What should you do if you’re anxious about climate change? Calm down, and take action
21 Diciembre 2017 15:37
When Laura Hinman left her burgeoning career in New York’s fashion industry for Standing Rock last September, her journey as a Native activist was marked with uncertainty, and anxiety. The 25-year-old Kumeyaay Native and Pratt Institute graduate, originally from San Diego, California, was living in Manhattan's Chinatown and freelancing for Vogue at CR Fashion Book. On paper, a young creative’s dream. But as she read more about protesters taking action against the US government’s plans to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens sacred land belonging to Native American tribes, as well as compromising water quality and the surrounding environment, Hinman quit her life in the city and left for Standing Rock.
‘It felt exactly like the place I needed to be,’ she says, ‘While at Standing Rock I felt at home. No matter what was going on around us, I trusted every moment without hesitation.’ At the Standing Rock camp, Native protesters were subjected to police brutality, freezing temperatures, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, but a deeper purpose and togetherness kept activists like Hinman there. ‘I learned that when you actually believe in something, it will keep you going, which I guess is a pretty simple idea, but I’ve never felt this passionate about anything before.’ She was one of the last activists standing before the camp was cleared in February. It is true that such determination for a common, at times unattainable, goal is the mainstay of most activist movements, but with environmental causes it is particularly prevalent.
With the odds so stacked against us in the current discourse on climate change, examples of self-determination like Hinman’s are inspiring, and let’s face it, a little comforting. Many of us take comfort in others doing the hard work that is too difficult and inconvenient to do ourselves. There’s despair in the frantic tones in which we often speak about environmental issues. Log on to Facebook or Twitter and messages of ‘Be afraid! Be very afraid’ are all-consuming. A panicked but reticent response is that if we shout loudly enough about how anxious we are, that somehow amounts to action. It is, of course, also unrealistic to ask everyone who is worried about our changing planet to give up their day jobs like Hinman did, leave their families and friends, and head to the North Pole to work with polar bears.
So, what is the most constructive outlet for our cultural eco-anxiety? Some say worry more, some say less. But everyone surely agrees that our response should be productive. There is a lot of disagreement in the climate movement itself about anxiety and fear being a useful motivator for change. For activist Margaret Klein Salamon, founder and director of The Climate Mobilization in Brooklyn, NY, the current outlook is apocalyptic and it should be presented as so. ‘We need to face reality and if we don’t face reality as society there is no chance that we will survive,’ she argues, ‘The mainstream climate change movement is saying don’t scare people. Which I think is terribly misguided. The idea of sanitising the reality and making it easier to bear is just totally wrong. We have this terrible thing that we have to confront.’
Salamon makes a convincing, albeit fairly doomsday, argument. It’s human nature to tell ourselves bedtime stories that comfort us in the night. Compartmentalising fear and micro-managing our anxieties is an effective coping method, but it also allows us to be powerless in the face of a spiralling problem. However, Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who studies climate change communication, disagrees with Klein’s approach. She explains that we need to have a much more nuanced way of communicating about climate change fears, and that an overload of anxiety can actually have the opposite effect in promoting action. ‘Efforts and solutions can be sparked and sustained by a profound sense of urgency and need, but we don’t have that at the moment,’ she says, ‘For some people fear does work as motivation, but for the majority of people it doesn’t. It needs to be more relatable.’
Emotional appeals and awareness campaigns can have a double-effect. Some people become inspired to do more, to act now, and others turn away as the problem seems too uncontrollable to do anything about it. Social media is a veritable echo chamber for stress and anxiety, with every click and share of an article adding to the collective panic gripping our timelines. A viral video of a starving polar bear, dubbed the ‘face of climate change’, was widely shared online last week, with viewers expressing their anguish about melting ice caps’ effect on our natural ecosystems. A completely understandable and reasonable response, but the problem is emotion only lasts so long, and eventually sadness makes way for apathy. Anxiety and fear tend to manifest in a cyclical motion, spinning in a flustered panic before fizzling into a state of paralysis.
‘Feeling constantly anxious about climate change actually immobilises people; you have to make steps to contain it,’ says chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance in the UK, Paul Hoggett, ‘Key to preventing that is a sense of agency. A feeling that you can help change what is happening.’ But how many people feel like they truly have agency when it comes to saving the environment? Sure, recycling, reducing energy in your home, refusing to use plastic, cycling to work, for example, are the small ways we can interact with the problem, but such individualism has the potential to quash the urgency of collective lobbying and activism. ‘It’s about how you speak to people and engage with others,’ Hoggett explains, ‘What you have to avoid is talking down to people and making them feel inadequate or weak. Persuade people on the basis of respect. It’s not easy to change things, and recognising the difficulties we face is essential.’
Part of the problem is that people feel that they should be worried—that worrying is a good and productive thing to do. And if you’re not, what’s wrong with you? Dialogue about climate change can become about preaching, rather than informing, and nearly everyone reacts badly to feeling attacked or patronised. ‘Communication that lacks empathy and a willingness to engage in a more nuanced effort to bridge diverse points of view can create even greater polarisation and rigidity to each side of an issue,’ says climate psychologist Leslie Davenport. So, the question that remains is how to be constructive in our anxieties. How do we approach a problem of this magnitude and ferocity in a way that will actually help solve it?
The answer is, obviously, very complex. But one way Davenport suggests breaking the cycle of panic is to join other people interested in learning and doing more; ‘there is comfort and power in a supportive community.’ Find local lobbying groups, join organised protests, educate yourself about local ecosystems and conservation, start petitions, and most importantly, talk to those around you. ‘It’s important for people not to feel isolated and alone, and for them to see that others share in the frustration, anger, fear or anguish,’ Davenport says. Social movements more often than not start at the grassroots, community level and climate change is now starting to get the centrality it deserves on public platforms (although not nearly enough yet).
Klein, on the other hand, calls for more immediate and direct action. ‘Discourse isn’t enough - what are you going to do to try and solve climate change? We need a collective awakening,’ she argues. ‘The failures of the environmental movement is emphasis on individual acts such as recycling, giving up meat etc. But it’s mainly about getting into politics and challenging political structures.’ Capitalism and unequal distributions of power globally drives climate change and the burning of fossil fuels, therefore to really affect change is to dismantle the status quo as it is now. Until corporations stop profiting from industries that pollute our earth and its oceans, nothing is going to change drastically, therefore visible environmental activism in political spheres is critical. ‘We need a mentality shift tied to policy shift. People say it is a long shot. But whether it is a 1% chance or 5% chance, we have to campaign for it.’
The Climate Coalition campaign director Clara Goldsmith, based in London, echoes Klein’s point, but proposes it being articulated in a positive way as ‘disaster and apocalypse don’t work.’ She says policy changes are needed from the top, and that politicians are unlikely to shift the discussion unless they hear people talking about it, lobbying, expressing their anxieties. Young voters are now also a huge demographic, as the last general election in the UK illustrated, and they are also much more likely to engage with climate change issues. ‘As for older generations, nostalgia and preservation of what we already have is very powerful,’ Goldsmith explains, ‘We also see a lot of people getting into climate change activism and lobbying the government because they spoke to younger loved ones about their fears for the environment.’
Looking up to role models and feeling inspired by their commitment shouldn’t be underestimated as well. It’s simply not pragmatic to expect everyone to be all-out eco-warriors. Don’t feel guilty that you’re not willing to give up everything else in pursuit of solving climate change like some others are. In a utopian world, we would all unshackle ourselves from the grips of capitalism, but right now this is not the solution likely to win over mainstream support. Pointing to the achievements and wins of climate change movements is likely to encourage people to get involved. ‘Progress is being made. At one stage it might have felt that you are holding the status quo but not pushing forward, but my sense is that now there is the possibility for greater ambition,’ says Goldsmith. ‘We need to see that the goals are within our reach, and that we shouldn’t give up because we might not get the perfect solution.’