.
How does this work?
If I had to wager a guess, you’re here to figure out whether I am a good fit to be your therapist. The fastest way to do that is to schedule a free consultation, and go from there!