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Eco-Anxiety: The 21st Century Epidemic

(University of Colorado Boulder)

According to an APA survey, 48% of young adults in the United States report feeling stress in their daily lives about climate change and the environment. On a broader scale, this is representative of a global issue that plagues today’s youth: eco-anxiety. As someone who has grown up in a local and media environment enveloped by pessimistic and often fatalistic predictions, I have felt the effects of this mental condition in one form or another ever since I can remember. A neologism described by the American Psychological Association as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations,” eco-anxiety is the reaction to climate change’s role as “the biggest threat to global health—and mental health in particular—of the 21st century” according to Lancet Magazine.

Interestingly, what makes eco-anxiety unique is that it isn’t a diagnosable mental illness like generalized anxiety disorder is: this is because of two factors. Firstly, it is rationally motivated by a central issue. Climate change poses an existential threat to the collective human species on a scale unprecedented in human history, with global temperatures expected to increase another 4 degrees celsius if current greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed. Moreover, with such drastic and unpredictable promises comes a package of associated threats to the environment, such as arctic permafrost melting, increased prevalence of natural disasters and risk to indigenous communities, ocean acidification and overfishing and habitat breakdown, to name a few. With such recurrent and all-encompassing danger hanging over our heads as we move forward with our daily lives, it is normal and even expected for doubts and fear to arise. For example, over 68% of adults from the same study mentioned they experience “at least a little ‘eco-anxiety.” Not to mention, the media plays a primary role as a side-actor to the continual impending doom caused by climate change. In 2021 alone, media coverage of global warming rose by 81% compared to the previous year, and this popularity is expected to increase. Headlines frequently exalt extreme weather conditions by using alarmist and eye-catching language to hook and ensure more readers, creating what Hulme calls "a language of imminent terror." This, coupled with an endless 24/7 stream of social media coverage and discourse creates the perfect recipe to trap everyday people in echo chambers that promote anxiety and dread. Putting the puzzle together, it is hardly difficult to see why eco-anxiety develops and spreads so naturally from one host to the next: while the dread may be experienced differently, its stem remains the same.

Another reason eco-anxiety is frequently overlooked is that it manifests in vastly different colors across people from all walks of life. In broad strokes, most people either experience guilt, grief, or fear - if not a combination of all three. Personally, my eco-anxiety is linked to a sense of guilt. I will oftentimes perceive a personal responsibility to fix the world’s issues related to climate change, despite my relative powerlessness to do anything about it. This fact causes me to repeatedly feel insufficient for “not contributing enough” to local and global initiatives to halt the impending apocalypse. Breaking down this mindset, the fish-eye distortion becomes apparent: unless you reach the fame and position of a Greta Thunberg type, you will never be satisfied with yourself. Likewise, others experience an eco-anxiety pointed towards grief. This variation is far more sentimental and outward-oriented, expressing impartial and often selfless concern for the destruction of human and animal life. Unlike the first one, climate grief often promotes a deep sadness rather than dissatisfaction, driving home the notion that there really is nothing that we, as individuals, can do. For some, this fact is impossible to reconcile. Lastly, many also carry the burden of a fear-related eco-anxiety, which stems from the disastrous realization that there is a deadline on human civilization. Considering that Gen Z is the first generation that will likely live less than their parents, a strong sense of doom is common especially in younger children. Many of us still struggle to recite our time tables - how are we supposed to make sense of the apocalypse? Unfortunately, the fear of the end - as I call it, estimated by scientists to be before or around 2050 - is something many of us are forced to internalize and live with, carrying on with our regular lives and often avoiding to consider it.

This is why I strongly believe that all of us experience eco-anxiety on some level, since being socialized in a culture and media landscape that bombards us with endless dramatic and depressing news inevitably leads to a new form of nihilism. While some become anxious, stressed and restless about the state of the climate and how their own life is contributing to it, others become so desensitized to the streams of information that they either repress this doom or decide to put their mental health first and ignore it as much as they can, or as much as one can in this day and age. This brings the question of principle into focus: is it ethical to intentionally distance oneself from the concept of climate change, fully knowing the dangers it poses? Does mental health awareness and self-care make you selfish in light of impending catastrophe? I don’t believe so. While it’s admittedly easier to swing the other way and cry hedonistic revolution, the truth lies somewhere in the sweet spot. Prioritizing mental health is absolutely essential, and it starts with learning how to digest climate change through a less personal filter, which is why eco-anxiety must first be addressed and acknowledged. Our minds can’t catch a spark while we watch the world burn, but we can dump buckets rather than tears onto what little patch of ground we have left.




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