This piece appears as the Foreword in the new book ‘A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: How to protect the planet and your mental health’ by Anouchka Grose, published 23rd June 2020.
In his ‘Motto to the Svendborg Poems’ published in the spring of 1939, Bertolt Brecht wrote ‘In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing, about the dark times.’ As a climate activist for the last quarter of a century those words speak to me deeply. The grimly predictable ‘white swan’ of the climate crisis has descended upon us, despite our best efforts, leaving many of us feeling totally hopeless. When the simple, linear, foreseeable trends in Australia — reduced rainfall, increased temperatures, drought, austerity cuts to forestry and fire services — combined through tipping points into complex, non-linear, chaotic and uncontrollable outcomes, in the form of raging ‘mega-fires’, if you weren’t getting at least a little bit anxious before that, afterwards you were certainly paying attention.
‘Pyro-cumulonimbus’ entered our lexicon, huge black fire-fuelled thunderclouds whose lightning strikes generate further fires, and we watched horrified as an area the size of Austria burned, killing half a billion animals, dozens of people and razing thousands of homes, lives and dreams to the ground. We perhaps began to realise then that nothing would ever quite be the same again. And then along came Covid-19 just to ram the message home a little harder.
As I write this we are a month into lockdown in London. Two hundred thousand people have died globally, and hundreds of millions are housebound. Multiple strains of virus are on the loose, making a vaccine look elusive, and huge questions are hanging in the air, like the smoke after the Australian fires, around what sort of world we will inhabit on the other side of this crisis, what form of recovery we will need, and how to rebuild for what’s next?
But what if this is not an isolated crisis? What if all these crises are actually inextricably linked? What if this is actually a cascade of interconnected and interdependent crises unfolding in both foreseeable and unforeseeable ways? A former colleague used to conduct a somewhat facile ‘thought experiment’ with audiences, asking ‘if they could wave a magic carbon wand to make climate change go away’, would they? When some people demurred, she would cite this as environmentalists wanting ‘something to hate’, as if there was something wrong with environmentalism. But what if the truth is that even if the magic carbon wand existed (spoiler alert: it doesn’t), even if all the planet-stewing slew of emissions we have emitted in an explosive blink of geological time could be instantly removed, even if the oceans weren’t acidifying dangerously enough to insidiously dissolve the calcareous homes of the marine creatures around them (less in your face than a fifty foot wall of forest fire racing towards you at fifty miles an hour, but ultimately no less deadly), even if that could all be dramatically, impossibly fixed in a moment…we would still possibly be fucked?
The truth is we’d continue to be chewing our way through the last wild places on the planet, and in doing so also chewing our way through bush-meat primates, undercooked bats or pangolins, in turn unleashing further waves of zoonosis, like the HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS and now Covid-19. We would still be facing the sixth mass extinction. We would still be destroying this unique (as far as we know) intergalactic Eden and the wider, wilder family of our shared natural heritage, and for what? To defend our right to consume? To dangle a cruel, false promise to the other six billion on the planet that the current lifestyles of the top billion are somehow achievable and replicable for all through ‘sustainability’?!
‘Hang on!’ I hear you thinking. ‘This is supposed to be a book about coping with eco-anxiety. Who’s this guy? He’s just making me MORE depressed!’ And my first response to that is: GOOD. Welcome to the difficult, horrible, painful, potentially fatal existential reality in which we find ourselves. And this is why Anouschka Grose has written such a profoundly important and timely book to help guide us all through this darkest of times. We owe it to ourselves to be honest about the fact this really might not end well collectively, and individually the truth is we’re all going to die. No one here gets out alive as Jim Morrison sang.
We humans are rather adept at the denial of our inevitable personal death. We numb ourselves with drugs and alcohol, pray for an after-life, or prop up our self-esteem through the contrived ‘immortality systems’ of consumerism and shopping, as if life was a competition in which ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. We construct defences of identity for our own in-group’s exceptionalism that drive the dangerous populism of our uniquely entitled ‘we’, that allows us to ‘other’ others to feel better about ourselves, and share pacifying myths excusing us of our own historical horrors of colonialism and slavery. Denial, distraction and disavowal…we’re pretty good on all these.
The cults of egotism, individualism and control, our arrogant hubristic heroism, have got us into this mess, and I believe it is going to take something very different, if not to get us entirely out of it, but to at least get us through it with the best of our humanity intact.
And let’s be clear, we are also lovely. The empty streets, sports stadia and transport hubs in cities around the world right now speak to the biggest most-selfless act of global solidarity we may ever see in our lifetimes. People are staying home to protect others; the weak, the vulnerable, the carers. We are connecting with neighbours we have never met before, rapidly building mutual aid networks. Few have questioned the enormous sacrifices being made economically by so many, because they can see the direct benefit on the lives of their fellow citizens. We’re acting together, at speed and scale in shared purpose for the common good. It’s impressive.
I call this the horror and the beauty. Covid-19 is almost a training run for the climate chaos to come, we’re experiencing what Anouschka memorably introduces as a Pre-Traumatic Stress Condition (its not a disorder because its actually quite a reasonable response to the science). And how we react to this anxiety matters. Will we fight each other in the supermarket aisles over toilet paper, probably not our finest hour, or find an unimaginable empathy for one another in the face of the uncertainty?
In ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ Rebecca Solnit writes persuasively about how disaster-ravaged communities don’t, despite the claims of lurid dystopians, tend to turn on each other in a Mad Max style frenzy of cannibalistic tribalism. Perhaps this nightmarish vision is merely a projection onto the world by those traumatised individuals, usually authoritarians, of their own inner emotional conflicts? As Anaïs Nin put it ‘We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are’. Instead Solnit finds the grief of loss usually unites people through the common cause of their desperation.
Our challenge is to distinguish between different types of hope. There’s the traumatised hope that derives from the denial that the world we have built might be fundamentally flawed. This is the hope that refuses to let go. It’s the hope of environmental efficiency, sustainability and ‘one more push’ environmentalism, which increasingly just doesn’t stack up against the science of what needs to be done, let alone what we might actually be able to do within the so called constraints of our commercial and political ‘realities’. It’s a hope that argues only positive optimism can carry the day, that fear is to be avoided and a suite of sizzling solutions will slide us smoothly into some techno-utopian futuristic fantasyland. It’s a little narcissistic, speaks to the uniquely important ‘specialness’ of people above nature and is I suggest, afraid to really look itself deeply in the eye’s mirror and explore it’s own shadows. It’s the hope that actually perpetuates what is an abusive relationship between people and planet. That is not the hope we need.
I suspect we really need to feel the fear that comes from these anxious times. To understand the trauma of living, in what the ecologist Aldo Leopold described as ‘a world of wounds’, and perhaps most importantly not to deny the grief of the incalculable losses we have already inflicted and are inflicting, but to embrace it. And then to change.
As a young marine biologist I remember being moved to tears at the decimation of our Blue Planet’s ocean riches by indiscriminate industrial fishing. When we’ve cut down half the world’s irreplaceable, on any vaguely human timescale, primal forests, killed half of all wild vertebrates in my own lifetime, and are facing a hotter, more turbulent and unforgiving world climatically and it seems pathogenically, it would surely be wrong not to feel this as anxiety and grief? Is the alternative not delusional? Or the equivalent of a pacifying pill?
That’s not depressing fatalism, ‘doomsdaying’, welcoming the apocalypse or all the other dismissive ways in which traumatised hopeful optimists disparage those who choose to grieve. It’s realism. ‘Apocalypse’ is actually about drawing back the veil, not Armageddon, so we can see the world as it really is. It’s revealing our love and connection to that which we have lost and are losing. We grieve because we love. And grief is not the paralysis of despair, it is the dynamic process, as Anouschka notes, that takes you to a new place.
Which brings us to the hope we really need. The grounded hope on the other side of grief. I think one of the reasons we hopefully get at least a little wiser as we get older is because we have encountered, experienced and lived through heart-breaking loss. Brushes with mortality remind us of what really matters. Appreciating the inevitability of our own demise, and the prospect of also losing most of those we love who will go before us, does not make us love our lives less or live them any less fully. Quite the opposite in fact.
In the space of the last four years I lost my dear father, became one myself, and then my darling middle brother died suddenly and tragically. Pretty much the horror and beauty of the cycle of life summed up there in forty two short months. As I waded through the deep waters of loss, the irregular tides of grief washing over me, often erratically and unexpectedly, what I learned was that it was the very ephemerality of life that made me love it all the more. The flower is not less beautiful because of its composted ending, it is more so. And its bloom counts. Especially if you’re a passing bee.
My heartbreak taught me that you don’t get over the grief of loss. You get through it. Beyond the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief, which are more like looped and backtracked intermingled phases in my experience, we overcome our denial and anger, drift through the depths of depression, stop trying to make impossible deals with the divine and ultimately transcend to acceptance.
The counsel of wisdom is not for the pain to be removed or solved, in the same way therapy is not to fix or normalise people. It is totally OK to be really really upset, think difficult thoughts, succumb to catastrophising feelings and generally lose your shit a bit. Perhaps this is all part of the unavoidable pain of the human condition? Ultimately it is about how we sit with this discomfort. How we ask for help.
We are living through an unimaginable future today. Each morning seems to bring another previously inconceivable thought experiment into reality. What if the world burned and we couldn’t stop it? What if we effectively locked a billion people indoors for several months? What if we grounded virtually every plane in Europe? What if we had a negative oil price and companies were paying people to take it away? What if the machine stopped? What if we stopped?
As birdsong rings around our cities where it was previously drowned out and choked by the traffic, as the Himalayas loom out of the dissipating smog over northern India for the first time in three decades, as deer, goats and wild boar prowl urban suburbs and the canals in Venice run clear as glass, we are witness to the reality of what we have long been told is an impossibility. A rapid rewilding as civilisation holds its breath for fear of inhaling the unwanted. These are the days the Earth stood still.
The fake Venetian dolphins that spread virally around the world like-you-know-what I think did so because they spoke to something very deep and vital inside us, a longing if you will, for what Anouschka calls ‘the charisma of birds’, others ‘biophilia’ or most of us the visceral, embodied love of nature and the wild. Unsurprising as we are of course an inextricable part of that restless, teeming, seething, trembling congregation we call ‘life’, as this crowning phage is so ruthlessly reminding us.
This is something we have denied ourselves since the Enlightenment, and the process of our separation from this living family, our arrogant elevation above it, our selfish exploitation of its wealth as utilitarian resources not comrades, entities or partners, let alone the horrendous things we have done to each other, have I believe left us psychologically scarred and yes, traumatised.
But this is also perhaps where the sinuous answers to our modern malaise, wriggle back, radical and root-like, into our genuinely grounded emerging consciousness. If you awaken to the notion that the trillions of cells that make up the body we might arbitrarily call ‘you’ are barely half ‘yours’, made up as they are of bacteria, fungi, microbes and of course viruses. If you can find the awe and wonder in that magical interconnectivity, that you are, as philosopher Alan Watts used to say ‘not born into this world, but out of it, like a wave from an ocean’. If you can feel the strange beauty of your own personal insignificance in this collective magnificence, then that very baring of your soul to the world may just begin the essential journey of reconnection, reconciliation and resolution.
Almost every supposedly ‘primitive’ indigenous culture on the planet has known this. Initiations and rites of passage exist specifically to take people, often the most potentially problematic hot-headed young men, through difficult transformative experiences that dismantle raging aspects of their fevered egos. Right now we are being subjected to a planetary scale initiation. A potential transformation. It is dangerous, worrying and most certainly uncomfortable. But that’s how initiations are meant to be.
This is perhaps a necessary humbling if we are to get beyond the superficial, self-help ‘McMindfulness’ of so much that passes for psychological support these days. The practices of wild generosity and radical friendliness that Anouschka prescribes as the antidotes to our individualistic malaise would be familiar to our ancient ancestors. And those are the behavioural responses to the adrenaline or cortisol addled-amygdala moments we’re all experiencing that we really need.
It’s right to feel anxious. But maybe even more than our volatile climate, the lion we really fear is ourselves. As East German dissident Rudoplh Bahro said ‘When an old culture is dying, the new culture is created by those people who are not afraid to be insecure’
We’re not going to beat climate change. It’s not a binary, polarised win or lose scenario. We are going to hopefully live through it. And in doing so we will be changed by it. We will be a gentler, kinder and more thoughtful culture. I think we’ll have to be. But like any effective therapeutic transformation this starts with acknowledging we have a problem, which turns our anxiety from unease to eagerness to do something, and the requisite willingness to act. And that’s when the real work begins. Like all transitions it will not be painless. But this urgent and impressive book is an essential guide as we embark on this journey together.
If we can sit and be still with our discomfort, celebrate the awe and beauty of the nature we still have, alongside the friends with whom we share it, and be appreciative and grateful for all these gifts, then even in these dark times we can sing together. And that for me is where the radical active hope lies.
Ed Gillespie is a writer, speaker, futurist and poet. In 2007/8 he circumnavigated the world without flying and wrote ‘Only Planet — a flightfree adventure around the world’. He is a serial entrepreneur and an adviser to or investor in a number of ethical businesses. Ed is also a facilitator with the Forward Institute’s responsible leadership programme, a Director of Greenpeace UK and Co-Founder of Futerra