Climate action is the antidote to despair

Imagining climate disaster and grief in a post- pandemic world.

Art by Janina Osinsao.

“Earth emotions” — that’s what ecologist and writer Glenn Albrecht calls our collective psychological responses to the impending climate disaster in his 2017 book of the same title. In recent years, talk of these emotions has swamped our media landscape, with new buzzwords attempting to capture their magnitude. Some of these include “eco-anxiety,” “climate grief,” “solastalgia,” and “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” 

University of Sydney Associate Professor of Psychology Paul Rhodes believes none of them quite sum it up. 

“I prefer old school existentialist dread,” he says. 

Whatever the case, this feeling is at an all time high. In late 2019, the Australian Medical Association joined health organisations around the world in recognising climate change as a health emergency. But that was before a global pandemic dwarfed climate change in the playing field of existential threats and political priorities. The Glasgow 2020 Global Climate Meeting, which was to address the major shortcomings of current emissions reduction strategies in meeting Paris 2015 targets, has been delayed by an entire year due to COVID travel restrictions. School strikes that attracted 300,000 people in Australia alone have been culled by pandemic restrictions. And despite Australia’s reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, particularly from transport and agricultural sectors, most of the damage is likely to be redone in the recovery from Covid-19, according to a recent audit of national climate data by Hugh Sadler of the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy.  

Nonetheless, emotional responses to climate change must be addressed just as much as economic ones, because the reality is it will get worse — much worse. 

As a key example, the 2019-20 bushfire season in New South Wales and parts of Victoria began almost four months earlier than it did in the 1950s, and burned 21% of all Australian forests. A Health Issues Centre survey of teens and young people shows 36% listed “mental health” as the key impact they suffered from following coverage of the unfolding fires, with a further 28% describing the future in apocalyptic terms. In the same year, the federal government poured $76 million into distress counselling and mental health support for those involved in the bushfires. 

These are the current effects of around 1C of warming. The world is expected to breach the ‘safe’ warming ceiling of 1.5C within 12 years or less, exposing it to the more dangerous echelons of 3C of warming by the end of the century. And those numbers are still a best case scenario. 

It is hard not to feel anxious, mournful, or to simply turn off in the face of it all. 

It’s one morning in early March when I talk to Chris Pryor, aged 74, from my Sydney home. Her property was charred when the Black Summer Fires tore through Kangaroo Valley on January 4th, 2020. As someone who grew up in post-Blitz London, she describes her 25 hectare- home on Tallowa Dam Road as a “little paradise” where the “wildlife was like extended family.”

“We had been in drought for a long time,” she says, describing the lead-up to the bushfires. “Noticeably in the second half of 2019, when you went outside and walked on the grass it crackled. It had no moisture… It was frightening, it really was frightening.”

Chris is warm, resilient, and an excellent speaker. Losing her house and material belongings is a “small sadness” she says. But when I ask her to describe the loss of the wildlife, she cannot put it into words. 

“There was no wind, so there were no rustling leaves. There were no leaves to rustle anyway…. It was like being on the moon,” she says, describing returning to home days after it was scorched. “There was just nothing. Nothing that was living, except me and Mike.” 

There is a word to describe the heart-wrenching loss of one’s home while one is still there. “Solastalgia,” coined by Albrecht, is “tied to the gradual erosion of identity created by the sense of belonging to a particular loved place, and a feeling of distress, or psychological desolation, about its unwanted transformation.” This underlies so-called “psychoterratic” theory, where health is dictated by the relationship between the earth and the psyche. 

If this feeling has an origin, it must lie in Indigenous peoples across the world, and the atrocities committed during the age of imperialism that remain with them, through systematic oppression today. 

The myth that we are not entangled with nature, maintaining a ‘safe’ distance in our glass-and-concrete urban fortresses, is one of imperialist-capitalist-patriarchy’s biggest lies. That is why apocalyptic scenes often feature pillaged buildings and fires burning in shop windows; even if you support climate action, and understand the scale of climate emergency, the reality of its impacts remain fictive for the urbanised majority, cushioned by fairytales of its slowness and its remoteness.

Paul Kingsnorth puts it well in his 2017 Orion essay, ‘Dark Ecology’: “Civilization has always been a project of control, but you can’t win a war against the wild within yourself.”

Paul Rhodes suggests that Western psychology is not equipped to understand the mental health impacts of climate change. 

“[This is]… because traditional psychology pathologises the individual, and says it’s mummy and daddy’s fault.” 

Rhodes’ work has included ethnographic research into individual experiences of the 2019- 20 bushfires. In part, this uses “affect theory,” a framework for understanding preconscious, collective “currents of feeling” that are socially and politically influenced. 

He suggests change is “distressing as it involves dislodging the human being from the universe [and] placing them around the outskirts as equals to microbes, cats, dogs, plants…it’s a very radical challenge to our ontology.”

And yet, we agree that the 2020 pandemic may already have exposed to humanity its vulnerability within the earth’s ecosystem. 

“What we were looking at was COVID-19 is the same phenomenon, because what we realize is that microbes are more powerful than humans, right?” Paul says. 

Similarly, Australian scientist Tim Flannery argues that Australia’s national response to COVID-19 is evidence that we are also capable of similar, science-lead, nationally-mobilising political action against climate change, in his 2019 book The Climate Cure.  

Indeed, climate action is more important than ever, with 2021 marking one of the final years for humanity to avert the more disastrous effects of warming.

But apocalyptic thinking can be paralysing, and therefore unhelpful in mitigating disaster. “You have to draw that fine line between denialism and apocalyptic thinking and go down the middle, stay with the trouble, start to act,” says Paul. 

The only way to deal with “the dread and the pain” is to embrace it. “You can’t just feel the pain and go, Oh, that’s awful…give me some counseling. The end product is activism.” 

Chris Pryor is also convinced that “action is the antidote to despair.” She is the President of the Friends of the Brush-tail Rock Wallaby, who protect the habitats of the severely endangered subspecies. She is also enthusiastic about a revolution, involving re-introducing Indigenous practices like cultural burning to combat wildfires.

When I ask Chris where she is now, she tells me she is sitting in her granny flat in Kangaroo Valley — a temporary home for now. One of her two cats, whom she evacuated with, is clawing at the phone.

Her current home is owned by a young family, with lots of farm animals and green space. 

“I feel blessed that I am here in Kangaroo Valley,” she says, “nevermind that I lost my house… this is my place.”

I get a feeling that, despite the fact I have never been to Kangaroo Valley, our places — hers, mine and all of ours on earth — are perhaps not that different at all. If the grief and love we feel for our homes isn’t reason enough for collective action, then nothing else will be.