In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first introduced the world to the possibility of global warming. His research focused on the widespread effects of coal burning. However, his research was oversimplistic. People couldn’t imagine a future of mass extinction and forest fires, so his findings did not lead to widespread fear.
In 1956, a news report on long-term environmental changes from greenhouse gas emissions appeared in The New York Times. However, the article noted that as there was little risk of running out of fossil fuels, industries would likely continue consuming them. As long as it paid to consume coal and oil, and those resources were cheap and plentiful, then such practices would soldier on to generate profits. And so they did.
Now, half a century later, elementary school children are seeking psychiatric care to cope with debilitating panic and anxiety over the environmental crisis. A study conducted by Caroline Hickman at the University of Bath showed that 45 per cent of children suffer from depression after a nature disaster.
‘Eco-anxiety’ is a recently-coined term that encapsulates the rising emotional and psychological responses to the climate crisis. From 2008–2009, the American Psychological Association put together a task force that investigated the relationship between the climate crisis and human psychology. The results for this study revealed that people remained more or less blasé about the climate crisis.
In 2018, however, a Yale University and George Mason University study group reported that 29 per cent of Americans were “alarmed” about the climate, up 11 per cent from 2009. The denial that was prevalent just a decade ago is dissolving, and in some cases is being replaced by paralyzing fear.
The necessity for an intersectional approach
While eco-anxiety has only garnered attention in recent years, people are no strangers to our psychological states being under environmental influence. Dr. Romila Verma of U of T’s Department of Geography and Planning gave three possible reasons why the global population has seen a sharp increase in climate change-specific mental health issues.
As the climate crisis persists, environmental destruction becomes more visible and more serious, as Verma wrote to The Varsity. We’re told that if we haven’t suffered an extreme climate event yet, we will, and in the meantime, we’re being “bombarded” day-in and day-out with news of devastation occurring elsewhere.
Verma also mentioned social media being a contributing factor to anxiety in general, be it climate-specific or otherwise. “Before the advent of social media,” she wrote, “[a crisis] was not as visible unless you were directly hit by these issues.”
According to a press release from the United Nations in March, there are only “11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change.” Verma believes that this has increased anxiety among young people especially. This timeline tabled an ultimatum that children are forced to confront. Much of the action and campaigning since then was born of this responsibility, a burden that children know they inherited as the byproduct of centuries of reckless economic dreams.
While mainstream media tells us that eco-anxiety is a new, emerging dimension of the climate crisis, we would be ignorant to assume that this concern really is brand new for all populations. We would be just as mistaken to consider eco-anxiety an equal-impact phenomenon. Like many other crises, the climate crisis and eco-anxiety run along intersectional race, class, and gender lines.
For Indigenous communities, a loss of land and disrespect for the sacredness of the non-human is not a recent occurrence, but rather part of a centuries-long history. Furthermore, for individuals with disabilities, well-intentioned but under-researched practices, such as the plastic straw ban, come at the expense of accessibility. Exposure to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes has also been shown to increase the risk of gender-based violence, as it exacerbates the already vulnerable position of women.
There have been strides made in understanding the impacts of climate crisis. In recent decades, there has been recognition that gender is an important factor in the realm of developmental policy. In the 1970s, the concept of environmental refugees emerged, with particular regard to the desertification occurring in parts of Africa. These intersectional factors must influence the theory and methods of addressing the climate crisis.
“There are many instances of environmental injustices which are in direct violation of [the] human rights of indigenous, disabled, minorities, immigrants, refugees, homeless people,” wrote Verma, and not all have the 11 years to wait. “The vulnerable populations around the world are already being denied basic needs like food, water, and shelter.”
The harrowing reality is that regardless of a universal trend of growing urgency, we as a society still invest in climate protection for privileged populations at the expense of the already disadvantaged. Furthermore, we still believe that the limitation of harmful corporate activities for the safety of the marginalized is transgressive.
Eco-anxiety’s long history
Before the industrial revolution, before contemporary capitalism, and before modern urban development was the long history of Indigenous peoples battling colonialist environmental destruction. These struggles date back to early European settlement that operated on the ideology of ‘terra nullius’ — the concept of no man’s land, in which land that is deemed unoccupied can be occupied by a sovereign state. This was used by European settlers to justify expanding into Indigenous territory and incite genocide against Indigenous peoples.
Everything that has come of these territories since has been built on the notion that the Earth was made solely for human extraction. For the Indigenous peoples who fought to protect their land back then, eco-anxiety is far from a post-2000s phenomenon.
In a Toronto Star project, Anishinaabe journalist, Varsity alum, and Indigenous Issues Columnist Tanya Talaga highlighted the seven Cree communities that form the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council lining the James Bay coast. She writes that, eco-anxiety for them has been “a reality for decades.”
In Concordia University Magazine, William Gagnon posits that among Indigenous peoples, there is a growing understanding of a socially created feeling of homesickness without even leaving home, which he dubs “solastalgia.” In watching one’s own home environment break down, a longing forms for a home and safety that existed in a different time.
Beyond the experiences being multiplied temporally, there’s also a verticality to Indigenous stress. Talaga further elaborates, commenting that “when you don’t have access to health care such as clinics with doctor or nurses, or communities with high school or safe housing, clean water or working sewage, watching the land change before your eyes due to [the climate crisis] adds another layer of despair.”
Talaga also noted that few research studies have been conducted on Indigenous sites. However, Indigenous peoples have a wealth of knowledge in oral histories passed down for many generations full of climate understanding.
In the past several years there has been a growing interest in the application of Indigenous knowledge to land-use and land-management practices, reviving traditional ecological knowledge and recognizing — for perhaps the first time in a long time — the value that had been displaced.
Just as the Anthropocene — the current geological age of human influence on the Earth — is not new, nor does it only date as far back as the invention of Western machinery and technology. Mindful practices are not new either; in fact, they’ve existed for far longer than we think.
Racism and climate refugees
In North American suburbia, placing polluters near Black neighborhoods is not an unknown practice. This doesn’t occur out of explicit malicious and racist intent, but rather because it is the least expensive option.
On a more worldwide scale, racial tensions can be found in issues such as food insecurity, economic decline, and, more recently, forced migration. In the wake of a drastically changing climate, the term ‘climate refugee’ has been used to describe people who have been displaced or are at risk of temporary or permanent displacement due to environmental change.
This conflict does not end with the environmental movement itself. Competition, ethnic tension, and distrust between migratory and host societies are highly common. This low level of social cohesion has been linked to greater vulnerability, and further disconnects disadvantaged communities from institutions. As the movement of large bodies of people increases in frequency — although the required aid upon arrival becomes greater as well — disputes follow ethnic divisions fiercely.
In the sphere of international law, the question of responsibility is tabled: who will protect these climate refugees? Political ecologists point out that the challenges of the climate crisis deepen questions of distribution and access to resources from water, land, and infrastructure, to more complex ‘items’ such as capital, education, and aid.
Climate refugee narratives often mobilize racist fears that the arrivals of impoverished populations are threats to national security, and thus could prompt pre-emptive reactionary policies, preventing movement before it has even begun. These sweeping assumptions of bodies in motion could further international divides, adding to the existing eco-anxiety of disempowered populations, and are a great failure to address the very fundamental question of social inequity.
The ones bearing the brunt of it: children
In an interview with Reuters, Hickman remarked that the current state of our climate leaves today’s youth with feelings of betrayal and abandonment. She further emphasized that “fear from children needs to be taken seriously by adults.”
Leaving these issues unaddressed could further compound their fears.
Children are a particularly vulnerable age group, not only because the climate crisis weighs disproportionately heavy on their futures, but also because post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following catastrophes, depression, aggression, and social withdrawal are more common for them, and their symptoms tend to be more long-term when compared to adults.
Verma pointed out that many young people have not hesitated to be at the forefront of movements like Fridays for Future, which was pioneered by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and picked up later by equally-impassioned students such as Wiikwemkoong First Nation water protector Autumn Peltier and U of T’s own Allie Rougeot.
“There is no right or wrong age to be a changemaker,” Verma wrote. “Since young people are the future adults, and they will face more severe consequences of climate change, they should become part of the solution.”
Verma explained that in her personal experiences advocating for climate justice, she sees today’s youth as key voices in forcing those in power to implement and innovate accordingly. She also said that there are the mental health challenges that come with such a large undertaking. She believes that in order to adequately care for child activists it is important to examine our broken mental health systems.
“There are incidents of these activists being bullied, harassed and made fun of,” wrote Verma. “In the face of adversity, it takes a lot of courage and resiliency to withstand this onslaught.”
“My concern is that some of these climate activists might face emotional turmoil.”
Where do we go from here?
Eco-anxiety means different things for everyone. It may be necessary to take a step back from the events of the climate crisis and ask ourselves, “who am I in the context of climate crisis?”
“Climate change impacts are felt in every section of society however, the main burden of its consequences falls on marginalized and vulnerable populations,” wrote Verma.
As students and faculty of this institution, we each come from one form of privilege or another. Our identities are not without the protections offered by our race, gender, class, or other identity groups. For most of us, it is important to understand our anxieties and our positions in relation to those who have been disadvantaged for much longer than media and history has allowed us to realize.
For students like ourselves, our futures hang over a precipice. What is our role in this fight? What are the decisions that we’re obligated to make? In the face of mass extinctions, food strikes, and forced migration, family-building has become an unethical dream. The uncertainties linger like smog in the air.
We have to look at both ourselves and each other and ask: what do we owe to our own futures in order to create a livable world for all?