For the first time, the IPCC report on climate change adaptation links global warming to mental health. Higher temperatures, it says, may be linked to suicides and acute anxiety, while extreme weather events like floods and storms can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Decades ago, experts coined the neologism ‘solastalgia’ to describe generalised anxiety about the environment. Ecosystem distress, they say, is mirrored in human distress.
Living in a damaged ecosystem takes an emotional toll, particularly when it affects the quality of life. For example, for those near an open-cast coal mine or a coastal zone that has become prone to flooding, or in a heavily polluted city, environmental degradation is a lived experience. It is different from eco-anxiety, or anticipatory fear - generally referred to as ‘fear of the future’ – which arises from projections of catastrophic climate change. Millennials and post-millennials are particularly vulnerable – after all, they are the ones who have to live with the consequences of the ecological havoc wreaked by their forebearers. It is not uncommon for members of Generation Z to say they’d rather not bring children into an uncertain world.
Earlier, climate change was mired in data and jargon, and what emerged were big picture scenarios of probable long-term effects. It existed in silos, on the science pages of magazines, or in the international section of newspapers. As an existential threat, it was comfortably remote, like a killer meteor or nuclear war. Now, the focus has shifted to visible impacts on communities and individuals. The predicted long-term effects seem uncomfortably close. Global warming occasionally makes it to the front pages, especially when the warnings are particularly dire. A cloud burst, a hurricane, cold snap, or heatwave is met with the glum acknowledgment, “this is climate change."
From lurking vaguely on the distant horizon, global warming is now a sinister presence in the backdrop of our lives. For example, Mumbaikars live with the uneasy awareness that the Arabian Sea will flood large parts of their city, perhaps as early as 2030 and certainly by 2050. Chennai and Kolkata, too, are at risk of submergence. Meanwhile, the beaches of Goa and Kerala are visibly narrower, whether due to coastal erosion or a rise in sea levels. The latest IPCC report warns of frightening heatwaves; ‘wet bulb’ temperatures of over 31 degrees celsius (anything above 30 degrees can be deadly) may render some cities unlivable in the not-too-distant future. Lucknow and Patna will be among the first to achieve that doubtful distinction, followed by Indore and Chennai. Such predictions bring home the stark reality of global warming.
Simultaneously, there is a growing sentiment that as communities or individuals, we can and should be environmentally sensitive. We use plastic bags with a sense of guilt, we are disquieted by freshwater gushing from a broken pipeline and we condemn those who
burst firecrackers on Diwali as lacking civic sense. We declare our willingness to use eco-friendly modes of mobility, if only our municipalities would be kind enough to ensure cycling and walking tracks. And if solar power didn’t break our household budget, we would be only too happy to install panels on our roofs.
The IPCC recognizes that people should be at the heart of the climate change discourse. Not just as hapless victims, but as mitigators. There are some 60 identified actions that a person can take towards environmentally responsible behaviour, including plant-based
diets, cutting down on usage of appliances, opting for public transport, limiting family size, and so on. Anxiety about the environment should logically translate into positive action. Unfortunately, most often it leads to a resigned acceptance that ‘nothing can be done,' because the problem is one of global proportions and no individual or community can make a difference.
Eco-anxiety is fuelled by the sense that global governance systems have failed to address climate change. Leaders of nations across the world have expended man-years of lip service, but have achieved nothing substantive in terms of stemming global carbon emissions. Not only have they failed, but they continue to pursue the developmental paradigms that created the crisis in the first place. So Elon Musk’s Mars Habitat may indeed end up as humanity’s Hail Mary. This leads to a feeling of helplessness in the face of force majeure; however hard you work, your achievements will be negated by forces beyond your control. While some people may feel that environmental action is pointless at the individual level, others may desist for fear of being derided as ‘eco-nazis.' Of course, most people still believe that mai-baap governments will come up with a solution. And if they don’t, scientists will. Failing which divine forces will intervene. Spiritual leader Jaggi Vasudev, on the other hand, believes in climate action. He is currently on a ‘Save Soil’ motorcycle ride across 28 countries.
Non-profits, community leaders, and governments can leverage anxiety about climate change to alter consumption-oriented behaviours. Environmentally irresponsible actions can be projected as social solecisms. Most importantly, people must be given the sense
the matter of that individual choice, that reducing even one carbon footprint will have a positive impact and set off a chain reaction.
(The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author. She tweets at @BhavKang)