What To Do When It Feels Like The End Of The World?
Is there room for optimism on a planet that is confronting a seemingly insurmountable climate crisis? Ms Christalle Tay (Arts and Social Sciences ’20) and Dr Adrian W J Kuah from NUS Futures Office believe it’s not time to give in to ‘eco-anxiety’ just yet.
In July, some of you readers will become NUS alumni. Commencement is a significant rite of passage: it marks the crossing of a threshold into the wider world. You might say that your university years were meant to prepare you to go into the wider world, to prosper in it, to make your mark on it, and to find and fulfil your purpose in it. But what happens if that world you are poised to enter seems like it is, both figuratively and literally, burning up? What if the world, instead of brimming with promise, feels as like a wasteland, desolate and devoid of promise?
According to a 2021 joint report by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations (UN) Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, weather-related disasters increased five-fold in the last fifty years. The impact on the economy will be profound. Based on research by insurance giant, Swiss Re Institute, even if the world meets its Paris Agreement target of limiting the rise in the global temperature to under two degrees Celsius, the global GDP loss by 2050 will be 4%; 4.2% in ASEAN. If no mitigating actions are taken, the loss will be 18% globally, and 37.4% in ASEAN.
If such issues have been worrying you, it is likely you are not alone. You are joined by many young people around the world who have indicated negative emotional responses to the ecological crises. In a 2021 study by researchers from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, an alarming three-quarters of 10,000 young people surveyed across ten countries said the future is “frightening”. Half of those surveyed said that their daily lives and functioning are affected by their climate anxiety and distress. About 40% said they hesitate to have children because of it. In a separate study on the risk perceptions of NUS students conducted by the Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (IPUR), “climate change” and “environmental degradation” were placed second and fourth on a list of 36 issues, beating out personal-level worries such as exams, jobs and health. Indeed, a similar story is unfolding in local news stories. In interview reports by CNA and Rice Media, young people who do not want kids explain why: they do not want to contribute to a dying Earth and are put off by the uncertainty of a world affected by climate change.
Researchers and health professionals are trying to understand these trends. Terms like ‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘environmental distress’ have been coined to capture the anxiety, depression, or sense of loss people feel towards climate change. A February 2022 New York Times article, “Climate change enters the therapy room”, described climate psychology as a growing field in response to patient numbers; child psychiatrists with the Royal College of Psychiatrists in England said in 2020 that half of their patients had environmental distress. Professional associations are responding too. The Australian Psychological Society developed a handbook to educate people on how to support those experiencing eco-anxiety; the Climate Psychology Alliance North America created an online directory for climate-aware therapists.
While Singapore has little quantitative evidence of climate-induced mental issues, there have been anecdotes. One senior counsellor told The Straits Times in an October 2021 article, “Climate anxiety is becoming a big mental health issue”, that she has around five clients with climate anxiety, all aged 20 to 40. Young people interviewed for the article spoke of feelings of depression (“there was nothing I could do”), nihilism (“what is the point of doing anything?”), and guilt for not doing more (feeling like a “bad eco-warrior”).
But these feelings are a natural response to climate change. An American therapist and author of the book, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: a Clinician’s Guide, Leslie Davenport, said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper: “Eco-anxiety is a natural response to a threat. And this is a very real threat.” Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman, one of the authors of the University of Bath report and a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, wrote an research article titled “We need to (find a way to) talk about… Eco-anxiety”. She said that while the climate crisis itself is worrying enough, attempts to denigrate and dismiss such fears, and to silence young people speaking up, may be more frightening and confusing. Her interviewees spoke about feeling belittled, judged or criticised for their worries. She raised the example of former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg had given Australian children “needless anxieties” following her speech to the UN in 2019.
The anger that moves us to act must be a constructive one, lest we act in a manner that adds to the world’s malaise.
Fight, flight, or resign to fate?
In 2020, a group of Australian researchers led by Samantha Stanley identified and studied three broad emotion responses to climate change – anger (angry, frustrated), anxiety (anxious, afraid) and depression (depressed, miserable). They found that the Angry are most likely to take both individual (e.g. recycling) and collective climate action (e.g. protesting). The Anxious are most likely to engage in neither, and the Depressed will only take collective action. Interestingly and ironically, anger was correlated to improved mental health – that is, the angrier they were, the fewer instances of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress they had.
Meanwhile, those feeling anxious or depressed are likely to have poorer mental health. The more anxious or depressed they were, the more instances of depression, anxiety and stress they had. Though more research is needed to determine if angry people feel better because they tend to act, researchers concluded that the anger is a healthier coping mechanism than the “debilitating” effect of anxiousness and depression.
The suggestion that the Anxious and Depressed are reluctant to take action is alarming – what becomes of a world if its young people do not take action, despite feeling for a cause? Worse, is it really the case that anger is the only way to go? I personally hope not. As it turns out, anger isn’t the only “mobilising” emotion. There is also hope – the hope that acting is not useless. As a group of German and Australian researchers led by Philipp Jugert found, the perception of agency encourages pro-environmental intentions such as protesting and signing of petitions.
For many of us who are not on the frontlines of the climate fight – and it is becoming unclear where the frontlines are, or if such a notion makes sense for an existential and universal issue – our role may be in providing the structural support for voices to be heard and constructive climate action to happen. We can give hope, we can nurture it, and at a minimum, we can try to not kill what nascent hope there is.
The Bath researchers concluded that protecting against climate anxiety would come in the form of validating one’s feelings and views, particularly by those in power. They have the power to create space for interest/advocacy groups, so those with purpose will not have it stamped out from lack of agency. An example of agency provided to youths is the Phoenix Sustainability Initiative (PSI), a student organisation at the University of Chicago. Sustainability efforts, such as collecting food scraps from residences to compost or organising thrift shop pop-ups, are centralised in PSI. The university gave PSI a grant, and maintained the partnership through many channels such as its sustainability office and housing and student life.
So let me end on a hopeful note. And this hope must proceed from an acknowledgement of this emerging reality. The anger that moves us to act must be a constructive one, lest we act in a manner that adds to the world’s malaise. But we should be careful when it comes to anger: even a righteous anger will eventually consume you.
I prefer to look at hope, and how it manifests in actual on-the-ground initiatives as well as in changing mindsets and worldviews. How can we advocate for hope, for the planet, and ultimately for our collective survival? How can we find space and time for advocacy, to grow and to sustain it? And specific to you who are graduating soon: what have we learned in our university years – the knowledge we amassed, the skills we acquired, the sensibilities we developed – that can be applied to this burgeoning ecological and psycho-social crisis?
And for those troubled by climate change, take comfort in Caroline Hickman’s suggestion: to reframe climate anxiety as eco-caring or eco-empathy. A sign that people still care enough about the planet and its species. As the poet and environmental activist, Gary Snyder, puts it, “Guilt and anger and fear are part of the problem. If you want to save the world, save it because you love it!”
Dr Adrian W J Kuah is Director of NUS Futures Office; and Ms Christalle Tay is an Analyst in the same department.