In his Guardian column this morning George Monbiot admits to being close to burn out. He says, “It’s going to be a rough year. The fatal combination of escalating climate breakdown and the capture of crucial governments by killer clowns provokes a horrible sense of inevitability.” He adds that “I believe resilience is the most useful human quality, and I’ve sought to cultivate it, but in 2019 I felt my resolve begin to weaken at times as it has never done before.”
George Monbiot has been on the front-line while fighting a long battle with cancer, which has no doubt undermined what most of us would consider one of the steeliest resolves in ecology, but he is a long way from being alone in wrestling with the exhaustion of eco-anxiety.
In December I uploaded a podcast about this relatively new form of stress recorded with two Lush colleagues and the RSPB’s Dr Cathleen Thomas, Senior Project manager on the EU-funded Hen Harrier Life Project. We began that discussion with a definition of ‘eco-anxiety’ from Psychology Today, which described it as “a psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”. The authors go on to explain that some people “are deeply affected by feelings of loss, guilt, helplessness and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference”.
I’m not comparing any of us with George Monbiot of course. I don’t know him, and how one person reacts to something doesn’t mean that another individual’s response will be the same anyway. But there does indeed seem to be common elements to eco-anxiety that apply to all of us activists and campaigners, whoever we are.
For one thing, no matter what we do we’re all convinced that it is never enough. No matter who you are or what you’ve done. I learned that the first time I interviewed Chris Packham, who I’d assumed was spurred on by his achievements and recognition. No, it turned out that he was driven by the same feelings of doubt and ‘job half done’ that ordinary mortals like myself (and pretty much everyone else I’ve ever interviewed) are weighed down by.
On reflection it’s hardly surprising that we’re not alone in feeling inadequate in some way. In simple terms, animals are still being harmed and habitats are still being trashed. There is always more to do. That doesn’t mean that we’re not instrumental in building the steps that lead to change though. Chris has done more than most of us, but just by being involved and talking about the issues we’re all helping. It may not seem like it, but how many people were talking about the sixth mass extinction, plastics, climate change or Veganuary a decade ago? And sure, the majority of the public still wouldn’t recognise a Hen Harrier if it landed on them or don’t understand why it matters that the National Trust facilitates fox hunting on its land, but while I can’t pull the numbers up I’ll bet more do now than did just a few short years ago. Every action, no matter how small, is better than no action at all. Even if we don’t recognise it at the time.
For another, it’s bloody hard to be resilient. I’m not entirely convinced that stubbornly ploughing on is a worthwhile human quality, but I can’t help but admire the ethic that won’t allow us to give in. To keep going whatever the reason. That determination not to let the selfish and arrogant (the bully) win; a profound sense of injustices needing to be righted; the knowledge that no matter how helpless we feel, the real victims in the war on wildlife will always have far less power than we humans do. It’s tough though.
A far wiser man than me (my brother Nial, actually) once said something along the lines of, conservation gets in your blood. Once it’s there, you can’t get rid of it. Once you know, you can’t un-know. It becomes who you are. I agree completely. But caring is hard work and I’ve known many conservationists who’ve been bent double by it. Who’ve burnt out. The thing is, it’s okay to step back sometimes. To let someone else take up the slack. The problem is that we’re not very good at being good to ourselves. But we need to be because George Monbiot is absolutely correct: it is going to be (another) rough year. And we’re no good to anyone (or anything) if we’re on the brink of collapse ourselves. And there’s zero chance of ‘missing out’ incidentally: the problems (sadly) will undoubtedly still be there when we feel up to coming back.
While ‘knowing’ can be overwhelming, it’s worth remembering that it’s also the origin of action. Aldo Leopold, often cited as the father of wildlife ecology, wrote way back in 1949 that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wound“. Acknowledging pain and loss inspired the conservation movement. It will inspire how it evolves into the future too.
It’s easy enough to say that we need to be kind to ourselves of course. Anxiety often feels incredibly isolating (as in the quotation above) and it becomes very difficult to rationalise what we’re going through. Aldo Leopold may have felt alone at times, but I’ve taken to turning to a group of friends and colleagues most of whom I’ve never met, but know how I feel and have probably been in the same position I’m in. I tweeted the day after the general election that “People complain that Twitter is an echo chamber. I say, thank god it is, because if I thought I was really so out of step with how the rest of England thinks I’d give up. A bit of tribal solidarity will get me through to the weekend, at least…” And it did. The wisdom of the hive, and a trouble shared and all that…
None of this is to make light of anxiety, or any other mental health issue. Anxiousness can be horribly debilitating. It can make your life utterly unbearable. A bit of social media interaction or an awareness that what we’re going through isn’t untypical won’t do anything for serious mental illness of course. But I read what George Monbiot wrote this morning and felt compelled to respond. We need to do something about ‘eco-anxiety’ and perhaps the most important thing (for me anyway) has been admitting to myself that I’m not alone and actually I have every damn right to be anxious about all things ‘eco’ anyway.
Why? Because the world is literally on fire, drowning, being clear-cut, or bleached. The wildlife I care deeply about is being shot, poisoned, trapped, and caged in front of me. Things have never been so bad, and it’s surely hard-wired into our DNA to be fearful and feel on edge while simultaneously having the compassion to wonder what on earth we can do about it. We’d have to be totally disengaged not to affected by what’s going on. And we’re not disengaged.
We might feel that we are tiny in the face of the monumental, but I honestly feel that 2020 will be the year that we consolidate. The year that more than ever before we pull the threads together rather than allowing them to be picked apart. If the bond that ties us is ‘eco-anxiety’ that will be unfortunate (optimism, compassion, and the understanding that all life deserves to be treated with respect would be preferable!), but better that than we carry on as we are now.
So, yes, damn right I’ve got eco-anxiety. I’m scared as hell. I’m tired and I worry about everything. But so are most of the people I know. So here’s a suggestion. Let’s recognise eco-anxiety, claim it, and help each other through it.
In 2019 the Oxford Word of the Year (a word or expression shown through usage evidence to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year) was ‘climate emergency‘. How about we make ‘together‘ the word of 2020.