Perhaps the most omnipresent and characteristically significant sign of our times is the ever looming threat of a climate apocalypse and the anxieties that come with it. This past week our magnificent Antoniya Spirova -Head of Marketing and Communication- gave a workshop on the topic as part of Maastricht University's Sustainability Week. I would like to take the space to continue the discussion on Climate Anxiety, talk a bit about the psychological reasons for inactivity, and the effects of apathy on the individual.
As the health of the biosphere around us continues to deteriorate, we are starting to have a collective psychological reaction to the visible and ever-present consequences of climate change. The Handbook of Climate Psychology defines climate anxiety as a ‘heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system’, but suggests that ‘paying heed to what is happening…is a healthier response than turning away in denial or disavowal’ (retrieved from Dodds, 2021). Essentially, the world is burning and we’re all freaking out, but that's better than sticking our heads in the -gradually warming- sand. But why do so many of us feel this fear yet struggle to take action? And how do we continue to do laundry and taxes in a world on fire? Let’s discuss!
To go into this struggle to take action despite our awareness and fear, Dodds (2021) outlines four psychological hypotheses to explain our collective inaction in the face of climate change:
1. Social Dilemma - Tragedy of the Commons
This hypothesis discusses the conflict between the interest of the individual and the interest of the collective. Here's an example of the tragedy of the commons: It's within the best interest of the farmers, collectively, to have a quota on how much they can use the land - to graze their cows, for example. Yet the individual farmer will still opt to go over the quota to fatten up their cows as much as possible. Collectively, this will lead to the cows overgrazing and the disruption of the grassland. Which in turn will disrupt the ecosystem and lead to each farmer suffering the consequences by not having any grass left to feed the cows. Hence; tragedy. Individual interest leads to the overconsumption of resources, which can lead to nothing being left for the collective. This scenario isn’t limited to resources in the farming industry. We deplete resources in every imaginable arena of the world for individual gain, leading to naturally sustained systems toppling left right and centre.
2. The 'Faulty Alarm' Hypothesis
The faulty alarm hypothesis is based on the understanding that humans have evolved to react to certain types of threats more effectively than others. Namely those that are immediate, fast, personally affecting, visible, caused by a clear enemy etc. Climate change misses these benchmarks so we don’t detect it as a threat. Think of the factors that would have affected our less spinally erect ancestors. Seldom did they have to fight off a looming threat that was imminent. Sabre toothed tigres tend to constitute more immediate reactions than a threat that we adapt to as it gets worse. Take the example of a frog in a cauldron. If you put the frog in boiling water it will immediately jump out. If you put it in cool water and gradually turn the heat up it will remain in the pot until it eventually cooks through. The faulty alarm hypothesis refers to essentially the same human cognitive processes. In regards to this hypothesis, the consequences of climate change do not feel urgent or personal enough to react to. And the more we remain reactionless the more we adapt our baseline to the new norm.
3. Ecopsychology: Disconnect From Nature
“Ecopsychology” refers to the field of psychology that has emerged since the 90’s as a reaction to global warming and the climate crisis. It takes a holistic approach and suggests that we are so disconnected from nature that we struggle to internalise the necessity to protect it. We fail to see how damage to nature will result in damage to ourselves. Furthermore, ecopsychology suggests that better rooted connections to nature would be healing toward other mental health issues as well as climate anxiety. According to ecopsychologists, we must reconnect with nature on a fundamental level in order to feel the “pain of the earth” and to empathise with it. Only then will we be able to take meaningful action.
4. Psychoanalysis: Denial & Apathy
This hypothesis is heavier on the psychoanalysis and inspects the complex ways humans deal with anxiety and stress. Functioning as the opposite of the faulty alarm hypothesis, this reaction is based on the belief that climate change is no big deal and that there is too much of a reaction. Served with a hefty side of cognitive dissonance, denial is an incredibly effective way to renounce culpability in the face of inaction. When paired with the authority of certain world leaders crying “conspiracy” and “chinese hoax”, individual action no longer feels ethically necessary in order to maintain one's positive self perception. I will delve further into the dynamics of apathy below.
Follow the link on Dodds for more information on the different types of climate anxiety and their neurological bases.
Ultimately, Dodds states that “Instead of pathologizing their anxiety, which only worsens mental health, we can ask ‘what support do we collectively need in order not to freeze and anaesthetise ourselves against this context of so much loss?” We can intellectualise the dynamics of our anxieties until the cows come home -yes the ones from the commons- but the only thing that will alleviate climate anxiety is community and action. Because climate anxiety isn't so much a disorder or a malfunctioning cluster of synapses, it is a rational reaction to the situation at hand. “if ecoanxiety is treated as pathology, ‘the forces of denial will have won…what we are witnessing isn't a tsunami of mental illness, but a long-overdue outbreak of sanity’” (Lawton, 2019). However, this isn’t to say that eco-anxiety can’t trigger an onset that results in issues of clinical depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Though understandable in the light of the climate, it is still a serious issue and a burden that can become insurmountable. If you are struggling with climate anxiety please do not dismiss it. Seek the help that will serve you.
“Apathy” - Selective v. Sustained
I recently watched Mae Martin’s comedy special “Sap”. In it, they liken themself to a tin of soup, filled to the brim with emotions, sloshing around and ready to spill over at any moment. I don't think I’ve related to many concepts as much as I related to being soup. We, silly little humans, have this immense capacity to feel things. But, as alluded to by Dodds’ 4th point, sometimes this capacity to care and feel overwhelms us. Like a fuse blowing after a surge, we can care to a point of exhaustion and overcorrect by becoming numb. We enter the world wailing yet we often leave it calloused and coarse. Somewhere between our first breath and our last, we perfect different methods of dulling, numbing, and tuning out. Not just with substances or medication but also through psychological processes of disillusionment, elective ignorance, and apathy. Slowly, too slow to notice, we may decide that the world is too harsh or too exhausting so we turn a blind eye out of self defence.
However, in a world of division, chaos, and catastrophe one does not have the luxury to sustain their apathy. Yes, it’s exhausting to care. But feeling expansively apathetic to the globe for sustained periods of time is a sure fire way to feeling apathetic to yourself. The line between not caring about the world and not caring about yourself is about the width of a strand of hair. Apathy spreads like a tumour. The more you exercise it the stronger it gets. Yet, there are times when one needs to switch off their care for the external in order to have energy left for the internal. If you care at your 100%, all of the time, you will burn yourself out emotionally.
A Side Note: I use the word apathy here as a concept exempt from a value judgement. While we tend to think of empathy and apathy as intuitively good and bad respectively, I would like to suggest that apathy can be judged within its context. Think of “selective apathy” more as ‘choosing your moments’ rather than a genuine indifference to the matter at hand and without the typical negative connotation the word would carry.
One needs to exercise selective and strategic apathy to be able to sustain themselves. Think of it like a vaccine. In small doses the viral cells can be life saving, but too much of it will cause you harm. We can be aware of the above outlined reasons for inactivity, we can do our best to combat them and to remain involved for as long as our capacity to care allows us. But if you burn yourself out you will not be able to help anyone. There is a reason they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else in a falling plane. Our selective apathy can also be a result of us choosing to focus on the positive and partake in things that nourish us. Climate anxiety does not only affect the individual. It is a mental health phenomenon that stunts the capacity to act of those who care. It is of paramount importance that we sustain ourselves in order to continue the fight and action toward positive change. Care for yourself as you would care for the planet. Care for the planet as you would care for yourself.
The same way that grief is love persisting, your fears and anxieties are a byproduct of your compassion. To reject compassion with the purpose of ridding yourself from your anxieties will cause nothing but apathy. Furthermore, there are plenty of studies that prove that activism and remaining active in the face of an issue larger than the individual leads to higher life satisfaction and contentment. As Antoniya discussed in her workshop, focusing one's attention to the things that we can change rather than being trenched by the unchangeable can be a very effective way to combat feelings of powerlessness or that hefty existential dread that tends to set in around 2 am.
The next issue will discuss building mentally healthy communities. But for now I will leave you with the eloquent words of Dodds: “The answer lies not only from work in individual psychotherapy, but in developing strong social networks of supportive relationships, and a living relationship with the natural world.”
If you are interested in reading further on remaining active when faced with burnout:
Activist Burnout: Understanding burnout in the context of activism. 2022.
Personal sustainability for activists: Aidan Ricketts, The Activists Handbook
How do we keep going: Activist Burnout and personal sustainability in social movements: Laurence Cox, 2011
Dodds J. (2021). The psychology of climate anxiety. BJPsych bulletin, 45(4), 222–226. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjb.2021.18
Lawton G. (2019) If We Label Eco-Anxiety as an Illness, Climate Denialists Have Won. New Scientist