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I see the climate clock on Union Square almost every day: on my way to the grocery store, when I stop by the farmer’s market, and even on my morning quest for caffeine before I am ready to face the day much less impending climate catastrophe. In bright orange neon numbers, it counts down the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the effects of climate change are irreversible. Instead of indicting the box stores, banks, and fast-food chains that crowd this very commercialized section of Lower Manhattan, I cannot help but think it affects all of us more than it causes any corporate or systematic change. This clock does not feel like an invitation to act or speak – it is just as likely to cause people to shut down.
When we talk about climate change and health, we usually focus on the physical health of living things, both vegetable and animal. But policymakers are going to have to come to terms with the effects of climate change on human mental health too. Among my millennial and Gen Z friends, some obsess over how each small action we take affects the planet. Some of us shame friends and family for not attending to these things, while others urge compassion because, in their view, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and we should all be kinder to ourselves. Yet others seem content to simply ignore the problem.
The problem is more urgent than these exchanges can address. Our common reality is that the effects of climate change will become more commonplace and less hypothetical, and that they will have an increasingly harmful impact on not only the environment we depend on but also on global mental health.
There are already words and phrases that describe this condition. American philosopher Aldo Leopold called it “climate grief.” Australian professor Glenn Albrecht uses the words “solastalgia” or “eco-anxiety,” while American comedian Bo Burnham describes this phenomenon as “that funny feeling.”
Stress about the future of our planet has a longer history than many acknowledge. Indigenous leaders have been warning of the ecological dangers of a system of individual land ownership in an extraction-based society since the beginning of European settler colonialism in North America. Eco anxiety can be found in 19th-century threats to farmers from locusts and fires, the Dust Bowl phenomenon during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the existential fear of mass destruction from atomic weapons during the Cold War.
One of the most common misconceptions about eco-anxiety is that it is a “rich people problem.” Often portrayed as a rich girl piously refusing to use a plastic straw, it is also a tribal elder grieving the loss of natural resources, or the grief, fear, and anger of marginalized communities experiencing the direct and indirect effects of climate change without the resources to cope with them.
This is not a First World problem either. The least developed countries, those who have also contributed the least to the problem, bear the greatest burden of climate change’s destabilizing effects. In addition to worse physical health, economic damage, and displacement, it stands to reason that they bear a greater mental health burden too. For example, in 2019, Cyclone Idai caused catastrophic damage in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe: the devastating effects on survivors’ mental health persisted long after the flood waters receded.
The problem is so overwhelming that it is not hard to understand why one mental health strategy is to simply refuse it. My brother and I recently watched a clip of Greta Thunberg on the evening news, and he said emphatically, “We should not be listening to her.”
Taken aback, I asked what he meant, because I find Thunberg inspirational. My brother, who is diagnosed with OCD, explained that Thunberg has been public about her own mental health struggles and has explained that her eco-anxiety is a manifestation of OCD. He believes that the media attention Thunberg receives as a climate ambassador is not healthy and, in his view, a better coping mechanism for Thunberg would be exposure therapy through unnecessary carbon emissions.
Refusing to see is one form of self-defense against eco-anxiety. On his podcast Climate Change and Happiness, psychologist Thomas Doherty describes how people living near chemical plants are more likely to have anxiety or physiological symptoms related to the chemicals if they can see the plant. Even if someone else lives closer to the plant, they tend to have fewer symptoms than those who can see it. Not seeing climate change is going to be an impossibility in the very near future and, when denial is no longer an option, we will be left with even higher levels of anxiety, fear, anger, and grief.
In fact, severe weather events, retreating shorelines, and constant public debate about climate change have made it exponentially harder not to see it. According to The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, almost two-thirds of 10,000 16 to 25-year-olds in 10 countries were either very, or extremely, worried about climate change. This highlights two, connected failures of care by the state: mental health and protecting the planet, both of which can only be addressed through national and global systems. Furthermore, they are interlinked problems: anxiety over something one has little individual control over can ultimately lead to apathy about the problem itself.
Right now, I can only see the climate clock. But it also instills dread about what I cannot yet see, because it has not happened yet: in seven years, 158 days, 10 hours, 59 minutes, and 16 seconds, the effects of climate change will alter the environment around me.
Before that happens, we need to do everything in our power to protect our planet, but that also means developing new strategies to preserve our mental health. Learning how to talk about eco-anxiety not only leads to action—it is action.
Lindsay Myers recently graduated with an MS in International Affairs from The New School where she also worked for Student Disability and Accessibility Services, and Housing and Residential Education.