Eco-Anxiety and Hope – what to do instead of waiting for extinction

This piece appeared in the Daily Maverick on 6 March 2019. The original piece can be viewed here.

How do we respond to eco-anxiety? Curl ourselves into balls of denial and trust that some techno-fix just over the horizon will save us or do we need transformative hope?

The sixth extinction is upon us; the oceans are acidifying; the insects that pollinate our food are dying; the oceans are filling with plastic and are turning acidic; the ice caps are retreating; desertification is spreading; extreme weather events are multiplying; deforestation is increasing; biodiversity loss is accelerating; soil degradation is becoming critical; diseases are spreading, and heat waves and fires are the new normal. Oh, and the International Panel on Climate Change says we have only 11 years left to avert climate change catastrophe.

But you know all this. You’ve been hearing about these wicked problems for decades. Every time you’ve opened a newspaper, turned on the TV or radio, this news has been there in one form or another. You’ve watched this slow-motion disaster unfold before you for years. How does it make you feel? Depressed? Angry? Fearful? Weary? Hopeless? Are you grieving?

If it’s any or all of the above, you are not alone. You are probably suffering from “ecological grief” or “eco-anxiety”. Australian environmental philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, defines eco-anxiety as “the generalised sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse”. While it is yet to be officially recognised as a diagnosable condition, eco-anxiety has already prompted the American Psychological Association to establish a task force to investigate the issue, while the Australian Psychological Society has published a “Tip Sheet” of 16 things we must do to help us cope with eco-anxiety.

Research reveals how eco-anxiety affects us in different ways depending on how much control we believe we have over our lives, how we understand risk, and how we process questions of responsibility. Three specific forms of eco-anxiety have been identified: there are the grief and anxiety that comes from direct ecological losses; there are grief and anxiety from the loss of environmental knowledge, which leads to a loss of identity; lastly, there is the fear of future ecological losses.

The key question for us as individuals and as a species, is how do we respond to eco-anxiety? The easiest option would seem to be to curl ourselves into balls of denial and trust that some techno-fix just over the horizon will save us, like a Hollywood superhero, just before the clock strikes midnight.

Environmental activist and writer Derrick Jensen describes this as a form of false hope that blinds us to the real possibilities that the current climate crisis provides. He argues that this false hope is an indication that we have given up our potential to become part of the solution. As Rebecca Solnit recently argued, “rather than waiting to see what happens, we can be what happens”. To enable us to “be what happens” we need hope.

Hope is a messy concept. There is no agreement as to whether it is a product of biological evolution or something which is socially constructed, although there now seems to be a consensus that it is a bit of both. Psychologists have identified numerous types of hope, but the one we are interested in is called “transformative hope”. Transformative hope, according to Darren Webb from the University of Sheffield, is utopian in that it is a mode of hope that believes that human beings acting collectively always have the power within them to take transformative collective action to create a more just, equitable and environmentally sustainable world.

Ironically, it is in the very despair and anxiety that we feel that we can find this transformative hope. For it is in the grieving and despair that we begin to fully consider what is being lost, what is at risk and why it is at risk. This consideration gives rise to the development of alternatives, things that we imagine doing to alleviate the despair and prevent future anxieties. It is in this mode of thinking that transformative hope resides, and is something, if properly guided and nurtured, that can flower into transformative solutions.

This is not an easy task because it requires constant vigilance to prevent us from falling back into despair and, importantly, it demands the imagination and wisdom to think and act collectively for the common good of all life on earth. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of all because one of the characteristics of capitalism has been to individualise hope.

Hope for many is narrowly defined and rarely stretches beyond immediate family. This is the hope of financial success, a rewarding job, material accumulation and a healthy body. For hundreds of millions more, poverty means that their hopes are by necessity narrow – the hope of getting a job, finding adequate shelter, feeding the family or being able to access healthcare.

But there is good news. Psychologists have shown how taking actions against climate change, no matter how insignificant they may seem, leads to a range of positive emotions that tend to encourage people to do more, to take larger steps. And it is from this snowballing of steps that we can begin to see the seeds of the kinds of society-level changes that are necessary to confront climate change.

To set you on the path of hope consider what is happening right now: in Australia, Finland, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Britain and in Belgium tens of thousands of children have been marching against climate change; New Zealand has just banned all off-shore drilling for fossil fuels; the Spanish government has just approved R3.5-billion of funding to assist its transition away from coal and to date, no less than R85-trillion has now been divested from fossil fuels.

The Extinction Rebellion movement of people committed to non-violent civil disobedience has in a matter of months become a global force against climate change; in Holland activists successfully used the courts to force the government to accelerate its efforts to cut carbon emissions, paving the way for similar action throughout the world; in the United States the Sunrise and Zero Hour movements are mobilising thousands of youths to resist climate change; vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian eating habits are growing rapidly among those able to do so; and renewable energy technology has progressed so quickly that it is now theoretically possible to abandon fossil fuels entirely.

Many of these initiatives are already happening in South Africa and we don’t need to look far for additional signs of hope.

The people of Xolobeni are demonstrating how it is possible to resist exploitation; despite serious government inertia, South Africa now produces 7% of its electricity from renewable energy; South African children are beginning to mobilise against climate change – you could join them on 15 March when they march on Parliament; a committed and capable civil society prevented the government’s disastrous nuclear ambitions; all but one of South Africa’s major banks have withdrawn funding for new coal-fired power stations and the courts recently overturned a decision to allow coal mining in a protected area.

These are all examples of hope, they are all examples of the power of people to change fear into hope. And there is always hope because nobody knows the future.

So let’s end with an inspiring quote from Bell Hooks: “Hope is essential to any political struggle for radical change when the overall social climate promotes disillusionment and despair.”

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