The Current

Eco-anxiety: Activists want to shift the conversation from doom and gloom to hope

Nearly every day Abbie Richards gets messages from people who are anxious or stressed about climate change, and she says it’s time to change the narrative. Instead of doom and gloom, she says people need to take action.

Activist Abbie Richards of EcoTalk wants people to focus on what can be done to fight climate change

A view of a fire in the Municipality of Blufi, in the upper Madonie, near Palermo, Sicily, Italy, as many wildfires plagued the region this month. Environmental activist Abbie Richards says it's time to shift the narrative around climate change to one that includes tangible things individuals can do. (Salvatore Cavalli/The Associated Press)

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Nearly every day Abbie Richards gets messages from people who are anxious or stressed about climate change, and she says it's time to change the narrative. Instead of living in fear, she says people need to take action. 

"I see so much doom and eco-anxiety," Richards told The Current's guest host Nora Young.

"I think people don't necessarily have a full understanding of climate change; they just have these very strong emotional responses."

Richards is part of a group called EcoTok, which uses TikTok to debunk climate misinformation and disinformation. The group is a collective of environmental educators and activities who post videos on the account. 

Richard said TikTok, a social media platform that features short videos, isn't going to tell people everything they need to know, but it may introduce them to a new topic or plant the seed of change. 

But she said some of the responses they've gotten to their videos and the current climate crises are concerning.

"We're getting really, really scary comments from our followers about feelings of suicide, feelings of grief and anxiety and being completely overwhelmed and feeling hopeless," said Richards. 

But Richards says there is a better way to deal with these feelings.

What is eco-anxiety?

According to Emma Lawrance, eco-anxiety is the chronic fear of environmental doom. It can come about when someone reads the news, or sees evidence of climate change in their country. 

"There's a whole range of mental health impacts," said Lawrance, a neuroscientist who is also the Mental Health Innovations Fellow at Imperial College London in the U.K.

"All of those experiences can be very stressful, they can be traumatic, and they can lead to things like diagnosis of PTSD, higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, ongoing stress and depression and anxiety."

A cyclist navigates the Calgary pathway network. Making simple changes — like riding a bike to work instead of driving a fossil-fuel burning car — helps individuals overcome eco-anxiety and focus on what they can do to combat climate change, says Richards. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Lawrence said extreme weather events can have long-term impacts on a communities' mental health, and those impacts need to be taken into account as decision-makers look at what to do to fight climate change. 

"There is still hope, and there is still a lot we can do if we help people to translate those emotions, which can support their own mental health and well-being as well," said Lawrance.

Taking action

That's exactly what Abbie Richards wants to see. She said for things to improve, hope needs to the focus. 

"There's a certain degree to which people don't need to be constantly reminded and shown pictures of the world on fire," said Richards.

"Instead what they need is outlines of what change could look like, and how that could be good for them."

That change could include reducing one's personal reliance on fossil fuels, eating plant-based meals more often, shopping second hand instead of buying new — even letting voices be heard at climate rallies.

People attend a climate change protest in Montreal, Saturday, September 26, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Lawrance said when people take action, it will do more than just improve the environment. She said there is a two-way relationship between climate change and both physical and mental health, and a cost associated with both. 

She said as the environment starts to improve, it can reduce inequalities for people don't have the same access to green spaces or have to deal with poor air quality.

"The really important thing is there's win-wins here," said Lawrance. 

"I'd urge policy-makers to both consider the hidden costs of inaction on climate for the mental health of society into the future, but also the wonderful benefits of action." 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Kaity Brady, Ashley Fraser and Idella Sturino.

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