Climate Change: Avoiding the Pit of Despair

I think about the state of the world a lot. From the moment I wake up the changing climate is on my mind; by the time I’m in the shower it’s the impending global water crisis; once I’m munching on muesli (with soy milk, I hasten to add), I’m mulling over the rampant destruction of biodiversity. This might sound like an exaggeration. It’s not.

A little while ago, it struck me that this pattern of thinking probably wasn’t doing wonders for my own mental wellbeing. This hadn’t occurred to me before. It seemed silly, even selfish, to spare a thought for one’s own mental health when there was a looming global catastrophe to think about. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

There’s a general consensus, especially among my generation, that the world is going down the chute. And this is being realistic, not pessimistic. The overwhelming majority of scientific models that predict the world’s future throw up some pretty sobering results. This is not a good feeling.

When we think about the effects of climate change, they might still seem distant, somewhere far off in time or space. Apart from the odd weirdly warm winter’s day, we haven’t seen much of the effects ourselves yet in our closeted Western existence. But that isn’t entirely true — climate change does affect us. It affects the conversations we have, the actions we take, the way we think.

I’m talking about the change in state of mind: it makes many people feel less satisfied, more troubled, more guilty. It seems a bit perverse to put this effect on a level platform with floods, wildfires and drought, but for us personally, at this time and this place, it is this side of climate change that affects us most deeply. And that makes it worth considering.

At this stage it is worth dividing up the rationale behind this mentality into two main parts. The first: climate change, along with a cavalcade of related environmental disasters, is rapidly making the world a worse place. This is undeniably true. The second: that we — you — are personally to blame for this. If only you had turned off the heating, if only you hadn’t got on that plane, if only you hadn’t existed, then we might stand a chance. I take issue with this second statement, but we’ll come to that later. For the moment, let’s stick with the concrete facts, and how they make us feel.

What are the benchmarks of a successful society? People write books on this sort of thing, but when it comes down it, we mostly agree its about wellbeing. Whether this wellbeing should be spread evenly amongst the population or should be concentrated on the most ‘deserving’ is a divisive matter of political philosophy, but the core ideal remains the same. We want to live in a society that makes us feel comfortable, safe and happy. But we are forward-thinking creatures, and even if our current state is comfortable and safe, our happiness also relies upon having some guarantee of future comfort or safety. Not only that, we are also strangely empathetic; for many of us, our happiness also relies on other people’s comfort and safety, even those of people we will never meet. How can happiness be achievable when we are all painfully aware that the world is becoming a less comfortable, a less safe, a less survivable place?

Staring into the abyss

But the strange thing is, most people do cope, despite knowing that the future might be dark. How is that possible? Why isn’t there panic in the streets? The simple answer is that it’s a psychological defence mechanism. The distress and anxiety caused by thinking about climate change are deeply un-useful for day-to-day existence, both on an evolutionary and societal level. By minimising the scale of the problem, becoming desensitised, or even just avoiding thinking about it, we can keep our mental health in check.

This is reinforced by those around us — the so-called bystander effect. Everybody else is going about their lives as normal, therefore, it is sensible that I do too. Some schools of thought even go so far as suggesting that climate denial is simply an extension of this defence mechanism: regardless of evidence, denying the problem exists is a sure-fire way of avoiding personal distress.

But the pessimism seeps through. For young people, the effects are especially hard-hitting. One Australian study found that 44% of schoolchildren were nervous about the impact of climate change, and a quarter even believed that the world would come to an end before they were much older. Growing up thinking you have no future will inevitably do bad things to your mental health.

The recent school strikes for climate are a clear indication of how far this message has reached. What kind of society has been created when a million children feel they have no future? That is a million children that are deeply unhappy about the state of the world they have been brought into.

One astute comparison to our current situation is to the mentalities at the height of the Cold War. When nuclear Armageddon seemed imminent, it was noted that great numbers of schoolchildren lost motivation in their classes. The reason? Simply because it seemed increasingly unlikely that they would ever make it to adulthood anyway.

But there is one difference between then and now, an important difference. We do not have to be buffeted about helplessly in the political maelstrom; we have the power, as consumers, as voters, as voices. Or so we are told.

Even if we say we can drive positive change, do we actually mean it? Although I allegedly ‘do my bit’, cycling to work, living off hummus and writing the occasional sketchy blog post, I continue to suspect that it’s all a small drop in a vast and rapidly acidifying ocean. Can we ever hope to pay off the ‘Debt of Existence’ we accumulate simply by living in our comfy Western world? Our cumulative carbon footprint racks up fast, after all — like student loans but even more terrifying.

This is where climate change becomes a personal experience, and where the train of thought that we embark upon might lead us into the hinterlands of despair. But it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture from both sides: not just the scale of the problem, but the potential of the solution.

This brings us nicely on to guilt, and what to do about it. The press has a very bizarre rhetoric when it comes to climate change. Simultaneously, it’s All Your Fault but there’s also Nothing You Can Do. This is a paradox and realising that is the first step to thinking about climate change in a more positive way. You can either be helpless or guilty, but not both. I personally think we are neither.

100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global emissions; that is where the accusing finger should be pointed. This concentrates the blame, and that makes the problem easier to solve. We can focus our efforts.

Worry is a useless emotion. So is panic, so is apathy. Simply knowing this is not enough to reform your mental state, of course, but it’s a cornerstone. True distress comes from a feeling of helplessness, but by making positive choices that also help us think more positively, we can remould this anxiety into something useful.

If going vegan makes you feel empowered, healthy and moral, then absolutely go for it. If it just makes you crave cheese and feel weak, then channel your energy somewhere else — switch to green energy, start jogging to work, lobby a politician or corporation. Some of these might sound like your idea of hell, but some might sound just a little exciting. Go for the latter. Most of us aren’t superhuman enough to do all of them, but that’s because, after all, we’re not superhuman — we’re just human.

Our planet is in trouble, desperate trouble, but feeling bad about it doesn’t help anybody, especially yourself. You will not solve the problem. Nor will I. It is not our burden to bear. That is something that needs accepting. But the actions we take mean we can be parts of the solution, even very small parts, and that will still make the world a better place — in the future, but also in the present.

We are rallying against a common foe, and that brings cohesion, unity, community. These are important things. Doing something is better than nothing, and it will make you feel better, both now and when you look back from whatever future we end up with. Even if the future looks gloomy, the present is alright, all things considered. And — who knows — a brighter present might just lead to a brighter future.

Having studied zoology at university, I have now turned to scientific communication. I write a bit of everything, but climate change features most strongly.

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