Walking along stretches of beach in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a city of five million people, trash is everywhere: plastic bottles, straws and bags, styrofoam, the lone flip flop, take-out food containers, and more. At one spot there is a strong, unpleasant odour, where an open sewage line flows directly into the ocean.
The contrast between this human-produced ugliness and the beauty of the sparkling ocean and the vast, colourful sky is striking. I feel sadness and frustration that our consumption-driven society, in which I actively participate, is not more awake to the havoc we are wreaking on fragile ecosystems.
According to Wikipedia:
Eco-anxiety is anxiety about ecological disasters and threats to the natural environment such as pollution and climate change…
Ecological grief is defined as “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”
Scientists witnessing the decline of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef report experiences of anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. In a 2014 Guardian article, Jo Confino asked, “Why aren’t we on the floor doubled up in pain at our capacity for industrial scale genocide of the world’s species?”
Researchers Cunsolo and Ellis suggest that “grief is a natural and legitimate response to ecological loss, and one that may become more common as climate impacts worsen.”
Eco-anxiety is intelligent and adaptive in the face of collapse
With the 2018 IPCC warning that we have until 2030 to make a change before it’s too late and just 18 months to stabilize climate change, and with ever more dire climate headlines, incidences of climate-induced worry, fear and despair are intensifying.
These emotions are not pathological nor are they a disorder. They are a healthy and realistic response to the terrifying and tragic realities of our times.
200 species go extinct every day. 75% of Arctic ice has melted in the last 30 years. 10% melt would already mean a huge crisis. Half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years. Each year heatwaves break a new record, wildfires are ever bigger and harder to control, and we see unprecedented levels of flooding.
There are many natural systems and phenomena that will never be the same again. Humans are continuing to burn fossil fuels and put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a “business as usual” rate despite global agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement, in which countries committed to keep global warming below 2 ℃.
Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, speaks of the ‘carbon lag,’ which is the 10-30 years it takes for currently released carbon emissions to translate into higher temperatures. “Even if we stopped putting carbon into the atmosphere tomorrow we would still have the last 30 years of carbon coming through.” That means temperatures would still rise 0.7 ℃, even if all carbon emissions stopped tomorrow.
There are a number of other ‘runaway’ processes, like the increase in carbon dioxide being released from the soil as it heats up, that suggest we will not be able to stay within the 2 ℃ temperature-increase limit. This means societal collapse, economic breakdown, starvation, war. “We are facing the end of civilization,” says David Attenborough.
Growing eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, and eco-grief are natural and adaptive as more of us become aware of the incredible harm we humans are causing to our planet, other species, and ourselves. They are an intelligent response from our psyches to the SOS signals in our environment, just as we would feel grief at the death of a loved one or if our community were devastated by a natural disaster.
Pausing to care for ourselves
It may be helpful to pause here for a moment and notice your body, feel your breath. Just experiencing the flow of the in-breath and the release of the out-breath. Whether the above information is already known or is new to you, absorbing it may not be easy. Take a moment to come back to your body, and feel the earth solid and stable beneath you.
It can be helpful to remind yourself that you are likely not in danger right at this moment. And while the situation is extremely dire, there is still much we can each do to make a difference and impact the direction we are heading. Please continue to allow yourself to pause, breathe, and feel your body, at any point while reading this article. It is important to take time to feel what is arising for you.
Nothing can be changed until it is faced
While eco-grief and anxiety are natural, they are also painful and overwhelming. Denial is a coping strategy to avoid feeling them.
“When it comes to climate chaos, one of the biggest drivers of denial is our unconscious resistance to facing the profound grief that accompanies the catastrophic loss of life and property to increasing wildfires, hurricanes, and floods, the tragic loss of thousands of species as the sixth extinction advances every day, and our anguish and anxiety when we anticipate the growing devastation predicted by climate science. We bypass our emotional pain using psychological defenses when it seems too overwhelming to bear.” ― Leslie Davenport
While these mechanisms of denial and defensiveness are parts of us we set up to protect ourselves, we will only begin to address the problems of the climate crisis if we can face them and learn to fully and compassionately experience our grief and fear. We can’t take actions to protect our planet if we are in denial that there is a problem to begin with. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I believe part of why denial is so seductive as a response is that many of us are trying to hold this immensely disturbing reality alone, and our nervous systems are not set up for this. The hugeness of what faces us can only be adequately held in community, with other living beings we can hold, shake and cry with, and with whom we can envision and dream up solutions and creative responses.
But many of us live increasingly isolated lives, spending hours a day on screens that do not help us to feel truly connected to others. We are vulnerable to messages that disempower us and convince us we have no agency, so we tune out, numb ourselves, and take refuge in consumption of some sort to find relief.
And not only is the reality hard for us to take in as individuals, it is also something our society, media, and even some climate experts and sustainability researchers work very hard to sidestep and to shield us from, for numerous reasons.
Further reading: Jem Bendell’s paper on Deep Adaptation, pages 13-17, on the reasons some climate experts and environmentalists avoid sharing the full reality of climate collapse with the public.
It’s only slowly becoming acceptable to speak about the full extent of societal collapse due to climate change. An example of this is the near total absence of questions about climate change in the first three US Democratic Presidential Debates and the refusal by the Democratic National Convention to allow a debate focused on climate change despite intense pressure from the public.
Releasing guilt, nurturing wholesome remorse
Another common emotion that arises in response to the climate crisis is guilt. There is a difference between wholesome remorse and unwholesome remorse. In unwholesome remorse, we stay stuck in the past. We cannot move forward because we are drowning in our self-criticism and self-judgment over what has happened. We cannot act constructively when we are tied up by guilt and climate anxiety.
Wholesome remorse on the other hand can take us inward to really feel our grief and then it can bring us outward again and give us energy to act. The inward movement is key. It is an experience of humility, and taking responsibility for how we have benefited from the ignorance, greed, violence, and destructiveness of our species. It is necessary to feel the pain of this. As Brenda Petersen writes, “It is never too late to quietly go to our oceans, lakes, rivers, and even small streams, to say to the seagulls, the bald eagles, the Great Blue Herons, the salmon, we are sorry.”
When we truly see how we have contributed to this harming, this suffering, we are determined not to contribute to it anymore. This is the outward movement of healthy remorse. It is the energy that motivates millions of young people to raise their voices in the Global Climate Strike held this past September and that is continuing. Or all those with Extinction Rebellion who blocked roads or risked arrest during the International Rebellion in October and who continue to protest. Feeling wholesome remorse for the destruction that is happening to this beautiful planet caused by our species frees up our energy, it is purifying, and unifying.
We can take care that our wholesome remorse does not turn into guilt by taking concrete actions to resist, reduce, or alleviate the destruction of our natural environments and act in solidarity with those most impacted by climate change, those that are marginalised, poor, or living in the Global South. Healthy remorse motivates us to change our behavior to take action to protect the preciousness of all life.
Meeting eco-anxiety with compassion
Both the tendency to retreat in denial and become immobilized by guilt in the face of the tragic unfolding of climate change is understandable. But shutting down or becoming frozen by guilt will not stop or delay the collapse that is already underway any more than will burying our heads in the sand.
Meeting the tendency to withdraw with compassion is much more effective than meeting it with judgment or shaming. There is real potential to discover and develop creative ways to adapt to this new reality together if we can accept and befriend our pain, sadness, fear and worry.
In Jem Bendell’s video presentation on Deep Adaptation, he acknowledges the importance of mitigating climate change, through resisting systems of harm, but he also emphasizes the need to adapt to climate change. There are certain changes that have begun that we can no longer stop. Deep Adaptation invites us to learn to talk about the even more massive changes that are coming and how we can re-envision our lives and our societies to meet these new realities.
At the end of the presentation, in the Q&A, a man in the audience shared about his next door neighbour who had recently died. Though he knew his neighbour had died, the next morning when took his trash to the curb, he still went to take his neighbour’s trash cans out of habit. He realised he was still in shock. His neighbour’s death had not yet really sunk in.
He offered this story as a metaphor that many of us know, on one level, that catastrophic changes are coming, that our societies are in peril. But on another level we don’t really know it. We are still in shock, or denial. He spoke of a need for compassion for ourselves and for each other. We are all in this together, and it is really difficult. Touching this can help us to be kind and caring of each other and all the ways eco-anxiety, grief and shock may be operating in us. Some of us may be numb, some of us frozen in guilt. Some of us are still unaware of the full measure of tragedy going on.
Knowing each of us is in some kind of traumatic response to the greatest traumatic event the human species has yet encountered, can help us hold each other with compassion rather than blame or judgment.
Self-compassion in particular is a tool of climate resilience that can help us meet the pain of eco-anxiety and climate tragedy. Kristin Neff cites research done with veterans coming back to the US from Iraq and Afghanistan. What determined whether or not they developed PTSD was not how much combat they had experienced in the war but whether or not they had self-compassion. Those who had self-compassion did not develop PTSD. It is key to our mental health.
Neff suggests three steps that can help us to practice compassion with ourselves in times of difficulty:
- Acknowledge that we are suffering. Notice it and take it in. Don’t deny it, suppress it or push it away.
- Be aware that the painful emotions we experience, whether climate-related or not, are experienced by everyone to some extent. We are not the only ones experiencing this suffering. The suffering we feel is not unique to us but belongs to all of humanity. This step is important because our suffering can be quite unbearable if we feel alone in holding it.
- Be kind to ourselves. We can bring our hands to our heart, or simply with tenderness or friendliness, tell ourselves, “I care about this suffering. I want to be here for it and take good care of it.”
Accepting our diagnosis: Deep Adaptation
The thought that we are facing collapse is extremely hard to accept. We’ve basically been given a terminal diagnosis as a species. Our tendency is to deny or resist this diagnosis, but acceptance of the gravity of our situation can bring us peace. It can be healing and even refreshing. By being completely open to the full range of our emotions around climate change, we can welcome and befriend them, so that the power they hold can be directed towards meaningful action.
In The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh tells the story of a senior nun from Vietnam who came to visit Plum Village, his monastery in France. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was given three or four months to live. She accepted this and decided to put all of her energy into practicing to be fully present in each moment of the days she had left to live. She was aware of her breathing, of her steps and bodily movements throughout the day.
Before returning to Hanoi, where she expected to die, a sister persuaded her to get a check up in France. The doctors found that all the metastasized cancer areas had receded to just one area. She lived for more than 14 years after she was told she would die.
Thích Nhất Hạnh writes:
“The Buddha taught that all phenomena are impermanent; there is birth, then there is death. Our civilization is also like that. In the history of the earth, many civilizations have ended. If our modern civilization is destroyed, it also follows the law of impermanence. If our human race continues to live in ignorance and in the bottomless pit of greed as at present, then the destruction of this civilization is not very far away. We have to accept this truth, just like we accept our own death. Once we can accept it, we will not react with anger, denial, and despair anymore. We will have peace. Once we have peace, we will know how to live so that the earth has a future; so that we can come together in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood and apply the modern technology available to us, in order to save our beloved green planet. If not, we will die from mental anguish, before our civilization actually terminates.”
In his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy Prof. Jem Bendell also points to the wisdom in opening to climate-related despair and the positive transformation it can bring about.
“[T]he range of ancient wisdom traditions see a significant place for hopelessness and despair. Contemporary reflections on people’s emotional and even spiritual growth as a result of their hopelessness and despair align with these ancient ideas. The loss of a capability, a loved one or a way of life, or the receipt of a terminal diagnosis have all been reported, or personally experienced, as a trigger for a new way of perceiving self and world, with hopelessness and despair being a necessary step in the process (Matousek, 2008).”
There is much to be learned from groups of people who have gone through, and continue to face, cultural annihilation, genocide, the loss of their land and cultures. In Jem Bendall’s article, he draws on leadership theorist Jonathan Gosling’s work on what we could learn from other cultures that have faced catastrophe, and their example of a more “radical hope,” as opposed to false hope, the illusion that our current social structures can continue as they are now.
Examining the way Native American Indians coped with being moved on to reservations, Lear (2008) looked at what he calls the “blind spot” of any culture: the inability to conceive of its own destruction and possible extinction. He explored the role of forms of hope that involved neither denial or blind optimism. “What makes this hope radical, is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is” (ibid).
He explains how some of the Native American chiefs had a form of “imaginative excellence” by trying to imagine what ethical values would be needed in their new lifestyle on the reservation. He suggests that besides the standard alternatives of freedom or death (in service of one’s culture) there is another way, less grand yet demanding just as much courage: the way of “creative adaptation.” This form of creatively constructed hope may be relevant to our Western civilisation as we confront disruptive climate change (Gosling and Case, 2013).
Deep Adaptation is an invitation to each of us to develop this “imaginative excellence” for our own current context. There is much room for creativity here. The ‘don’t-know mind,’ the beginner’s mind taught in Buddhism, is crucial now. We need to begin to envision how to build structures that can support the change coming. For example, Jem Bendall asks, what do children need to learn in schools for the future that is coming? Likely not what most of them are learning now.
With massive food shortages due to weather abnormalities predicted in just a few years, Bendall suggests we need to be looking at how to grow our own food in greenhouses, and how to take care of people’s basic calorie needs, as grains will soon no longer be a dependable source of food. But we cannot begin to have these discussions and look for solutions if we don’t first acknowledge and accept our diagnosis. As André Gide writes, “People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Taking action can support mental health
We all can do something, and in our own particular way. Taking action is a way not to fall into despair. JoAnn Rosen shares about the power of activism:
“There have been studies showing that patients in hospice care who are encouraged to fully engage in what they love and care about many times live much longer than expected, and do so with more happiness and peace. Perhaps activism, in whatever forms one is called, will provide us with more than we could imagine: a heightened sense of connectedness, less fear, sharper mind, grist for our mills, stronger community, a slipping away of the self. Our engagement can be the diamond lane of our practice.”
Each of us can decide what is the right action for us to take. It is important that our action comes from a place of peace inside, and that it brings joy. It does not need to conform to other people’s standards or expectations. We can find our particular passion that lights us up, and put it in service to the earth, in service of strengthening our collective wellbeing.
I experienced this when I led a Deep Time Walk in Colombo in honour of the Global Climate Strike on September 20th. It was a walk into the past: 4.6 kilometers to represent 4.6 billion years of the earth’s history. Each meter that we walked represented a million years of the earth’s history. I had only two days to prepare for it and I had never done anything like it before. I put the word out, but I didn’t know if anyone would show up.
I didn’t know if the complex scientific terms in the script would be understood, or worse if the whole thing would be painfully boring. Fourteen people showed up, mostly young people. They were very interested: the energy was dynamic, lively, fun and engaged during the whole 2.5 hour walk.
In our reflection at the end, participants expressed awe at the majesty and creativity of this resourceful planet, how much she has undergone and with such resilience! They also expressed shock at how short our human history has been – only the last half meter of the entire 4.6 km walk. We shared our intention to protect the planet and its many species, most of whom are much more ancient than ours.
Among other things, we learned when life first arose on the earth and how different beings came together in creative ways to give rise to new life forms. The first multicellular organism evolved 2000 million years ago. The innovation happened when one bacteria decided not to eat a smaller bacteria; but rather invited the smaller bacteria to live inside of it. This very intelligent decision was the beginning of mitochondria powering energy in a larger, more complex cell, and this innovation drastically transformed what was possible for all living organisms. It allowed many more complex organisms to evolve.
Good to know: If you’re interested, you can experience this walk for yourself, using the Deep Time Walk app which you can download for free. The guided walk is recorded by professional actors who make the science come alive in poetic and engaging ways. I highly recommend it.
Lynn Margulis writes, “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.” We can do the same. We can learn from our first multicellular ancestors new ways to network and connect in order to adapt and survive.
Our communities can find new forms to face the new life we are and will be encountering. An example of such a new form is the Citizens’ Assembly. Extinction Rebellion’s third demand is that “government must create and be led by the decisions of a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.”
Recently I went to the lake one evening in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. I was sitting on a bench as it was getting dark. Out in the lake a large clump of trees and bushes were growing and there was a huge community of birds making a lot of noise as they settled into their nests for the night. And then, all of a sudden, they all went quiet at the same time. It was very dramatic. Maybe 1000 birds going from very loud squawking to sudden silence.
Once silence fell, there were still a few peeps here and there. Maybe a little conflict around who would sleep where, and then silence again. So it was not a perfect togetherness. But it was a transmission for me, I experienced this as a kind of lesson in togetherness, the oneness of this flock of birds. This needs to inform our response to the climate crisis: to find ways to be together, to work, play, and act together.
And not only is being together with other humans important, but also being together with other species, with nature. Much healing and insight can arise when we nourish our joy and delight in the beauty of the world we still have available to us. An important medicine to help us hold eco-anxiety is to take time to be in nature, savour sunsets, birdsong, the caterpillar, the flower, really take these precious gifts in and be present for the incredible intelligence of nature that is still here.
This poem by Mary Oliver is a reminder of the incredible wonder that still exists to celebrate, savour and protect.
What Gorgeous Thing
I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.
Falling in love with the Earth
When I was about 10, living in Kenya, my dad took me with him on a business trip to Mombasa. We went to a village near the coast and while he was in a meeting, I discovered a large, inviting tree with huge branches that were very horizontal, perfect for climbing. I found a branch I could lie down on and I enjoyed just laying there looking up at the sky.
I remember the reassuring hum of crickets and the humid heat that enveloped me. I was totally at peace as I lay on that tree branch. The tree was ancient, enormous and I felt very safe there. I felt accepted as I was, I knew I belonged. Time disappeared as I lay there, completely content. I experienced that everything was alright, nothing was missing, I could relax and just be.
This was a moment that I have never forgotten. The peace and connection I experienced laying on the tree branch have stayed with me ever since in a very tangible way. It continues to nourish me to this day.
“Only when we’ve truly fallen back in love with the Earth will our actions spring from reverence, and the insight of our interconnectedness. Yet many of us have become alienated from the Earth. We are lost, isolated and lonely. We work too hard, our lives are too busy, and we are restless and distracted, losing ourselves in consumption. But the Earth is always there for us, offering us everything we need for our nourishment and healing: The miraculous grain of corn, the refreshing stream, the fragrant forest, the majestic snow-capped mountain peak, and the joyful birdsong at dawn.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh
Practices of Deep Adaptation
Here are some practices that can help to befriend eco-anxiety and support deep adaptation.
1. Calling up moments of connection
Recall a moment of connection, ease, belonging, or inspiration that you might have had in nature, as a child or an adult. A time when you experienced a deep connection with another species (animal or plant) or felt yourself to be protected and safe in a particular place in nature. Feel in your body now what you experienced then. Connect with the goodness and beauty of that moment. Let it fill you and inspire you. You could also write about it to help you remember and connect with this experience even more deeply. You may also want to share it with others, in person or in writing.
2. Two grounding meditations
You can use this 15 minute guided meditation to help you come back to the present moment, to centre and ground yourself whenever you are feeling anxious, fearful or lost, distracted and confused.
And this 10 minute meditation on self-compassion will help you to be kind to yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed, judgmental or critical of yourself or others.
3. Practice being in nature (plus a meditation)
Make it a practice to spend time in nature on a regular basis. It could be a particular tree you visit often, a place outdoors where you like to sit, or a view you like to take in. Make being in this spot a regular part of your schedule, weekly or daily. Notice how it changes, how it is different each time you are there. Practice to be fully present while you are there, opening up each of your senses and receiving the wisdom from this place. You may like to use this 10 minute guided meditation as a support in awakening joy and ease in this natural setting.
4. Meditation on impermanence
When we feel the strong emotion of fear (perhaps despair) regarding the future of our civilisation, the future of our planet, that might be a mindfulness bell reminding us to practice looking deeply into the impermanent nature of everything.
5. Climate crisis friends
If you haven’t already, find a person or a group of people you can connect with on a regular basis to provide support to each other to find ways to respond together to the climate crisis. This Medium article on how to have a useful conversation about climate change in 11 steps is a resource on how to begin having meaningful exchanges with people, and may help you find your tribe. You could reflect together on how you might come up with your own actions or get involved with the many good groups that are working to respond to the climate crisis.
Further reading: Check out Earth Holder Community, Extinction Rebellion, Deep Adaptation Forum, One Earth Sangha, and the Pachamama Alliance Drawdown Initiative for more ideas. There are also online courses being offered through some of these groups that you could enroll in together with your friends.
You matter more than you think
In a recent collective trauma online summit, I watched an interview with Karen O’Brian, an IPCC scientist, Nobel Peace Prize winner with that body, and a consultant on Project Drawdown, “the most comprehensive ever proposed to reverse global warming.” She shared this:
“We are alive at the most important moment in history, where we can make the biggest difference… There is so much potential and possibility on this planet right now for social change.”
She referenced systems analyst, Donella Meadows, and her research on leverage points, or key places to intervene in a system to bring about change. She spoke about how influencing the rules of a system is a powerful leverage point. But even more powerful leverage is to shift the goals of the system, as was done with the International Declaration of Human Rights. And the most powerful leverage point of all is the capacity to transcend paradigms. She said paradigms are just thought patterns, though they govern our world and reality, if we can shift the thought patterns, we can shift everything.
Karen O’Brian continued in the interview, affirming, “You matter more than you think. You’re always connected with people, your language is always having a powerful effect… If humans have caused climate change, we can do something to stop it.”
Applying the insights of quantum science to the social sciences, it is clear that when we change, we change the collective. She wondered:
“Who is making us believe that we don’t matter, that we are just redundant? Who is making us feel that what we do doesn’t matter? It is the individualistic, deterministic, atomized understanding of reality. Quantum physics challenged all this one hundred years ago but it has remained at subatomic level. Now we need quantum social science. What if we constructed a social science based on the quantum physics we have now, not just on Newtonian, classical science?
“We are underestimating our capacity for social change. This would be the big tragedy of our times. That we came this close to that social tipping point but we gave up and backed away out of despair.”
People are capable of moving and getting involved on behalf of environmental issues. It is happening all around us. In light of the anguish I expressed at the beginning of this article, Extinction Rebellion Sri Lanka now organizes a monthly beach clean up in Colombo.
At its first clean up, people collected over 50 bags of trash from Dehiwala beach. We are waking up a little bit everywhere. Each of us matters and it is time for each of us to play our part in shifting the paradigm to one that values all living beings and nature so that a future may be possible.