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Climate change and mental health

December 21, 2018

It’s winter solstice, 2018, and I am acutely aware of my seasonally amplified dismay (SAD) at the state of the planet.

Of course I’m not alone, and grateful for that. In recent months I have seen a fair bit of discussion of the mental health impacts of climate change, the emotional responses of anxiety and grief, the pervasive sense of fear, and the hope that counters it, when thinking about the future. The love, for the planet and our fellow creatures, that demands that we not give up, or give in.

The same period has seen me finish my role helping to update the 2nd edition of Global Ecopolitics, written by my good friend Peter Stoett. The book surveys the landscape of environmental politics, and the numerous agreements and institutions that have been developed to address issues like transboundary air pollution, toxic chemical trade, trade in endangered species, and forests and land degradation. Peter has described the tone of the work as one of “cautious optimism”. After working on it for some months, that’s not what I feel.

Perhaps it’s the pace of change that has become so evident; or the damning news on biodiversity and wildlife loss, ocean plastics, and the grossly inadequate policy response at the global level, most recently evidenced by the pathetic conclusion of COP 24 in Kratowice, in the heart of Poland’s coal country. Closer to home the Canadian government nationalized the canard TransMountain pipeline and has committed $1.6 billion to prop up flagging fossil fuel companies.

Climate change of course dominates our environmental discourse, and the evidence continues to mount that at this point there are very significant changes already cooked in, and nothing we could do collectively would prevent us from reaching certain thresholds of temperature and resulting changes (ice melt, sea level rise, storms etc.) – but still every decision we take, individually and collectively, has some impact on the rate of those changes.

So here we are in the midst of an epochal crisis, at the beginnings of runaway climate change and some way into the sixth great extinction, and we watch with dismay as the mainstream press entertains us with sordid tales of the latest gaffes from Donald Trump or Theresa May. Politics, pretty much as usual, carries on.

I’ll admit this lack of profound change, in the face of planetary emergency, gets me down. Having studied the politics of the environment for two decades, I’m pretty convinced that the response to climate change from human institutions is and will continue to be inadequate to stop these two great (and interconnected) catastrophes, or even slow them down much. Some days I feel like giving in, maybe giving up.

But I’m also pretty convinced that, even as these changes occur and human institutions become increasingly unable to impact these changes in our natural setting, or to deal with the overall impacts (like food scarcity, floods, human migration) – that there will still be humans and wildlife that compel our attention and our love. There will still be valued beings, relationships, even institutions, that will carry on through the demise of civilization. There will still be collective decisions to be made, even while the institutions we have developed to help us make those decisions may not survive, or may lose their capacity and even authority to make decisions. Others will step in; the decisions (how to distribute food among a community, where to concentrate medical expertise) will still be made. Even in anarchic situations one finds forms of ordered human energy and care.

Also, I’m not sure the collapse of civilization will be all bad. One can hope that the international arms trade will decline, along with the global trade in toxic chemicals, and perhaps the rapaciousness of the global fishing industry. Grossly polluting vacation and commuting patterns, as well as disposable goods, will likely decline. Localization trends will continue, more from necessity than consumer choice. Collapse will compel us to shed many luxuries – which may help us prioritize considerably.

But generally, I feel it’s going to be difficult to watch, and to experience, the next few decades.

Sooner or later, possibly within that period, we’re going to see a leveling of the human population, prior to a decline. That will require that the rate of death equals or exceeds the rate of birth – which suggests a fair bit more death. The four horsemen rear their heads: famine, war, pestilence, death. So how do I prepare my children for the future I envision for them? Contemplating this brings a sick feeling to my stomach.

Yet this picture is incomplete, because there are always ways and means to make a transition less disorderly, and there will be (there are already) innumerable people working on ways to maintain the things we value.

Charitable giving will continue. Family, love, literature, friendship, community… and taxes – these are certainties so long as a semblance of human society remains – and we can work together to enable and strengthen them, as they strengthen us. We can let go some unhealthy pastimes and industries as we size down and localize. We can even work to restore some of what we’ve lost, like diversity of skills and work, and community engagement, and forests. And we can do this even in the midst of catastrophic climate change, because that’s where we’re going to be.

I’m not sure the picture I’m building is about hope. Hope is not what I’m after, really, though it’s part of it. I’m just trying to come to terms with the emotional and psychological experience of a middle-aged westerner in the period of early climate change – my own especially. So hope is one among a multiplicity of emotions that I recognize, respect, and allow myself to feel. Some days, dismay is stronger than hope, and those days are harder.

But for whatever reasons, I feel that an honest assessment – even if it’s dismal – is more valuable than hanging onto false (unconvincing) hope. I’ve struggled to read the hopeful blogs and books, the repetition that “we only have ___ years to change”, the realization that we’re condemned, “unless!”

There’s no unless, in my mind. It’s pretty clear we missed the boat, and we’re fucked. Now that’s what we have to deal with, at a practical and an emotional level. As unreal as the world seems today, we need to deal with the realities around us.

And part of that reality is our emotional and mental well being through this time, and their effect on our interpersonal relations, and the effect of that on our ability to work together as life carries on under changing circumstances.

 

If you’re still reading, you’ll I hope realize that this is my personal journey. I’m not trying to convince anyone. I’m just trying to make sense of what is happening to me, and maybe others.

If you want to give feedback or engage in discussion I would welcome that very much, and want to respect it as yours, so please try to keep in mind that it is. Yours. I hope you’ll let me know if it’s similar or different than mine.

 

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