When Disaster Strikes

Vega is a young activist from Sweden. She is on a gap year and has a passion for arts and bold fashion statements. She has joined the Extinction Rebellion (XR) arts circle in The Hague, where she can help to design artistic protests and beautiful banners, doing her part for the acts of civil disobedience that characterise the XR movement.

Her feelings reflect the quiet unease bubbling away under the surface of society. A horror that older generations will not have to face, but that the young cannot escape. As the media begins to move from terms such as ‘climate change’ to ‘climate crisis’, it is already too late to prevent tangible effects from being felt.

The feelings of living with the knowledge that it is coming has a name: eco-anxiety.

“When I was perhaps 12, or 13, is when I first started to get to get to know about the climate crisis, […] I just felt very stressed and very anxious about it” Vega, 16

According to the American Psychological Association, gradual, long-term changes in climate can surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness or exhaustion. Eco-anxiety is expressed through feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration due to [one’s] inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.

The term itself was coined in 2011, too recently to make it into the DSM-5 the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychological Association.

Google Trends for the search topic ‘Eco-Anxiety’ over the last 5 years.

Student psychologist, Mariya Shcherbinina, has encountered eco-anxiety increasingly in young people, usually under 30. It appears usually as a general phenomenon, rather than a psychological disorder, and often affects people who feel they have a sense of loss of control. Climate change, she says, cannot be fixed from a therapist’s office, but helping anxious people to regain a sense of control in other aspects of life can “reduce anxiety in relation to overarching things like the climate”.

One of the pieces of advice Mariya would advise for her young, educated clients is to limit their exposure to the daily devastating news about the climate if their anxiety is getting worse. “It’s not great to be reminded of it every single moment of your life, […] it’s impacting your mental health.”

Personal relationships and the way people/communities interact with each other can be affected by eco-anxiety. And yet, feelings of eco-anxiety are neither unfounded nor over-hyped by alarmist media.

Dr. Peter Houben, an assistant professor at Leiden University College, teaches Climate Change. According to him, climate change is not based on opinion, it’s about checking the facts of the measured data. The climate is changing faster than the natural cycles that were formed for the past 3 billion years.

We, humans, have adapted to live in a very small band of climate variability. The average global has increase by 1 degree (4 degrees in some areas) in the last 100 year. This moves our ecosystems and services we depend on (food production and water provision) out of a range where the natural functions have been adapted to each other. It will rearrange but the quantities and places where we sourced these resources will also change.

We will see changes in all aspects of our lives. Competition for essential resources will increase, which will lead to conflict. We already see early signs that could lead to this competition. For example in 2018, Central Europe experienced a 20-30% crop failure, which lead to a decrease in stockpiles. Consumers didn’t notice anything on the shelves but the stockpile decreased from 90 days to just 30.

If we are to try to achieve a more favourable climatic scenario for humanity, we must change our behaviour, which is an inherently difficult thing for us to do.

Institutions of higher education, for instance, have the role to educate and build on the body of incremental knowledge. Knowledge and information are different, often confused but knowledge allows for responsible decision-making.

“It’s not great to be reminded of it every single moment of your life, […] it’s impacting your mental health.” Mariya Shcherbinina, Student Life Councellor at LUC.

At a personal level, everyone can change their lifestyle to become more sustainable and reduce the burden of their contribution to the climate crisis. Dr. Peter says the climate crisis has affected almost every part of his daily life, mainly the choices he has to make. He chooses to go on regional or local holidays that can be reached by train or car, instead of embarking on a flight to a touristic destination. Food was another aspect that saw a lot of change in his life, the gained awareness of where food comes from and the processes taken to produce that product.

“I thought about running away from it all because of the feeling of being disconnected, but I decided to join the environmental rebels to cope with my feelings of despair.” Alkis Barbas

Not everyone will be willing to make such drastic changes to their life, especially when it comes to traveling. But changes can be taken to offset, to some extent, the carbon emissions produced by your next flight.

Growing concerns over the climate is one of the driving factors behind the recent explosion in numbers for activity against climate inaction. One of the most prominent of these, Extinction Rebellion, grew from nothing to over a million people in the space of only a year, sparking acts of civil disobedience around the world to pressure governments into action on the climate emergency.

Vega leading the Art Circle meeting.

Vega is a 16 year-old Swedish rebel. She moved to The Hague recently with her parents and is taking a gap year before going into university. Vega started her activism in Stockholm at the Fridays for Future and the school strikes, through which she heard about Extinction Rebellion, which she decided to dedicate her gap year to.

She decided to join XR mainly because of their civil disobedience agenda, which sets them apart from other influential environmental groups. “These organizations [WWF, GreenPeace…] have been active for so long and even though they have done many amazing things, the organizations that deal with civil disobedience have received more attention and reaction.”

“When you do stuff that forces people to pay attention to you, they will. If they have the choice of ignoring the climate crisis they will. Because it’s a hard truth to face because its very harsh on your mental health as well because you are standing in front of a mass extinction.”

There are many sacrifices Vega has made in order to reduce her environmental impact. Her activism resulted in lower grades when she was at school, which hindered her possibilities of joining her dream university. She no longer goes on holidays with her family because she refuses to fly. Some might consider these harsh changes but according to Vega, they have only made her happier.

Many people are able to find solace through taking action with groups like Extinction Rebellion. Rae, a university student activist and a member in the national logistics of Extinction Rebellion, weighed in for us on her own views about eco-anxiety.

“What I find hard about eco-anxiety sometimes is that people talk about it as though there’s no way to cure it…obviously, if you have genuine mental anxiety about things, there’s more difficult solutions, but I think the way to cure it is to actually have some action, like do something about it, you know, because then you feel like you’re making a difference.”

During an XR meeting, people are divided into different “circles” each with a specific role.
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