With the recent heat waves and other climate-related problems, I have become anxious and despondent about the future. In fact, I am doubtful there will be much of one in 10 or 20 years. My anxiety often keeps me glued to my computer, looking at more and more stories, which tend to get more and more extreme. I have started reading reports of human extinction within the next century, if not sooner.
I sometimes look for articles about the climate crisis that are more positive; but, at best, that gives me a temporary reprieve from the general tenor of the coverage. It makes it almost impossible to do my work. And I can’t avoid these stories, as I teach a community-college course on sustainability. I have even contemplated suicide. What should I do?
—Doomed and Gloomed
You are not alone. Andrew Samuels, a Jungian psychoanalyst and a professor at the University of Essex, tells me that therapists are increasingly hearing from patients who are deeply disturbed by climate change and are struggling to cope.
First, get professional help. Call a suicide hotline whenever you think of taking your own life. Samuels points out that you seem to suffer from depression as well as anxiety. Depression is bound up in loss: You may be mourning the planet and humanity as you might mourn the death of a parent. Therapy helps with depression, and it could also help change your addictive relationship to the Internet.
Depression is also related to guilt. It “stems from ideas that one has damaged or destroyed a loved other,” Samuels observes. “That’s why a normal depression follows a bereavement. There is always more that could have been done.” Sometimes we absorb neoliberal guilt over the environment—the feeling that climate change is our fault because we drive a car or order from Amazon. “I think it is crucial not to take full responsibility for what we have done to the planet,” Samuels says. “Sure, some individuals in the corporate and political worlds are particularly careless and hence responsible. But this doesn’t apply to most of us.”
It’s hard to think of a more collective problem than climate change. Yet you seem to experience it as yours alone. Reading your letter, Samuels observes: “This person seems so cut off and alone, an atomized citizen.”
Climate change is too much for you—or any one of us—to handle. Alone, we can neither cope with it emotionally nor save humanity from its worst effects. “Part of the problem is that climate change seems so big that it’s hard to conceive that any individual action on our part could work,” the author and environmental activist Bill McKibben points out. “When people ask me, ‘What can I, as an individual, do to save the planet?,’ I say, ‘The most important thing you can do is be less of an individual.’”
In other words: Become part of the environmental movement. Wherever you live, yes, people are composting (which can certainly be helpful, especially when multiplied millions of times), but even more encouraging, they are organizing to put pressure on corporations to stop polluting and on governments to change policy. This is making a difference. As McKibben notes: “We’ve won a ton of fights. There are lots of pipelines and coal ports that are not getting built. We’re increasingly powerful.”
When you join this movement, you’ll help the planet and yourself. When you meet your fellow activists, Samuels urges, admit to some of the feelings you’ve described in your letter. They will empathize; some of them have been there, too. “Just you and your computer is not a productive and creative state of affairs,” Samuels insists. “Activism is good for your mental health.”
I, too, suffer from anxiety over the future of the planet, so your letter has been a hard one for me to live with and to answer. One of the reasons we feel anxious, though, is that we don’t know what is going to happen. If we knew that we were facing extinction within our century, we would give up and grieve—or party in a bacchanalian fashion. But we don’t know. For people prone to anxiety like ourselves, this uncertainty is hard to tolerate. But within that uncertainty lies a measured but radiant hope.
“Some things are going much better than we thought they would,” McKibben says. To give just one example, the price of solar panels has fallen by 90 percent. “Everything points to: If we want to solve this problem, we can.”
This kind of optimism is not denial. “We’re not going to be able to stop global warming,” McKibben acknowledges. “But we may be able to save the civilization that our forebears have built.”
To do that, we need to reject despair and start fighting together—for future humans and for ourselves.
I have a cousin that I haven’t seen in many years and saw only from time to time as a youth. My only knowledge of his life and politics is via social media; he’s well-educated but deeply reactionary and motivated by far-right ideology. He’s getting married and wants to send me an invitation to the wedding. Am I obliged to give him my address? I will not attend (too far away), but am I also obliged to send a wedding gift? Can I ignore the request?
Don’t send a gift. We all sometimes forget to send wedding presents—even to people who aren’t Nazis. It’s petty for newlyweds to notice such things; they should be enjoying their honeymoon in Bali (or in this case, Budapest). You could send a polite card with your regrets, wishing Mr. and Mrs. Storm Trooper many happy returns. But it’s worthwhile to raise the social cost of membership in the far right. After many participants in the Charlottesville rallies had their personal information revealed online, white-pride leader Richard Spencer saw a dip in attendance at his events. People were afraid of losing their jobs or alienating their friends and family. That’s good. If you don’t mind severing the relationship, decline to receive the invitation and tell him why. But if you don’t wish to confront him, that’s understandable. Perhaps you avoid antagonizing men with hateful ideologies (fair), or want to protect the relationship out of a shared history or a fondness for his unlucky parents (both also fair). If that’s the case, but you’d still like to withhold your approval, I recommend ignoring his request for your address. Just pretend you forgot to answer his messages.
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