A Vague Anxiety as the Planet Burns

Yesterday I visited the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) – one of my all time favourite spots in Dublin – and was particularly moved by one exhibition entitled “A Vague Anxiety”. A Vague Anxiety reflects on some pressing concerns of Generation Y in our rapidly evolving and increasingly fragile society – from global warming and the housing crisis, to mental health, gender identity and hookup culture. These issues hover gloomily and unmoving over the lives of todays youth. The exhibition got me thinking particularly about climate change, and how our feelings about it, and the tensions surrounding it, though ever-present, are somehow cloaked in mist. Our concerns about the changing climate vaguely occupy the shadowy background of our everyday lives. We feel a sense of urgency – overwhelming urgency – we try to act – but question the futility of our actions. We feel a disconnectedness, a fearful tension, a childish helplessness. We have been handed a dying Earth – a mysterious object of concern. We look at it despairingly, not quite sure what to be concerned about, nor to what degree concern is required. We can grasp the magnitude of the issue, yet each one of us knows he is but one person on a planet of billions. The climate is a complex and dynamic system, yet in our hurry to understand it, the media pumps us with fragmented and disordered information. We are full of information (and misinformation), yet we feel empty of knowledge, and this paralyses us. It is tempting to turn our eyes away and bury our heads as the planet burns – after all, humans have been doing it for years, as though it were a dream.

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The piercing headlines scream at us:

“Humans are driving one million species to extinction”,

“250,000 deaths a year from Climate Change”,

“CO2 levels at highest for 3 million years – when seas were 20 metres higher”,

“Polar ice sheets melting faster in the last 20 years than in the last 10,000”

Yet we feel paralysed.

Is Eco-anxiety Real?

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report which details the impacts of climate change on mental health. It describes climate anxiety, or “Eco-anxiety” as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” – a stress caused by watching the “slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, ones children, and later generations”. It carries with it feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration as we question the ultimate avail of our well intended actions.

The 16 year old climate activist Greta Thurnberg has been a victim of climate anxiety, speaking openly about her depression for which she says the climate crisis was in part to blame. “I kept thinking about it and I just wondered if I am going to have a future,” she says, in an interview for the Guardian. “And I kept that to myself because I’m not very much of a talker, and that wasn’t healthy. I became very depressed and stopped going to school. When I was home, my parents took care of me, and we started talking because we had nothing else to do.  I told them about my worries and concerns about the climate crisis and the environment. And it felt good to just get that off my chest.”

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Eco-anxiety: In Search of a Cure

If you are suffering from climate anxiety, I believe the only way out is action, and while individual action may not save the planet, collective individual action will. There are many small changes that we can make in our daily lives that really do make a difference. We can choose to reduce our own emissions by driving less, buying less and wasting less. We can choose to walk, bike or scoot, buy vintage or second-hand, use reusable cups, bottles, bags, straws and menstrual cups. We can vote for planet-conscious politicians,  join activist groups and continue to educate ourselves and others about these pressing concerns. But one of the easiest, most impactful, and often overlooked ways we can reduce our environmental burden today is through our diet. It is often underestimated just how much of an influence our food choices are having on the planet, but there are many smart changes we should be making as consumers as we strive to create a healthier Earth – and many are healthier for our bodies too!

How to Eat for the Planet

  • Going vegan is the single most impactful change you can make to help the environment – not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also land and water use, soil and water pollution and biodiversity loss. Check out my recent post on Veganism in the Age of Climate Emergency, where I look at some findings from recent research. I would also recommend taking a look at Cowspiracy facts page, and also this 2018 Study from Oxford University researchers Poole and Nemecek. Going vegan has been the most fulfilling decision I have ever made. Nothing eases the eco-anxiety more than knowing I am making conscious planet-friendly food choices three times a day, while also benefiting my own physical and mental health, and reducing the suffering and misuse of other beings who share our planet.
  • Start with small changes. Going completely plant-based in not an easy transition for everyone. Even with so many plant based options available in supermarkets today, it can be strange to stray from eating habits that have been called “normal” all of our lives. As children, we were never taught in schools how much our diet impacts the planet, so it can be difficult to come to terms with. If you’re not keen on going vegan just yet, you can still make an enormous impact simply by cutting out (or cutting down!) red meat and dairy. The livestock industry is by far the most damaging to the planet – in fact, if cows were a country, they would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US! Oat and soy milk are excellent planet-friendly alternatives! The BBC have created a food impact calculator where you can check out how your own food choices are affecting our Earth. I hope we will soon see this information included in food labels alongside nutritional contents.
  • Reduce food waste. Make sure that everything you buy – especially if you’re buying animal products – is actually ending up in somebody’s belly (although it would be best if animal products did not end up in your belly!). Remember that when we waste food, we’re wasting all of the resources that go into growing it, transporting it, processing it, packaging it, as well as all the human labour going into the process, and of course our own money, and not reaping any of the benefits. 33% of all food grown globally goes to waste – 40% in the US – according to a 2012 NRDC report. As a vegan I find these statistics deeply distressing. This means that so many of the animals we kill for food are not even being eaten, and meanwhile some 795 million people in the world – about one in nine of us – do not have enough food to lead healthy active lives.
  • Choose locally made foods. Eating foods grown close to home results in a lower carbon footprint than those which need to be transported long distances. We are often told to walk or cycle, drive less and limit air travel, but it is easy to forget that everything we consume or buy needs to travel to us too! Foods can’t walk, cycle, scoot, fly or swim (well, animals can, but we’ve already established that it’s best not to eat them anyway!) – the fact is that anything produced overseas has to be transported by air or water, which automatically adds to the emissions caused by actually growing it. Food miles are the new calories! It’s time we stop thinking about food simply as something that will or will not make us fat or happy.
  • Reduce food packaging. So much of our food today is packaged in plastic and much of it is completely unnecessary – even fruits and vegetables are sold to us in plastic trays within plastic sleeves. Choosing mostly unpackaged whole foods and buying in bulk can help to minimise this. Remember too that just because something is “recyclable”, it does not mean it will be recycled. The truth is that only about 20% of plastic waste is recycled – most instead is discarded, ending up in landfills and polluting our oceans with dismal environmental consequences. You can learn more about plastic waste here.

Knowledge is Power

In the age of the internet, information is more accessible than ever, and it is certainly empowering to know that we can educate ourselves around this issue, where schools have largely failed to. I would definitely encourage reading and sharing primary research studies like that of Poole and Nemecek, but for “lighter” learning, there are many excellent and eye-opening documentaries out there too.  Check out Cowspiracy on Netflix, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before The Flood. I myself have been hugely inspired by a number of YouTube environmentalists who create comprehensive and accessible videos about these and other pressing issues. Some of my favourites are Kristin Leo, Sedona Christina, Madeline Olivia and of course Mic the Vegan.

Your Mental Health

Mind your head! Todays youth are growing up in a world drastically unlike that of previous generations. Of the many global issues lingering over our minds, climate change has certainly taken its toll on our mental health. The role of mental health professionals in today’s society is perhaps more important than ever. “Climate change is a human-caused problem, which is more difficult to cope with than disasters that are beyond human control.” says clinical psychologist Thomas Doherty PsyD in the APA’s 2017 report. “Mental health professionals can help give people  a sense of power over how they respond.”

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Outlook

So are we doomed to live in this state of vague anxiety forever? The way I see it, there are two ways to avoid it: the first is ignorance; the second is action. The urgency of climate change and its consequences demands that we choose the latter path. Whether it empowers or disables us is within our hands, but this window of opportunity will not remain open for ever. We must act now.

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