People talk about sustainability journeys – that is, starting with small actions such as paying attention to recycling or switching to recycled toilet paper and then progressing to the big carbon-ticket items like installing solar panels or committing to going flight-free. But there’s a whole other journey that I personally am undertaking, and I suspect many of you are too: the emotional journey, along which you take in the complexity, enormity and importance of the climate and biodiversity crises. But where does it start and will it ever end? With no expertise in psychology, I had no idea what the answers were, but feeling bereft and permanently panicked, I really needed to know how to feel joy again. Below I share details of my personal journey, and in the accompanying article, Why don't we all care about climate change? I share my very much lay perspective of the psychology of climate change.
It’s only recently that I’ve recognised I’m even on this journey. I’ve been aware of, and felt upset by, climate change since it was commonly referred to as global warming. A series of major life events took the edge off my worry – distracted me, I suppose. But just as the rollercoaster of having young children subsided into an undulating carousel, the February 2019 heatwave hit…and BOOM! I’m swept away in a tsunami of angst, fear and downright misery. I didn’t know what to do - I couldn’t indulge those feelings because I had responsibilities, but I couldn't see how I could ever feel happy again while the world was on this path to destruction. No-one around me confessed to feeling those feelings and in fact mainly seemed blissfully unaware of the dire situation. Thankfully I found an online community whose members had similar outlooks. That helped, knowing that this is a shared worry. I also learned that taking action may help me feel better – so I threw myself in head first. Within 6 months I had helped to set up a local online sustainability group, stood as a parliamentary candidate with a view to raising the profile of climate change debates, and co-founded a local climate action group (the precursor to CA-WN, in fact).
But despite buzzing around with all these hats on I was still feeling a tangible fear for the future. I’d had to educate myself on the climate science to enable me to make a meaningful impact in the roles I’d taken on, and the more I read, the more doom I felt as I visualised the impending tipping points and their irreversible consequences hurtle towards us. I felt guilty for bringing my children into this world and wondered how on earth I could fulfil my role as a mother in keeping them happy and healthy. I also felt guilty that I was beginning to shy away from the difficult reads – how could I contribute to a climate action group if I wasn’t aware of how bad the situation was becoming? But equally distressing was why are other people still going about their daily lives seemingly without a (climate) care in the world?
In hindsight I recognise a turning point, which came when I mentioned to a friend (who does have psychological expertise) how I couldn’t bring myself to watch the latest David Attenborough documentary. He suggested that I was experiencing grief, and how that was a natural and healthy response to the crisis. My intense emotions finally validated, I sought professional help to manage them. I was fortunate to be able to afford some sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy, after which I felt much more able to recognise, understand and accept my emotions, and more importantly, to harness them.
I’m sure this isn’t the end of my emotional journey, but for now it feels like a stable steady path with enough visibility to enable me to brace myself for the potholes. I feel that with the help of some reading and TED talks, I can finally try to understand my climate anxiety.