Why we’re afraid

A conversation about eco-anxiety and a climate change-themed playlist.

Tomorrow, on the occasion of Earth Day, a global community of scientists and science supporters will participate in the March for Science in Washington D.C. and hundreds of other cities around the world. The movement, one of many that have crystallized in the wake of Trump’s election, is a direct challenge to the administration’s anti-science stance and a call to protect “the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.”

The relationship between science and government is crucial on many levels; among them is, of course, climate change. The issue has become so politicized that instead of debate over solutions, it’s been reduced to asinine arguments over its existence — so much so that the threat can be difficult to process. But the daily pressure of climate change is an increasingly insidious force, even for those of us who have the privilege to live in places where its dramatic effects have only just started to trickle down. Below, The Outline’s culture editor Rawiya Kameir and social media editor Khalila Douze discuss eco-anxiety and compare strategies for coping.

Rawiya Kameir: I walk around feeling terrified every day. I already battle mini existential crises what feels like every time I interact with another human or look in the mirror or see an ant, so thinking about the future of the planet feels insurmountable. I've never felt particularly in tune with nature, but I can't escape the largeness and inevitability of climate change. I’m already a fatalist so making any long-term plans feels… dumb and arrogant? Every joy is tempered by the fear that a giant tidal wave will come crashing down my block, and every sadness is worsened by it.

The other day I came across a Quartz article about “eco-anxiety”; I’d never heard of the term but I immediately identified with it. According to the American Psychological Association, the direct effects and broader threat of climate change are fucking people up and leading to mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and suicide. Here’s how Zoë Schlanger explained it: “For people not yet living directly in the path of climate change, mental health problems can also be triggered indirectly, from ‘watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.’ Such existential anxiety, in other words, can touch anyone grappling with the larger-than-life impacts of a warming planet.”

I can’t help but think of John B. McLemore, the subject of the recent podcast S-Town who struggled with a deep depression in part linked to the terror of climate change. He wasn’t just traumatized by Earth’s physical changes, but by knowledge of the magnitude of climate change and the collective denial that seems to characterize the way we deal with it.

When did you first hear of eco-anxiety? How do you think about climate change?

Now, I don't see the point of having children.

Khalila Douze: I've heard the term used in passing, but I've never really used it myself. That said, this description hits home. I have always been an anxious person. I worry a lot, have been diagnosed with anxiety and am prone to panic attacks. My relationship to climate change has intensified in recent years, as I'm sure is common with a lot of people. Outside of being reminded every day of the terrifying changes our planet is going through, I'm also just at an age when I think most people naturally begin to consider procreation, and whether or not it's something that they envision for themselves. This is what I think about a lot with regard to climate change.

When I was younger, I wanted to have a big family. I thought having a big family would be grounding and fulfilling and give meaning to my life. Now, I don't see the point of having children. It's hard to reconcile a desire to experience pregnancy and childbirth and motherhood, with despair at the idea of what's in store for future generations on this planet. For me, any sort of longterm life planning just feels like a waste of the time we do have left before the world ends.

I wonder about whether living in a major city like New York has anything to do with the intensifying of these anxieties. What does it mean that we experience eco-anxiety when we're admittedly not as ‘in touch’ with the Earth as we could be?

RK: That is super real. I think that living in a major city can sometimes insulate us from the realities of climate change. We might notice warmer winters and shorter summers, or wonder if the birds outside our windows forgot to migrate south this year. But, for the most part, we can adjust for all that by flipping on the air conditioning sooner than we would have five years ago or by copping all the new, thin Uniqlo layers. We don't see bad crop year after bad crop year, we don't see nature literally wigging out. We make our livelihoods by running our fingers across aluminum boxes! Everything we do implicates us in climate change.

And so, even though I know to blame capitalism and that climate change is way, way, way bigger than me, sometimes I wonder whether the fact of living in a major city is why I identify with the idea of eco-anxiety so much in the first place. Not to sound narcissistic but deep down I’m like, is eco-anxiety a convenient form for my fear of a vengeful Earth to have taken? Maybe if I’d felt a little more connected to nature, I would have been able to contribute a more positively to this damned planet (or less negatively?). Maybe if we all did, we wouldn't be exactly here.

Anyway, we may be at the point of no return, but we're still here — for now. So what do we do in the meantime? Like, will the earth reach a point where it's vaporized in a single, blinding moment? Or will climate change get worse and worse and drag on for months and years until only the fittest survive? I can barely boil an egg without having to Google instructions first, so I'm pretty much doomed in that regard. I've thought about learning to farm or fight or both. But most days I'm anxious to the point of paralysis.

How do you deal with that?

Everything we do implicates us in climate change.

KD: This is going to sound so fucked up but my current coping mechanisms are even more of a departure from nature — they're grounded in technology. I've found solace in two hobbies I've picked up recently: I started learning Serato and I've been playing Fallout 4 on a new PlayStation 4 I got myself for my birthday.

But I think the mechanism at work here, in terms of coping with anxiety and dread, is that I'm trying to stay in the present by teaching myself new skills. I've always been a curious person, always did well in school, was always eager to learn. But lately I feel like the more I read and learn, the more I think about how fucked up the world is and how doomed we are ecologically and sociologically. So I've resorted to new ways of learning, I suppose.

Maybe the more practical thing would be to learn how to farm, but for now I'm just trying to let go of boxes I had put myself in, in terms of what kind of person I am, and just spend my time being curious about things I hadn't let myself discover in the past for whatever reason.

Another way to look at it is I guess I'm trying to find ways actively passing time, rather than passively consuming. It's easy for me to fall into the existential anxiety trap when I'm just consuming what I see on Twitter or Netflix or whatever screen it is. It's been much easier for me to stay positive when I'm creating something on my own or achieving a goal I set for myself, even if it's just getting to level 5 of a video game.

I literally have no idea what my strategy for survival in the long run should be. I'm not doomsday prepping or anything, though I have thought about learning how to shoot a gun. Maybe that will be the next thing I teach myself, even if the idea of it terrifies me.

Do you feel like you have agency in this predicament we're in or do you feel helpless?

RK: Oh, we’re completely doomed. When I’m not sitting around waiting to die, I go to work and hang out with my friends and read and look at art and tweet and call my mom and sleep. Occasionally I’ll think those things are good enough reasons to feel hopeful. But then I go back to waiting for the tidal wave.

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