Why are we so unperturbed in the face of the catastrophic risk of ecological collapse? Psychologist Breda Kingston highlights the challenges, collective and individual, of confronting our ‘ecoanxiety’, embracing uncertainty and working together for change.

We have engaged with the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic. We understand the threat it poses to our security and, in response, we have changed how we work, travel and socialize. We talk to each other about it and, as Diana Francis has commented in an earlier blog, there is evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought out kinder more caring aspects in how we relate to each other.

This pre-occupation with Covid-19 is in marked contrast to the lack of public discussion about the climate and ecological emergency (CEE). This relative silence persists in spite of the scientific evidence telling us that we are on a catastrophic pathway that would render the planet inhospitable and eventually uninhabitable for human or animal life. Paul Hoggett suggests that ‘what appears to be our collective equanimity in the face of this unprecedented risk is perhaps the greatest mystery of our age.’

Denial and disavowal

For more than 30 years, warnings from scientists about the impacts of human-made global warming have been met with large-scale denial and disavowal. This ranges from the egregious campaigns of denial and obfuscation by fossil fuel companies to the more pervasive response of disavowal which, in varying degrees, is shared by so many of us. In disavowal, according to Sally Weintrobe, ‘reality is more accepted but its significance is minimised.’ Reality is somehow deemed not to apply to us. As well as serving as a psychological defence against the inevitable anxiety that accompanies increased awareness of the reality of the CEE, disavowal can become a habitual adaptation that allows us to continue to feel entitled to go on living ‘as usual’, despite the evidence of how damaging our global north, fossil-fuelled life-style is to all life on earth.

‘Tell the Truth’ is the first demand of Extinction Rebellion. It is a valid demand. Without facing the truth about the CEE, we will not be able to work cooperatively on adaptation to changed environments or address the more extreme effects already experienced in many parts of the world.  But we must also acknowledge that facing the truth about the reality of the CEE presents us with great psychological challenges. The scale and urgency of the crisis can feel overwhelming. The increased severity and frequency of disastrous climate and ecological events make it more difficult to maintain disavowal and keep awareness of the emergency at bay. But, as the situation worsens, the reality becomes ever more difficult to face.

Engaging with ecoanxiety

‘Ecoanxiety’ has become the umbrella term most commonly used to refer to a range of distressing feelings related to awareness of the CEE. Anxiety is often the initial feeling, quickly followed by a desire to be rid of it and return to a state of disavowal. But to continually suppress an underlying sense of dread as an emotional defence mechanism is a block to constructive action. Anxiety, when attended to, serves to alert us to danger. It is an entirely rational, realistic and appropriate response to the threat of the CEE. Far from trying to rid ourselves of anxiety, we need to engage more with it. To do this, we need support. 

Conversations with each other about the CEE need to become as mainstream as conversations about Covid-19, but too often it seems as if it is not welcome as a topic of conversation. It is as if collective disavowal is our preferred mode of dealing with our shared sense of dread. It can feel as if there is a collective tacit agreement that the CEE is not an admissible topic of conversation and attempts to raise it are experienced as unwelcome intrusion.

We need to take an altogether more compassionate stance in our conversations with each other about the CEE. We need to acknowledge just how difficult it is for all of us to take in and live with awareness of the reality. Beyond the initial anxieties, our feelings might encompass profound grief, sorrow and guilt about what is lost and the part we have played; terror about what might lie ahead; and heartbreak about what it will mean for our children, grandchildren and future generations.

Emotional challenges

Facing the reality of the CEE can feel truly unbearable and these are not feelings to be borne alone. We need to be able to share them and support each other in bearing them. Ro Randall, a colleague from the Climate Psychology Alliance, has made a series of short videos that address the emotional challenges posed by the emergency we all face and offer support in coping with them.

Developing a greater capacity to be in touch with and bear whatever feelings we have helps build  personal resilience. Crucially, it leaves us more available to each other in supportive capacities and increases the likelihood of us being able to take effective action together.

  • Establishing cohesive communities with supportive networks would leave us better able to adapt to the inevitable ecological and social upheavals. In the face of the unprecedented threat of the CEE we need to feel connected with each other in the common purpose of responding as effectively as we can.
  • In the face of this potentially catastrophic threat, we need to care about the earth and all life on it, about ourselves and about each other.
  • We need governments to take care and act on their responsibility to protect their citizens. To date it would seem as if governments are themselves in states of denial and disavowal about the CEE. No government is responding adequately to the level of threat that we face. Governments, which are themselves wedded to ‘business as usual’ constitute a genuine threat to our security. We need them to take a leading role in the development of new forms of energy and new ways of living together with other species.

The spaciousness of uncertainty

We live with a terrible uncertainty about whether we and the governments of the world will take sufficient, sustained, effective action in time to reduce the spread of the more extreme impacts of the CEE. The uncertainty is hard to bear, but it can also be where hope lies. Rebecca Solnit writes, of the ‘spaciousness of uncertainty’ giving us ‘room to act’. Some damage is already irreversible but the outcome of the CEE is not definitively determined. As Sally Gillespie says, ‘The end of the climate emergency story is not known. Each of us is a teller and a participant.’ As long as there is uncertainty, we have a part to play and we might, with collective action, be able to influence the outcome. But, to start with, we need to talk to each other

Breda Kingston is a retired clinical psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist. She is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance and is involved with Extinction Rebellion (Bath). 

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Pixabay: Fridays for Future protest by striking schoolchildren, Cologne.