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Floods, Wildfires and Storms. We Learn About How To Channel Our Climate Anxiety Into Good

8 June 22 words: Adam Pickering
illustrations: Sophie Forrester

Melting ice caps. Flooding cities. It’s no wonder more and more people are suffering from climate anxiety. But what’s at the root of the issue? How’s it impacting people? And what can we do to steady the quickly growing feelings of dread? Our Environment Editor Adam Pickering takes a deep dive into the topic, and gives some advice on how to channel your fear into a force for change…

Eco-anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” It isn’t a peculiar phenomenon - a recent YouGov poll of over 2,100 British people found that 78% of people report some level of climate anxiety. There’s little divide along the lines of class, or age, but women feel it more strongly than men. A study across ten countries led by Bath University found that 83% of young people aged 18-25 agreed that “people have failed to care for the planet”, with over half believing that humanity is doomed, and four in ten are hesitant to have children. I know I am. 

Could this imbalance be the root of our various health crises? Each day brings news of death, habitat destruction, floods, wildfires and storms. The latest study on flying insects from Buglife and the Kent Wildlife Trust suggests that populations have declined by 65% between 2004 and 2021. We’ve a 50% chance of a breaking 1.5 degree celsius global rise in temperatures in the next five years. Activists at last year’s COP26 demanded we “keep 1.5 alive” - 1.5 is practically dead. We’ve reached the era of deep adaptation; billions of people are now regularly affected by deadly heat waves, and climate-related crop pressures have already contributed to huge food price rises. Pollution is now causing one in six deaths globally. We have every reason to fear this disequilibrium. 

There’s a sense of sorrow even in our animal cousins; in the cetaceans – the aquatic order of mammals – who find fishing ever-harder amongst depleted coral reefs, in the hungry polar bear whose hunting grounds have melted, or the orangutan clinging to the last tree in the rainforest. Do they know something’s wrong, and have us Earthlings ever been more validated in despairing for the future? In actuality, we might be the only species to truly grasp our sorry state of natural affairs, but escape from this cataclysmic fate looks increasingly distant, sometimes impossible. 

A geological blink of an eye ago, before the Holocene - the 12,000 year temperate period which has fostered developed civilisations - our climate was a more changeable place, and we are likely already past tipping points that are rapidly pushing us away from this ‘Goldilocks’ period. Zooming out the Holocene may be, or might have once been, destined to be what’s called an interglacial period - warmer periods between ice ages - and deep history being anything to go by we’d eventually return to a largely frozen world in tens of thousands of years. 

However, in this short window human populations have exploded. 2,500 years ago, in the passing of less than 100 generations, there were a relatively trivial 100 million humans on Earth, less than 1.5% of the near-7.8 billion there are of us today. Social and technological developments have allowed us to proliferate, live longer, and consume more. We’ve likely been warming the Earth since the agrarian revolution - which roughly tracks the Holocene - through livestock-born methane, and that’s before the industrial revolution burned greenhouse gas-releasing fossil fuels at scale. We now live in what geologists call the Anthropocene, one in which human activity is the dominant geological force.

Mass extinction events like the one we are now driving are so rare that humans have never even been close to witnessing one - the last was about 65 million years ago (modern humans have been around for about 300,000 years), and there are tens, if not hundreds, of millions in between them. We may not be the first form of life to cause catastrophe, though - it’s thought that the first wave of the Devonian extinction (which took place around 375 million years ago) may have been caused by the quick colonisation of land by formerly aquatic plants, who deserted the ocean and with it the creation of soluble oxygen, starving its life whilst removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so efficiently that global temperatures plummeted.

Instead of trying to escape from the state of our environment, let's get familiar with it as though life depends on it - because it does

But the difference between us and pioneering terrestrial plant life is that we know, albeit belatedly, exactly what we’re doing, so we have a unique power to prevent catastrophe. Here lies eco-anxiety’s potency - the best way to tackle the momentous challenge ahead may be to let that worry sit deeply, stare death and destruction in the face, and stop distracting ourselves with the folly of consumption and excess. In darkness our eyes adjust and become hyper-sensitive to light, and so in our bottomless despair, we might better see those faint stars through the clouded sky that can navigate us towards solutions.

By showing some human ingenuity, it is (still, just about) possible to fix the climate and ecological emergency we’re causing; otherwise, why shouldn’t we succumb to extinction like the 99% of the more than 4 billion species ever to inhabit Earth already have? A little nihilism can seem like a friend at times - some form of life will go on beyond us, after all. But if we’re to proliferate, as is our evolutionary bent, we must deal with our mess and behave harmoniously. Mother Nature has set us this challenge.

We can help both the world and ourselves by tackling climate anxiety head-on: picking up litter in the street, cycling or using public transport more, or cutting down on meat and dairy - it all helps. Making a positive impact on the environment, and alleviating the underlying dangers that cause stress, is amongst the most effective remedies to climate anxiety reported so far according to studies. You don’t have to do it alone, whatever your schtick - there are groups online for every interest, and small armies of litter pickers, tree planters, seed bombers, and bird watchers all tucked away in your area. 

I enjoy the mycorrhizal (the types of fungi that inhabit roots and link plants together) feeling of taking part in group actions like tree planting, and the ongoing community care and connections that follow. We’re all like trees, in a way, in search of a forest to thrive in. The other big one is spending time in nature, so this sort of restorative action is a double win. Helpfully, nature’s everywhere - Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust runs 38 local reserves, and there are dozens of community gardens dotted across the shire, often looking for volunteers, while schemes like wild.NG, Ignite!, and Green Hustle promote ways to engage in urban nature when you don't have easy access to green space.

Humans can benefit ecosystems and live well, and Earth can support large populations, but it requires a paradigm shift - towards simpler, more interdependent, and deliberate ways of living that don’t extract, but give back. Fast-growing movements like permaculture advocate designing systems that have no negative impacts on the environment and work to grow and regenerate ecology in permanent ways - and it all starts with deep observation of nature and working with it. Instead of trying to escape from the state of our environment, let's get familiar with it as though life depends on it - because it does. Then one day the world might actually be a less terrifying place.

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