As the environment suffers the consequences of climate change, so does our mental health.
Lark Breen hails from Truckee, California, where ski slopes and hiking trails form the landscape as well as the collective identity of locals. Environmental consciousness, therefore, was a foregone conclusion. At Breen’s elementary and middle school, toting a non-reusable lunchbox was a social faux-pas. Her parents scolded her for taking 10-minute showers and her childhood camp counselors limited shower time to just three minutes.
These small actions manifested into a deep awareness of her environmental impact, so much so that Earth Day is her favorite day of the year. But, when the Breen family traded in nighttime cartoons for National Geographic and the Science Channel, Breen’s concern translated into anxiety.
“I would go to bed at night and, being alone, I would get into my head too much and have full on panic attacks relating to the end of the world due to environmental causes,” says Breen. For several months, 8-year-old Breen cried herself to sleep every night.
Now a second-year journalism student, she has already seen the environment change in her lifetime — as we all have. Islands in the Pacific Ocean face the threat of sinking, the Arctic ice caps resemble a lake dotted with ice and species across the globe are going extinct faster than we’ve seen in the past.
An increased urgency surrounding environmental decline has pervaded the national conciousness thanks to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018. It detailed how we must cut carbon pollution by 45 percent by 2030 to remain within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit. Exceeding this temperature may have dire consequences: disappearing glaciers, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather. The report moved Breen to tears.
Media outlets have since published a flurry of frightening headlines regarding our uncertain future. A 2016 federal report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program found 40 percent of Americans reported hearing about climate change in the media at least once a month. Half of that group indicated their worries about climate change constituted a “powerful environmental stressor.”
But young people are dealing with environmental anxieties like no generation before. An online Harris Poll of 2,029 US adults in 2018 found 72 percent of millennials said exposure to negative news stories about the environment impacted theiranxiety levels.
We can now label this proliferating condition: eco-anxiety. The APA glossary defines it as a “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” a definition that echoes dystopian young adult novels but is all too real. While roughly 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from some form of anxiety, no specific data exists for those affected by environmental-related trauma. But psychologists know it’s on the rise. A 2017 APA report about the impact of climate change on mental health made headlines and spread to Vogue, proving that environmental anxiety has begun to define the new generation’s culture.
Eco-anxiety has already been documented in the past, specifically stemming from natural disasters. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, 49 percent of people in affected areas developed an anxiety or mood disorder, according to a March 2017 APA report. But perhaps no other scientific report has defined our seemingly imminent doom as clearly as “Deep Adaptation.”
Detailing a resilience plan to confront absolute social and physical collapse, University of Cumbria Professor Jem Bendell’s “Deep Adaptation” has amassed an estimated 400,000 downloads. He argues the world as we know it will cease to exist, so we must adapt our lifestyles accordingly. Bendell has formulated a “personal and collective change that might help us to prepare for — and live with — a climate-induced collapse of our societies.” If Bendell’s language sounds post-apocalyptic, it’s because the reality he paints may eventually resemble that truth.
ADAPTING TO ANXIETY
Our generation’s concerns translated into action on March 15, when the youth climate strike became one of the environmental movement’s largest mobilizations of young people across the world. Also known as Fridays for Future, the protests drew a reported 1.4 million students in over 120 countries. Students walked out of class to emphasize the current severity of climate change and call forsystemic action.
In a feat of miserable irony, Northwestern’s own strike took place on a wet and dreary Friday afternoon on March 15. Despite the fact that the sun was a no-show and only a fraction of the 496 ‘interested’ Facebook users arrived, the crowd of Northwestern students stood in the rain to emphasize their environmental concerns.
Juan Zuniga, the former VP of Sustainability for the Associated Student Government, spoke at the strike. He remains critical of Northwestern’s commitment to sustainability because, while its goals are admirable, our peer institutions have charged ahead of us.
“We claim to be this top 10 school, and I have no doubt we’re there academically, yet somehow we’re not paying attention to these other things that make us part of something beyond Sheridan Road,” Zuniga says.
Moriah Lavey, a fourth-year graduating with a degree in sociology and environmental policy, was just a doe-eyed freshman when she walked up the sociology department building stairs and noticed a flyer: ‘Want to do good in the world? Here’s your chance.’
Despite its hyperbole, the poster’s message resonated. “I was like, ‘that’s me’,” Lavey says, remembering her former enthusiasm. Four years later, she says she’s sick of planning events where the same five people show up.
“It sucks knowing what I know, and I’m still such an amateur. It’s painful to think about ... It’s painful to watch it unfold,” Lavey says of her classroom experiences.
Lavey has noticed a disconnect between what she learns in Northwestern classes and the lack of opportunities and awareness outside of it. She finds Northwestern lacks any real space to voice concern or to collectively take action. “[It’s] just very individualistic, just goes entirely counter to everything I think about in relation to existence on this planet,” she says.
Like Zuniga, Lavey opposes Northwestern’s approach to sustainability. Student organizations ban ground flyering and place compost bins in dining halls, but these measures become performative when institutional change keeps getting halted, she says.
Northwestern has yet to commit to the worldwide Fossil Free divestment movement, which protests investing in top 100 coal, oil and gas companies. While only around 150 universities worldwide have actually divested, peer institutions like Columbia, Stanford and Yale are already taking strides to put their money where their principles are. With $49.3 million invested in coal, oil and gas, the University’s commitment to sustainability remains questionable.
A PROBLEM OF EQUITY
In 2005, Northwestern professor Patty Loew began working with students from her native Ojibwe tribe to explore the effects of climate change through the Tribal Youth Media, a project in northern Wisconsin to which she dedicates her summers. In order to better understand the Ojibwe history, she asked the students to interview their grandmothers and grandfathers about the environmental changes they witnessed in their lifetimes. One 11-year-old girl caught Loew’s attention with a question that stuck with her — even fourteen years later.
When this particular girl interviewed a biologist for her project, he explained how clan animals, like the waterfowl and deer, were beginning to migrate farther and farther north.
“I remember her looking at him and there was just this sort of — I don’t know whether it was bewilderment or horror — but she looked at him and said: ‘But how can we be Ojibwe if we don’t have our clan animals with us?’”
Years after witnessing this exchange, Loew, the co-director for Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, still feels moved when recounting the story. Loew, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, (federally recognized as Chippewa) says the environment inherently relates to her identity.
“We have been tied to our landscape for forever, as far back as our memory goes,” Loew says.
Communities of color, including indigenous groups, are subjected to eco-anxiety by the very nature of their marginalized identities.
Art history second-year Brianna Heath sat in her Black Ecology class this spring during conversations on the philosophy of environmentalism. She grew furious at the concept that simply banning plastic straws would make a substantial difference. For Heath, these straws broke the camel’s back. “It’s not up to the individual, it’s about corporations,” she says. “We’re at this point and there’s nothing we can do,” Heath says. “Earth is about to tap out in, like, 20 years.”
Her humor thinly masks her serious concern for the planet. Heath takes issue with public appeals to buy metal straws or recyclable bags because she believes they’re simply corporate profit grabs. “There’s no sustainable consumption under capitalism,” she says. “Latinx, Black and communities of color have been reusing plastic bags for years and years, but now all of a sudden, companies are selling these bags as if it’s a new thing.”
Heath alludes to the broader concept of environmental racism, a concept that can be used to explain how communities of color feel the efffects of climate change more strongly.From airborne exposure to hazardous materials to contaminated water, you can often spot these environmental indicators by looking at the racial makeup of a community.
Lavey, who has worked with the Illinois Public Research Interest Group in Chicago, has witnessed first-hand how environmental injustice is doled out to those most vulnerable. “You could try to piece out one or the other, but it’s just deep systematic oppression. It’s transmitted through an environmental lens.”
In fact, a 2018 EPA report confirmed that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. The island nations like Kiribati and massive countries like Bangladesh are already facing the consequences of climate change, largely due to processes they had no part in.
Such communities are among the first to notice and suffer from nature’s decline. The Great Lakes Indian and Fish Wildlife Commission has been collecting longitudinal data since 1984 on issues like delayed lake ice formation, increased mercury in the lakes water, and decreased health status of fish. For the 11 bands of the Ojibwe, this data is just further proof of the reality they already contend with.
Breen also worries about water quality. She grew up seeing “Keep Tahoe Blue” stickers on people’s cars. The California drought lowered the water levels and exposed docks, an image that frightened her.
For Breen, “the scariest thing we talked about [in an Environment and Society class] was the scarcity of freshwater. Not just the scarcity, but inability of countries and peoples to collaborate on that issue.”
The earth is now in need of a continuous effort to “adapt to the rhythms of our environment,” warns Loew. While that seems like an uphill task, Breen puts it rather simply: we should just “do whatever you can to be more conscious about being kind to Mother Earth.”