If worrying about the mess the planet is in keeps you up at night, you’re not alone. Clea Grady investigates eco-anxiety
All. That. Rubbish.
My rubbish is making me anxious. That probably sounds funny, but it’s true. Just like us, wildlife – whether that be bees, birds or badgers – needs somewhere to live.
Without habitat, there is no wildlife. Devastatingly, in creating more and more space for people, we have systematically stripped our landscapes; leaving our wildlife with very few, or no, places to go.
My rubbish is collected fortnightly, and the bags are all stacked at either end of the alleyway behind my house. Bags and bags and bags of rubbish, heaped on top of each other, spilling open, festering in the sun.
Every fortnight, I’m disgusted by how much waste just one side of our little street amasses, and I’m extraordinarily relieved when it has been collected. Out of sight, out of mind eh? Sadly, not so. It keeps returning to my thoughts… All. That. Rubbish.
Because I know that it’s still somewhere still piling up as landfill. I feel anxious because I feel powerless to stop it. Does this resonate with anyone?
Despite Blue Planet, scientific predictions, environmental memes and scary statistics, we still seem to be making a whole lot of mess and doing a load of other damaging stuff besides). Humans leave mess wherever we go.
In fact, the recent lovely weather (I write this at the beginning of June) and reduced social distancing, is shining a big old light on it. It only takes a few seconds scrolling on my phone to see dozens of photos, news stories and exclamations of disgust at the litter-strewn about beaches, riversides and green spaces after a sunny weekend.
As a species, we seem unable to tidy up after ourselves or put our rubbish in a bin, let alone reduce the amount of trash we actually create.
So where does that leave us? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re lying awake at night worrying about the end of the world, with images of plastic islands in the ocean playing on a loop in your head.
Chronic fear of environmental doom
It seems I’m not alone. A quick Google tells me that the American Psychological Association describes eco-anxiety, or climate anxiety, as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”, and that sounds pretty much on the money.
In fact, in 2017 a report called Mental Health and Our Changing limate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance says that “a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change, and that the level of worry is almost certainly increasing.”
What can we do about the situation? After all, this is no small problem and it’s certainly not going to go away, or be fixed, overnight.
Feelings of paralysis and powerlessness are two of the most common and recognised reactions to, or symptoms of, anxiety and fear, and they cause us to be stuck in an unending anxious and fearful loop.
Now I am no expert, but I am a person who experiences this sort of anxiety and my way through it is to fight that awful inertia with action.
Because in doing, I always feel better. Here are a few of my top tips on how to tackle feelings of eco-anxiety and how to ‘take the power back’…
Every little thing we do is magic!
For change to happen we need a lot of people doing something, as opposed to a few people doing everything. This can be a powerful thought to hold onto when you’re feeling powerless. Because there are a lot of things we can actually do – we just have to start somewhere.
• Demand more outside bins and better recycling. Social media is literally at our fingertips and your local council should respond to tweets and questions. What’s more, social media is one of the most visible ways of giving feedback – people will see it!
• Litter pick your local area. You may not have dropped it, but you can still pick it up. This action is also visible, so you may also encourage others to do the same. Be sure to do it safely – you can buy a litter picker pretty cheaply and your local council will provide you with the green bags that, when full, can be left beside an outdoor bin for collection. Litter picking makes you feel better too – often total strangers stop to say thank you!
• Compost. As vegans, a lot of our rubbish is actually biodegradable waste and we can reduce the number of bags we put out for collection by composting instead of binning it. Little outside space, or none at all? No problem! Bokashi bins or buckets are a game-changer, as they allow you to compost inside and massively reduce the number of bags you leave out for the collectors. Just give them a Google to find out more.
• Buy better. It’s been harder than usual to be an ethical buyer during the pandemic, but every little choice we make counts, so if good habits have slipped, then just turn them back around. We are lucky to have the luxury of choice but are each constrained by our own situations and finances, so buy as well as you can at the time and keep an open mind to other options. Buying local is always my top tip as there seem to be so many positive spin-offs to it less plastic (locally baked bread and veg boxes); recyclable options (small independents offering refills on soaps and cleaning products); reduced car travel (regular, local shopping rather than big, car-filled supermarket shops) and not giving all your money away to the big corporates (who tend to do lots of bad stuff ).
• Go vegan. If you’re not already vegan, then take that final step and commit to a plant-based life. With one decision you can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint. In fact, a global shift to veganism would reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions (which are huge) by an average of a whopping 70%.
• Ditch the car. Has lockdown shown you that you can live in a different way, no longer reliant on four wheels? Instead of returning to how it was before, embrace a better way of life for you and the planet. Ditch the traffic jams and the road rage, and become more physically active without even thinking (the average person’s weekly car time is scary). If you can’t ditch the car altogether, then you can still make reductions: commit to being a one-car family and never take solo car journeys (those ‘just popping to the shops’ trips all add up!).
• Use a green energy supplier. We have more and better choices now for how we power our homes, and they often work out as being cost-effective too. Search online for the ‘best green energy suppliers’ and you’ll be greeted with an increasing list to choose from’
•Innvest better. This is one we often don’t think of, but our money is incredibly powerful and where we invest matters. You can choose to move your shares (whether that’s a pension or other investments) so they are more aligned with your ethics. It might take a little research, but it is possible.
• Talk about it! You’re not alone – Psychology Today says that eco-anxiety afflicts “an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis” A problem shared is not necessarily halved, but it’s certainly less lonely. You can share tips and ideas, and buddy up to support each other through times of stress and any of the lifestyle transitions above.
• Allow yourself some ‘worry time’. Rather than trying to push feelings of anxiety away and have them reappear horribly at 3am, schedule yourself some worry time during the day to properly think about them. This Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) technique can actually reduce anxiety, as it teaches you how to contain your worry to a designated time – allowing you to free your mind up for other things. I recommend research or trained support to learn more about how to do this.
• Get out in nature. Being outside is good for us – mentally as well as physically. Feeling reconnected to the Earth and recognising that there is still great beauty out there can give you hope and a renewed sense of energy. Allow yourself the opportunity to feel grounded (sand or grass literally beneath your feet and between your toes), to breathe in fresh air, or to get lost in a moment (listen to the birds or to the sea). Our planet needs our love as much as our fight, and we must be replenished in order to keep fighting.
• Be kind to yourself. Arguably this is the hardest of all things to achieve! Extending kindness to ourselves is something we all often fail at, but it’s really important. Forgive your past indiscretions – recognise mistakes and move on. You are not expected to be perfect, nor can you solve the world’s problems on your own; but you can make better choices and you can choose to live differently every day. Even if you’re just taking incremental steps, you are still moving forward. And that can only be a good thing.
Clea is a writer, marketer and activist who has been vegan since 2014, and vegetarian since she was 12. She is passionate about inspiring others to go vegan, and believes that good food, empathy and kindness are the best forms of activism.