- News about climate change has a profound psychological impact on humans, but emotional responses can be an obstacle to action.
- When humans are distressed, their psychological defense mechanisms kick in and their solastalgia, or lived experience of environmental desolation, can turn into avoidance and denial.
- There are ways to overcome these defenses and harness ecological grief and ecological anxiety for positive outcomes.
- For example, someone can conceptualize “energy transition” instead of “climate change” to hack their brain into action.
- Humans and Earth need to reconnect like an estranged couple, and they can do so through free ecotherapy.
Humanity is (mostly) made up of moral, sensitive, and compassionate beings. We love big-eyed baby animals. We love gazing at waterfalls. We hate global pandemics that keep us from hanging out with our friends. And, of course, we hate reading again and again about the imminent destruction of our homes and families in raging infernos.
It’s natural to avoid headlines about global warming. After all, those headlines tend to suck. Climate communication strategists know this. They’re always looking for better ways to pinball hard science around a reader’s psychological defenses. If you’re too alarmist, people will disengage. If you’re not alarmist enough, people won’t pay attention. If someone could figure out a way to neurohack humanity into collective climate action, then we’d all be riding bareback on polar bears right now.
But human psychology, that beautiful blend of thoughts and emotion and fast food cravings, is probably the single biggest obstacle to reducing carbon emissions. And I’ll tell you why just as soon as I eat this cheeseburger.
Climate Psychology and Solastalgia
According to the biophilia hypothesis, humans have an innate attraction to nature. Trees improve mental health (thank you, primate brain). And proximity to nature lowers stress levels. But what’s the effect on human psychology when nature is burning?
Because humans are long-time residents of Earth, we experience anxiety when our natural world is threatened (ecological anxiety), and grief when our natural world is injured (ecological grief). When we feel distressed from the loss of our land or home, the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls it solastalgia: the lived experience of environmental desolation.
As notable Earthlings, we can feel the profound psychological impact of climate change right now in the following ways:
- Directly as we flee wildfires and hurricanes and 125-degree heat domes.
- Indirectly as our lives are economically and socially disrupted because of changing climate conditions.
- Consciously as we see the headlines and read the stories about the victims of global warming.
- Subconsciously as our defense mechanisms kick in because we can’t face our negative feelings.
Why We Can’t All Be Greta Thunberg
Climate scientists keep hoping that their anguished messaging will have the intended effect on humanity. But all too often we skim the reports, or read the clickbait headlines about the reports, and the emotional distress is so overwhelming that we experience ecological paralysis.
Eco-paralysis refers to a combination of psychological defense mechanisms that prevent people from taking positive action on climate change. The Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes summarized these barriers nicely as the 5Ds:
- Distance: It’s happening elsewhere. I don’t personally live on a low-lying island next to a melting glacier, therefore the problem is remote. In America, we have the money and the means to adapt to the worst of it. It won’t affect me and my family.
- Doom: It’s such an unmitigated disaster that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m helpless. It’s beyond my personal control. My actions don’t matter.
- Dissonance: I believe in saving the world, but I also like my car and my cheeseburgers, and my brain can’t reconcile my behaviors and my belief system. So screw it.
- Denial: I feel scared and guilty about climate change, so I’m just going to pretend it isn’t happening
- iDentity: My cultural identity means that I can’t comfortably believe in climate change mitigation without changing myself.
The doom barrier (#2) seems especially prevalent right now as more catastrophic science emerges. People experience feelings of grief and pain and existential threat, thus they avoid the information altogether. And that makes them passive. So how can we help our threatened psyches tackle these five barriers?
Face Your Hard Feelings, Change the World?
Eco-anxiety is completely justified. It’s not a mental disorder. Even if you could make eco-anxiety disappear with positive thinking, cognitive behavioral therapy, and false hope, it’s not clear that you should.
Mental health professionals often help people with anxiety disorders ease their fears by modifying their black-and-white thinking patterns. Well, like Greta says, there’s very little grey area in climate change. The current rates of human energy consumption are either sustainable or they’re not. But there are things you can do to empower yourself and others, using your emotional responses as fuel.
- Normalize your climate anxiety and grief. When emotions aren’t socially accepted or acknowledged, they’re way more difficult to process. But eco-anxiety is less and less a disenfranchised emotion. Just look at Twitter after the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report dropped. People are really feeling this and talking about it. Their anxious traffic even crashed the IPCC website.
- Take control of what you can. Find strength in small actions. People do things when they feel like they can actually move a needle. You think reducing your personal energy consumption won’t make a difference? Consider this: Humans take cues from one another. Your own positive actions can be contagious and help drive a cultural shift. Quoting again the young planetary spokesperson Greta Thunberg, “It’s all about sending a signal that we are in a crisis and that in a crisis you change behavior.” If you get solar panels on your roof, your neighbor’s roof might be next.
- Moralize at will. People are more likely to act when they perceive their actions to have moral relevance. So don’t hesitate to frame Earth-saving as a moral issue. Cite the Pope if you have to. Take the risk of virtue-signalling or sounding self-righteous. There’s too much at stake to worry about social friction. There are billions of people on your side, and they don’t all have a privileged voice, so speak up.
- Modify your language. Terms like “climate change” can become meaningless when they automatically trigger the doom barrier. But what if you started talking about energy transition instead? This switches the focus to something positive and actionable, i.e., “Let’s all get excited about these opportunities for energy transition, huzzah!”
- Hold powerful people—and yourself—accountable. Energy transition isn’t all your responsibility, nor is it all the responsibility of politicians and the fossil fuel companies. They respond to us, and we to them.
- Process your anxiety, grief, and anger communally. We need each other in this fight. And social support can lead to greater resilience and mobilization. For example, the Good Grief Network brings people together to “metabolize collective grief” about the planet and build local activist communities.
- Prepare for the long haul. There will be wins and losses. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, though FYI there is a hard deadline for all the runners to finish because the weather forecast is calling for numerous tornadoes. Optimism is optional. We may now inhabit an age of active hope, which is a practice of trying to execute our desires despite feeling hopeless.
- Look for inspiration. Native Americans and Australian aborigines have been mourning the loss and transformation of their ancestral lands for hundreds of years. Their solastalgia has been described as an ongoing grief and disorientation due to being forcibly displaced from beloved, meaningful places. But indigenous activists still fight for environmental justice. Learn from them.
- Use storytelling. Whenever you’re tempted to distance yourself from climate change, remember the affecting narratives of people with firsthand experience of natural disasters. Stories can be more persuasive than facts.
- Visualize a greener future. Every now and again, try to replace all the stock images of the environmental apocalypse with your hallucinatory dream of a healthy world. People and wildlife living in harmony. Fresh air and clean water. Public green spaces. Bicycles and electric cruise ships and whatever. Pride in having worked together on a global scale to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. We can help create the symbiotic world we want to live in, a world that doesn’t give us crippling anxiety. Imagine!
Ecotherapy for Humankind
When spouses are having trouble navigating difficult issues or resolving conflicts on their own, they turn to couples therapy. When humans and Mother Nature are at odds, they can turn to ecotherapy. Ecotherapy, or green therapy, is an intervention that aims to enhance mental health by reconnecting people and nature.
Think of ecotherapy as couples counseling for you and the biosphere, and try a typical marriage therapy exercise: the miracle question. When you’re steeped in acute eco-anxiety, sit under a willing tree and ask yourself, “If I could go to sleep tonight and have any miracle occur, what would my life look like tomorrow?” Your answer lets you momentarily escape from the “problem story” of climate change. It frees you to envision and clarify your goals for a successful marriage between Earth and humanity.
Of course don’t forget to ask the tree the same question. Just enter your search term into the Wood Wide Web. (Haha had to get that joke in there.)
Intimate partners take each other for granted sometimes. Even successful, enduring relationships can occasionally suffer from stagnancy, lack of affection, and mistreatment. Reinforce your emotional connection to nature with a free ecotherapy session, and sparks may begin to fly again. Good sparks, not the kind that start wildfires.
Humans aren’t done here yet. This isn’t all we’ve got. There’s still time left to repair our anthropogenic damage. Yes, Earth is bigger than our feelings, but our feelings are an active part of the ecosystem, too. And our collective climate grief and anxiety can drive a better vision for the future. Like Greta said, “Why would I be depressed when I’m trying to do my best to change things?”