If you’re not at least a bit terrified by the climate and ecological breakdown unfolding before our eyes, you haven’t grasped the scale of the crisis. Eco-anxiety, defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”, is on the rise. But redirecting this anxiety into anger and collective action might just pull humanity back from the brink.
We don’t know how far back in the human psyche eco-anxiety reaches, but we can learn not to repeat the mistakes of long-gone societies lost to environmental collapse. Jared Diamond’s Collapse uncovers the common driver that led to the fall of ancient civilizations from the Central American Mayan, to the remote Pacific Easter Island, to the Mycenae, the Greek centre of the ancient world: people inadvertently destroyed the environmental resources on which their societies depended. Diamond muses about whether these societies sensed impending doom. Or perhaps, towards the end, thriving nature was an experience of a previous generation that the last survivors could not recall.
Today we are living in a new climate and ecological age. The new normal is one that humans have never before experienced on Earth, and that’s occurred within a generation. We can’t claim ignorance. Peer reviewed scientific report after report shows: unprecedented wildfires in the Arctic; heatwaves annually breaking records – with June 2019 the hottest in 140 years – the Amazon shrinking and drying; species extinction rates accelerating. Nature’s dangerous decline is unprecedented.
So, it’s not surprising that eco-anxiety is on the rise. Anxiety is often a private emotional state: we feel alone, stuck inside our own heads, and our emotions stop us from doing the things we want. But anger, directed appropriately, can fuel powerful collective action for change.
And we should get angry because this crisis is caused by injustice: the over-consumption of the richest at the expense of the majority and our precious natural world. School striker Greta Thunberg was right when she addressed the UK parliament: our “future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money”.
UN special rapporteur Philip Alston, warned of an emerging “climate apartheid” where the rich pay to escape while everyone else, those who did least to cause the crisis, are left to suffer. He points to Hurricane Sandy hitting New York in 2012, when most citizens were left without power, yet “the Goldman Sachs headquarters was protected by tens of thousands of its own sandbags and power from its generator”; and the “private white-glove firefighters” dispatched to save the mansions of the wealthy from wildfires.
Kevin Anderson of the respected Tyndall Climate Centre, has calculated that if the top 10 per cent emitters globally cut their pollution to just the European average, emissions would be reduced by a third instantly. That could buy humanity the window of time we need to organise ourselves to almost halve global emissions in the next 11 years as the UN says is essential.
We are right to be angry that some of this damage was deliberate and calculated. In the 1980s, oil companies including Exxon and Shell carried out internal assessments of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, and forecast the planetary consequences of these emissions. Yet the fossil fuel giants hired the same lobbyists as big tobacco to systematically introduce doubt and undermine scientific evidence to sway public opinion.
Fear and anger can dissolve into paralysing anxiety and despair if people experience it alone, aren’t clear about the solutions, and can’t see how they can make a difference. That’s why we must organise together to change the rules of society, not just rely on individual behaviour change – vital though cutting our own meat consumption, fast fashion, and flying.
There are grounds for optimism, and indications that growing anxiety is propelling people into action – and that new political leadership is emerging as a result.
Concern about the climate crisis is growing significantly in many countries. New polling shows that the environment now ranks fourth in UK concerns – overtaking housing and terrorism. That’s a huge leap in a few months. But more than concern, it’s the visible wave of unprecedented public action that’s important including anti-fracking vigils, school strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests, people rejecting plastic, and defending spaces for nature.
Declaring a climate and ecological emergency is the right starting point for planning emergency action. That’s why it is significant that, responding to this mounting pressure, the UK parliament (albeit not backed by the Conservative Party), Scottish and Welsh governments and now 149 UK councils have declared an emergency. Some of the biggest cities on the planet have done the same – with Los Angeles creating the world’s first climate emergency department after recent wildfires and floods.
The Green New Deal, proposed by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which is having a radical impact on US debate, is attempting to make human and environmental wellbeing, not GDP and markets, the central organising principles of the economy. It is inspiring similar approaches around the world – and it’s what we need here in the UK. Only a fairer, as well as a greener, future will ultimately win the support and acceptance of the majority of people for the global transformations needed to slash emissions in transport, housing, food, and energy.
We are on a pathway to extinguish the global conditions for human survival. Unlike previous civilizations we have the science and technology to understand our jeopardy and chart a new pathway. On 20 September this year we are set to see the world’s biggest global climate protest called by the inspirational Fridays for Future school strikers, who are inviting everyone to take part. This is a moment for all of us to channel our eco-anxiety, fear and anger into energy for change.
Liz Hutchins is director of campaigns at Friends of the Earth.