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How to Reduce Eco-Anxiety and Make Positive Change

We can create the future we want.

Key points

  • Many psychological concerns about today's environment result from overly catastrophic reporting.
  • The concerns are not misplaced, although we should promote and learn from amazing successes.
  • Without leaving behind all eco-anxiety, we must embrace and pursue much more eco-inspiration.

How much should we believe the environmental doom-and-gloom pervading the media? What could we do to counter the negativity through action for positive change? How could we be inspired and inspire others for a better future?

One consequence of focusing on the bad news is negative mental health impacts. “Solastalgia” was coined to describe distress related to environmental change. “Eco-anxiety” is worrying about environmental destruction while “ecological grief” means lamenting what has been lost.

Ilan Kelman
Using waste objects to grow back-garden food in Fernando de Noronha, Brazil.
Source: Ilan Kelman

Some of these psychological impacts emerge from doomsday discussions rather than from actual environmental observations. Tell people that we are all going to die and that the future brings a bleak wasteland—and of course responses will include stress, fear, and despondency.

The difficulties are real, but so are the inspirations. Efforts to reduce single-use plastics and to remove investments from fossil fuel interests are gathering pace. Highlighting the amount of tax money spent to create environmental problems shows that no new resources are required to solve the problems.

In fact, the huge government subsidies given to fossil fuel companies demonstrate the competitiveness of renewable supplies on an open market. These subsidies are often dismissed as being mere “externalities,” as if harming people’s health and the environment is simply “external” to the real energy system. Simultaneously, smaller-scale electricity generation serving local needs reduces transmission losses and creates local jobs.

Another inspiration for energy is in using less. Design professionals are producing homes, workplaces, and public buildings requiring less artificial heating or cooling alongside neighborhoods which increase safety and reduce travel distances. Green spaces have many advantages in addition to supporting physical and mental health.

Meanwhile, for water, the advantages of reducing demand are known, saving money, and helping the environment without loss of services. From low-flow showerheads to fixing leaky pipes to using household-collected rainwater for non-drinking purposes, people can have all the indoor amenities many of us take for granted, without increasing resource use.

Wider-scale initiatives including “transition towns” and “localization” bring food from nearby farmers to people’s kitchen tables. “Guerilla gardening” and replanting grass lawns with fruit and vegetables mean using existing spaces to produce local food and to support native biodiversity.

Waste management has vastly improved. From dumping everything we discard and releasing all byproducts, the watchword is now “pollution prevention.” Efforts prioritize reducing consumption and not creating poisons. Where that can go no further, we reuse and, if necessary, then recycle materials while capturing pollutants to modify and reuse them or to dispose of them safely.

Clean air, water, and land are accepted as human rights with top-down legislation and bottom-up leadership working in tandem to achieve it for everyone. We can learn from these successes to continue pushing for more, especially for people who have few options to advocate for themselves.

This is not claiming that all eco-news is good news or that we should joyfully skip through the streets having saved the world. Too many people suffer daily from toxins, from powerful interests stealing their land and resources, from oppression at the hands of totalitarians, and from weather which they could easily deal with if only resources were more equitably distributed. People are daily tortured and executed for enacting the ideas proposed here.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the precarity of our health systems and livelihoods, not to mention the appalling inability of some elected leaders to actually lead in support of their people’s lives. This is a long way from the worst pandemic we can imagine.

There is also plenty of scope to be environmentally worried. Human-caused climate change is forcing the planet into regimes where heat-humidity combinations will exceed our ability to survive. If the Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets melt, then sea level will rise by dozens of meters over centuries, reconfiguring coastlines where hundreds of millions of people live. Unknowns include the acidifying oceans and possible feedbacks accelerating and exacerbating the environmental changes.

We have an extensive amount of work to do. Success is far from certain. Plenty of powerful interests oppose the needed change, even though it helps them.

None of these represents reasons to avoid the challenge. Instead, it means re-doubling and re-quintupling our efforts. The rewards are reaped immediately and over the long-term.

It is beyond win-win and into win-win-win-win-win-win-win... Yes, some might think they lose, but mainly those who created the problems and who lack flexibility and creativity to gain from the changes.

We know what to do. We have the knowledge, ideas, techniques, and resources to do it. Let’s act on eco-inspiration!

References

Burns, T.R., M. Carson, I. Kelman, S. Littlefield, N. Machado, and F. Sprei. 2011. "The Stockholm Memorandum: Tipping the Scales Toward Sustainability - Neglected Knowledge and the Potential Role of the Social Sciences and Humanities". Mother Pelican: A Journal of Sustainable Human Development, vol. 7, no. 11, p. 2.

Kelman, I. 2016. "Practicalities of political agency". Science (letter to the Editor), vol. 351, no. 6271, pp. 348-349.

Kelman, I., T.R. Burns, and N. Machado des Johansson. 2015. "Islander innovation: A research and action agenda on local responses to global issues". Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 34-41.

Kelman, I., E.A. Rosa, T.R. Burns, P. Ehrlich, J. Diamond, N. Machado, D. Kennedy, and L. Olsson. 2014. "Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB): Integrating Social Science and the Humanities into Solving Sustainability Challenges". Chapter 2, pp. 25-43 in M.J. Manfredo, J.J. Vaske, A. Rechkemmer, and E.A. Duke (eds.), Understanding Society and Natural Resources, Springer, Berlin, Germany.

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