At the end of the 45-minute group meditation, the four of us sit in a circle sipping ginger tea with cloves, reflecting on the meditation. ‘My right shoulder had this sharp pain for a while, but it went away,’ one person says. We listen attentively, trying not to judge, and nod our heads in understanding. After we’ve gone around the room, we bounce back and forth between practical meditation tips to the implications of not having a self.
‘I’m suffering from climate depression,’ one girl suddenly admits. She goes on, ‘it’s been going on for a while. I get so anxious…I feel so bad about it all.’
We’re in the Netherlands and the bitter winter is approaching, so I assumed that she meant to say seasonal depression, more commonly known as the winter blues. My suggestion comes naturally. ‘Why don’t you just go to Thailand and get some sunshine? Get out for a bit. I think it affects a lot of people.’
She responds with a blank stare, and I sensed that I’d completely misunderstood the issue.
‘No,’ she goes on, ‘by climate depression, I mean that I’m depressed about climate change and the fact that our lives are going to be so negatively impacted. We’ve started something that we can’t stop, and I feel so helpless to do anything. I’ve decided not to have children because I don’t want them to grow up in the shitty world that we created. I don’t eat chocolate anymore either.’
That took a minute to seep in, and I became deeply curious. According to the 2017 report on Mental Health and Climate Change:
“…climate change can be considered an additional source of stress to our everyday concerns, which may be tolerable for someone with many sources of support but can be enough to serve as a tipping point for those who have fewer resources or who are already experiencing other stressors […] climate-related stress is likely to lead to increases in stress-related problems, such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.”
Eco-anxiety stems from uncertainty about the future of our planet, a destabilizing of our ecosystem and extinction of numerous species. This is a seemingly insurmountable problem of our own making. Naturally, people want to come up with solutions to problems, but when you ponder this as an individual with limited reach and resources (not to mention that even if you are Elon Musk or Bill Gates, it’s still difficult to tackle), rather than satisfaction in a well thought out solution, you’re greeted with panic and existential dread. In reality, one individual cannot save the entire world, and quite literally the pressure of the world is too much for any one person to handle.
Climate depression, like other forms of anxiety, has progressions of severity; climate anxiety leads to climate despair, and the more fatalistic ‘climate nihilism,’ a sort of denial, apathy and avoidance of the entire issue. For others, it can throw them into bouts of constant dread and even have them considering suicide.
Disheartened by the inevitability of climate change, I reach for a bottle of gin, unknowingly adding to my carbon footprint and to the decimation of the environment. Hopefully nobody points out my mistake, as it would likely send me further down the negative spiral of self-loathing and helplessness.
Throughout most of history, when we wanted to send news across borders, it would be done by foot, horse, or if you were lucky enough to be under the Mongol Empire, a carrier pigeon that could travel up to 97 km/h. In any case, it could take days, weeks, or even months. You can imagine the excitement of the Spanish court when, months after Columbus set off to sea, they received this letter:
“On the thirty-third day after leaving Cadiz I came into the Indian Sea, where I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance.”
We rarely get great news like that nowadays, right?
As technology evolved over the centuries, the printing press thrived and newspaper distribution swelled. The world became smaller. By the 1950’s, the average reader in London saw at least one newspaper every day. Just a few decades later, the internet was born. Today the average UK adult spends 9.5 hours consuming media, two hours of which is spent on social media.
In parallel to our consumption increases (in itself not necessarily a bad thing), the reporting of doom and gloom in the news has gone up (bad). According to an in-depth sentiment analysis of New York Times headlines spanning 50+ years between the 1950s and early 2000s, it’s objectively true that headlines have become more morose over time.
“Every age makes its own illnesses,” Frederic Friedell said, commenting on the spread of the Black Death, the number one killer in 14th century Europe. He could have just as easily been talking about stress or stress-related illness, which today is said to be responsible for up to 90% of hospital visits. In other words, today our biggest worry is no longer pneumonia or bubonic plagues, but worry itself. This consistent stream of negative inputs from the media/news cannot be helping.
I believe that the frequency and growing negativity of news are the two trends that make climate-related anxiety particularly pernicious, apart from climate change itself. Fortunately, the anxiety part (not the climate change part) is relatively easy to address.
The Motivation Bucket
Andrew Desser, a professor at A&M University, points out that human extinction is “not a particularly helpful point of view.” I agree with him. We should be concerned about climate change, and do our part, whether we choose to take small actions or bigger ones.
For those who want to play a more involved role as an activist – or just not harbor constant worries about the destruction of humanity that slowly degrades your mental health – know that while you can’t escape the fact that we’ve screwed up, you can maintain a safe distance and make your life a little easier, while still making a positive contribution.
To take an example from the world of high frequency trading, behavioral psychologists have observed a counterintuitive tendency amongst investors. Those who checked their portfolio on a daily basis took less risks than those who checked it quarterly or yearly, and in turn made less money over time. In other words, frequently checking your performance actually hurts your performance. The reason for this is simple; if you’re checking the stock market on a daily basis, you have a 50% chance that you will see a loss. If you check just once a year, that % drops to 25%. This is known as myopic loss aversion.
You can’t “step away” from climate change in the same way you can step away and ignore your Vanguard index fund until next year. That would be silly. Being plugged in is good; you need to be plugged in to participate and to make your contribution to the evolving social and digital organisms that we’ve created.
You can, however, focus on what you can control – the sources and inputs of information that you are receiving. And not just any inputs – the ratio of the negative and positive ones. As myopic loss aversion shows, you will actually be able to take bigger and bolder steps to combat climate change – or perhaps make wiser and less panic-stricken decisions in whatever it is that you’re trying to do – when you’re not receiving a barrage of largely negative inputs on a daily basis.
In addition to myopic loss aversion, another applicable lesson comes from people management. We all have a sort of “motivation bucket” that we fill up on a daily basis. As a leader, you should fill your team’s bucket with 90% positive feedback and 10% negative feedback. This ratio is important, and keeps people motivated that they’re on the right track, and the 10% negative gives them constructive criticism to improve/grow. If you put in 20%, 30%, or god-forbid mostly negative feedback, then you will quickly see your team’s motivation levels plummet; suddenly everyone’s taking days off sick, quitting, or in a pissy mood.
When you fill your filter bubble with apocalyptic doomsday narratives, you’ve filled your bucket with 10% positive and 90% negative – if that. You need to inverse this ratio to be closer to 90/10 or 80/20 in order to make progress in your life, in any endeavor.
When we remove the negative, we must then inject positive news in our motivation bucket to keep us motivated/hopeful/inspired. Practically speaking, you will need to set up your emails, news feeds and Twitter/Youtube subscriptions to reflect this new ratio.
- Run through all your feeds now and assess the ratio of positivity and negativity.
- Unsubscribe from newsletters or channels/updates that annoy you or have a negative bias.
- Sign up to the positive.news newsletter.
- On twitter follow optimists or rational optimists like Steve Pinker, Matt Ridley, Chris Anderson, The Dalai Lama, Kevin Rose, and Ola Rosling.
- Search #optimist.
- More examples here and here.
- Finding more negative (or neutral) people to follow shouldn’t be an issue.
- Keep track of your anxiety levels. Periodically (monthly/quarterly) ask yourself, ‘How’s my ratio?’ and repeat the process.
Lastly, don’t forget about the progress that we have made. Tesla installed the largest lithium battery that has almost paid back its cost; net zero by 2050 is a possibility; despite Trump not signing the Paris Agreement the US is still in; and the human race is not likely to get wiped out. At least not by climate change. But nuclear war, a gamma ray burst from the sun or an asteroid that drifts into earth’s orbit might…Well, we can worry about those things another time.