Some things can’t be said easily in polite company. They cause offence or stir up intense anxiety. Where one might expect a conversation, what actually occurs is what the sociologist Eviator Zerubavel calls a ‘socially constructed silence.’
In his book Don’t Even Think About It,George Marshall argues that after the fiasco of COP 15 at Copenhagen and ‘Climategate’—when certain sections of the press claimed (wrongly as it turned out) that leaked emails of researchers at the University of East Anglia showed that data had been manipulated—climate change became a taboo subject among most politicians, another socially constructed silence with disastrous implications for the future of climate action.
In 2013-14 we carried out interviews with leading UK climate scientists and communicators to explore how they managed the ethical and emotional challenges of their work. While the shadow of Climategate still hung over the scientific community, our analysis drew us to the conclusion that the silence Marshall spoke about went deeper than a reaction to these specific events.
Instead, a picture emerged of a community which still identified strongly with an idealised picture of scientific rationality, in which the job of scientists is to get on with their research quietly and dispassionately. As a consequence, this community is profoundly uncomfortable with the storm of political controversy that climate research is now attracting.
The scientists we spoke to were among a minority who had become engaged with policy makers, the media and the general public about their work. A number of them described how other colleagues would bury themselves in the excitement and rewards of research, denying that they had any responsibility beyond developing models or crunching the numbers. As one researcher put it, “so many scientists just want to do their research and as soon as it has some relevance, or policy implications, or a journalist is interested in their research, they are uncomfortable.”
We began to see how for many researchers, this idealised picture of scientific practice might also offer protection at an unconscious level from the emotional turbulence aroused by the politicisation of climate change.
In her classic study of the ‘stiff upper lip’ culture of nursing in the UK in the 1950s, the psychoanalyst and social researcher Isobel Menzies Lyth developed the idea of ‘social defences against anxiety,’ and it seems very relevant here. A social defence is an organised but unconscious way of managing the anxieties that are inherent in certain occupational roles. For example, the practice of what was then called the ‘task list’ system fragmented nursing into a number of routines, each one executed by a different person—hence the ‘bed pan nurse’, the ‘catheter nurse’ and so on.
Ostensibly, this was done to generate maximum efficiency, but it also protected nurses from the emotions that were aroused by any real human involvement with patients, including anxiety, something that was deemed unprofessional by the nursing culture of the time. Like climate scientists, nurses were meant to be objective and dispassionate. But this idealised notion of the professional nurse led to the impoverishment of patient care, and meant that the most emotionally mature nurses were the least likely to complete their training.
While it’s clear that social defences such as hyper-rationality and specialisation enable climate scientists to get on with their work relatively undisturbed by public anxieties, this approach also generates important problems. There’s a danger that these defences eventually break down and anxiety re-emerges, leaving individuals not only defenceless but with the additional burden of shame and personal inadequacy for not maintaining that stiff upper lip. Stress and burnout may then follow.
Although no systematic research has been undertaken in this area, there is anecdotal evidence of such burnout in a number of magazine articles like those by Madeleine Thomas and Faith Kearns, in which climate scientists speak out about the distress that they or others have experienced, their depression at their findings, and their dismay at the lack of public and policy response.
Even if social defences are successful and anxiety is mitigated, this very success can have unintended consequences. By treating scientific findings as abstracted knowledge without any personal meaning, climate researchers have been slow to take responsibility for their own carbon footprints, thus running the risk of being exposed for hypocrisy by the denialist lobby. One research leader candidly reflected on this failure: “Oh yeah and the other thing [that’s] very, very important I think is that we ought to change the way we do research so we’re sustainable in the research environment, which we’re not now because we fly everywhere for conferences and things.”
The same defences also contribute to the resistance of most climate scientists to participation in public engagement or intervention in the policy arena, leaving these tasks to a minority who are attacked by the media and even by their own colleagues. One of our interviewees who has played a major role in such engagement recalled being criticised by colleagues for “prostituting science” by exaggerating results in order to make them “look sexy.”“You know we’re all on the same side,” she continued, “why are we shooting arrows at each other, it is ridiculous.”
The social defences of logic, reason and careful debate were of little use to the scientific community in these cases, and their failure probably contributed to internal conflicts and disagreements when anxiety could no longer be contained—so they found expression in bitter arguments instead. This in turn makes those that do engage with the public sphere excessively cautious, which encourages collusion with policy makers who are reluctant to embrace the radical changes that are needed.
As one scientist put it when discussing the goal agreed at the Paris climate conference of limiting global warming to no more than 2°C: “There is a mentality in [the] group that speaks to policy makers that there are some taboo topics that you cannot talk about. For instance the two degree target on climate change…Well the emissions are going up like this (the scientist points upwards at a 45 degree angle), so two degrees at the moment seems completely unrealistic. But you’re not allowed to say this.”
Worse still, the minority of scientists who are tempted to break the silence on climate change run the risk of being seen as whistleblowers by their colleagues. Another research leader suggested that—in private—some of the most senior figures in the field believe that the world is heading for a rise in temperature closer to six degrees than two.
“So repeatedly I’ve heard from researchers, academics, senior policy makers, government chief scientists, [that] they can’t say these things publicly,” he told us, “I’m sort of deafened, deafened by the silence of most people who work in the area that we work in, in that they will not criticise when there are often evidently very political assumptions that underpin some of the analysis that comes out.”
It seems that the idea of a ‘socially constructed silence’ may well apply to crucial aspects of the interface between climate scientists and policy makers. If this is the case then the implications are very serious. Despite the hope that COP 21 has generated, many people are still sceptical about whether the rhetoric of Paris will be translated into effective action.
If climate change work is stuck at the level of ‘symbolic policy making’—a set of practices designed to make it look as though political elites are doing something while actually doing nothing—then it becomes all the more important for the scientific community to find ways of abandoning the social defences we’ve described and speak out as a whole, rather than leaving the task to a beleaguered and much-criticised minority.
Ten years ago, psychologists proposed that a wide range of people would suffer anxiety and grief over climate. Skepticism about that idea is gone.
Published Feb. 6, 2022; Updated Feb. 7, 2022
PORTLAND, Ore. — It would hit Alina Black in the snack aisle at Trader Joe’s, a wave of guilt and shame that made her skin crawl.
Something as simple as nuts. They came wrapped in plastic, often in layers of it, that she imagined leaving her house and traveling to a landfill, where it would remain through her lifetime and the lifetime of her children.
She longed, really longed, to make less of a mark on the earth. But she had also had a baby in diapers, and a full-time job, and a 5-year-old who wanted snacks. At the age of 37, these conflicting forces were slowly closing on her, like a set of jaws.
In the early-morning hours, after nursing the baby, she would slip down a rabbit hole, scrolling through news reports of droughts, fires, mass extinction. Then she would stare into the dark.
It was for this reason that, around six months ago, she searched “climate anxiety” and pulled up the name of Thomas J. Doherty, a Portland psychologist who specializes in climate.
A decade ago, Dr. Doherty and a colleague, Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, published a paper proposing a new idea. They argued that climate change would have a powerful psychological impact — not just on the people bearing the brunt of it, but on people following it through news and research. At the time, the notion was seen as speculative.
That skepticism is fading. Eco-anxiety, a concept introduced by young activists, has entered a mainstream vocabulary. And professional organizations are hurrying to catch up, exploring approaches to treating anxiety that is both existential and, many would argue, rational.
Though there is little empirical data on effective treatments, the field is expanding swiftly. The Climate Psychology Alliance provides an online directory of climate-aware therapists; the Good Grief Network, a peer support network modeled on 12-step addiction programs, has spawned more than 50 groups; professional certification programs in climate psychology have begun to appear.
As for Dr. Doherty, so many people now come to him for this problem that he has built an entire practice around them: an 18-year-old student who sometimes experiences panic attacks so severe that she can’t get out of bed; a 69-year-old glacial geologist who is sometimes overwhelmed with sadness when he looks at his grandchildren; a man in his 50s who erupts in frustration over his friends’ consumption choices, unable to tolerate their chatter about vacations in Tuscany.
The field’s emergence has met resistance, for various reasons. Therapists have long been trained to keep their own views out of their practices. And many leaders in mental health maintain that anxiety over climate change is no different, clinically, from anxiety caused by other societal threats, like terrorism or school shootings. Some climate activists, meanwhile, are leery of viewing anxiety over climate as dysfunctional thinking — to be soothed or, worse, cured.
But Ms. Black was not interested in theoretical arguments; she needed help right away.
She was no Greta Thunberg type, but a busy, sleep-deprived working mom. Two years of wildfires and heat waves in Portland had stirred up something sleeping inside her, a compulsion to prepare for disaster. She found herself up at night, pricing out water purification systems. For her birthday, she asked for a generator.
She understands how privileged she is; she describes her anxiety as a “luxury problem.” But still: The plastic toys in the bathtub made her anxious. The disposable diapers made her anxious. She began to ask herself, what is the relationship between the diapers and the wildfires?
“I feel like I have developed a phobia to my way of life,” she said.
An Idea on the Edge Spreads Out
Last fall, Ms. Black logged on for her first meeting with Dr. Doherty, who sat, on video, in front of a large, glossy photograph of evergreens.
At 56, he is one of the most visible authorities on climate in psychotherapy, and he hosts a podcast, “Climate Change and Happiness.” In his clinical practice, he reaches beyond standard treatments for anxiety, like cognitive behavioral therapy, to more obscure ones, like existential therapy, conceived to help people fight off despair, and ecotherapy, which explores the client’s relationship to the natural world.
He did not take the usual route to psychology; after graduating from Columbia University, he hitchhiked across the country to work on fishing boats in Alaska, then as a whitewater rafting guide — “the whole Jack London thing” — and as a Greenpeace fund-raiser. Entering graduate school in his 30s, he fell in naturally with the discipline of “ecopsychology.”
At the time, ecopsychology was, as he put it, a “woo-woo area,” with colleagues delving into shamanic rituals and Jungian deep ecology. Dr. Doherty had a more conventional focus, on the physiological effects of anxiety. But he had picked up on an idea that was, at that time, novel: that people could be affected by environmental decay even if they were not physically caught in a disaster.
Recent research has left little doubt that this is happening. A 10-country survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 published last month in The Lancet found startling rates of pessimism. Forty-five percent of respondents said worry about climate negatively affected their daily life. Three-quarters said they believed “the future is frightening,” and 56 percent said “humanity is doomed.”
The blow to young people’s confidence appears to be more profound than with previous threats, such as nuclear war, Dr. Clayton said. “We’ve definitely faced big problems before, but climate change is described as an existential threat,” she said. “It undermines people’s sense of security in a basic way.”
Caitlin Ecklund, 37, a Portland therapist who finished graduate school in 2016, said that nothing in her training — in subjects like buried trauma, family systems, cultural competence and attachment theory — had prepared her to help the young women who began coming to her describing hopelessness and grief over climate. She looks back on those first interactions as “misses.”
“Climate stuff is really scary, so I went more toward soothing or normalizing,” said Ms. Ecklund, who is part of a group of therapists convened by Dr. Doherty to discuss approaches to climate. It has meant, she said, “deconstructing some of that formal old-school counseling that has implicitly made things people’s individual problems.”
‘Obviously, it would be nice to be happy’
Many of Dr. Doherty’s clients sought him out after finding it difficult to discuss climate with a previous therapist.
Caroline Wiese, 18, described her previous therapist as “a typical New Yorker who likes to follow politics and would read The New York Times, but also really didn’t know what a Keeling Curve was,” referring to the daily record of carbon dioxide concentration.
Ms. Wiese had little interest in “Freudian B.S.” She sought out Dr. Doherty for help with a concrete problem: The data she was reading was sending her into “multiday panic episodes” that interfered with her schoolwork.
In their sessions, she has worked to carefully manage what she reads, something she says she needs to sustain herself for a lifetime of work on climate. “Obviously, it would be nice to be happy,” she said, “but my goal is more to just be able to function.”
Frank Granshaw, 69, a retired professor of geology, wanted help hanging on to what he calls “realistic hope.”
He recalls a morning, years ago, when his granddaughter crawled into his lap and fell asleep, and he found himself overwhelmed with emotion, considering the changes that would occur in her lifetime. These feelings, he said, are simply easier to unpack with a psychologist who is well versed on climate. “I appreciate the fact that he is dealing with emotions that are tied into physical events,” he said.
As for Ms. Black, she had never quite accepted her previous therapist’s vague reassurances. Once she made an appointment with Dr. Doherty, she counted the days. She had a wild hope that he would say something that would simply cause the weight to lift.
That didn’t happen. Much of their first session was devoted to her doomscrolling, especially during the nighttime hours. It felt like a baby step.
“Do I need to read this 10th article about the climate summit?” she practiced asking herself. “Probably not.”
A Knot Loosens: ‘There Will Be Good Days’
Several sessions came and went before something really happened.
Ms. Black remembers going into an appointment feeling distraught. She had been listening to radio coverage of the international climate summit in Glasgow last fall and heard a scientist interviewed. What she perceived in his voice was flat resignation.
That summer, Portland had been trapped under a high-pressure system known as a “heat dome,” sending temperatures to 116 degrees. Looking at her own children, terrible images flashed through her head, like a field of fire. She wondered aloud: Were they doomed?
Dr. Doherty listened quietly. Then he told her, choosing his words carefully, that the rate of climate change suggested by the data was not as swift as what she was envisioning.
“In the future, even with worst-case scenarios, there will be good days,” he told her, according to his notes. “Disasters will happen in certain places. But, around the world, there will be good days. Your children will also have good days.”
At this, Ms. Black began to cry.
She is a contained person — she tends to deflect frightening thoughts with dark humor — so this was unusual. She recalled the exchange later as a threshold moment, the point when the knot in her chest began to loosen.
“I really trust that when I hear information from him, it’s coming from a deep well of knowledge,” she said. “And that gives me a lot of peace.”
Dr. Doherty recalled the conversation as “cathartic in a basic way.” It was not unusual, in his practice; many clients harbor dark fears about the future and have no way to express them. “It is a terrible place to be,” he said.
A big part of his practice is helping people manage guilt over consumption: He takes a critical view of the notion of a climate footprint, a construct he says was created by corporations in order to shift the burden to individuals.
He uses elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, like training clients to manage their news intake and look critically at their assumptions.
He also draws on logotherapy, or existential therapy, a field founded by Viktor E. Frankl, who survived German concentration camps and then wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which described how prisoners in Auschwitz were able to live fulfilling lives.
“I joke, you know it’s bad when you’ve got to bring out the Viktor Frankl,” he said. “But it’s true. It is exactly right. It is of that scale. It is that consolation: that ultimately I make meaning, even in a meaningless world.”
At times, over the last few months, Ms. Black could feel some of the stress easing.
On weekends, she practices walking in the woods with her family without allowing her mind to flicker to the future. Her conversations with Dr. Doherty, she said, had “opened up my aperture to the idea that it’s not really on us as individuals to solve.”
Sometimes, though, she’s not sure that relief is what she wants. Following the news about the climate feels like an obligation, a burden she is meant to carry, at least until she is confident that elected officials are taking action.
Her goal is not to be released from her fears about the warming planet, or paralyzed by them, but something in between: She compares it to someone with a fear of flying, who learns to manage their fear well enough to fly.
“On a very personal level,” she said, “the small victory is not thinking about this all the time.”
Para especialista, fenômeno precisa ser visto com cautela para que medo não se transforme em negacionismo
Enquanto conversava com a reportagem por telefone, o advogado Leandro Luz, 29, confessa que está nervoso. A angústia em sua fala se refere ao tema da conversa que envolve um de seus maiores medos: a crise climática.
Ler, ouvir e falar sobre aumento da temperatura na Terra, queimadas na Amazônia, derretimento de geleiras e desastres ambientais cada vez mais frequentes deixam Luz nervoso. Quando se depara com o tema, ele sente taquicardia e suor frio nas palmas das mãos e costas.
Até pouco tempo, ele não entendia bem o que sentia, até que descobriu sofrer da chamada eco-ansiedade. O termo, que aparece em um relatório divulgado pela Associação Americana de Psicologia em 2017 e foi incluído no dicionário Oxford no final de outubro de 2021, é descrito como um medo crônico sobre a destruição ambiental acompanhado do sentimento de culpa por contribuições individuais e o impacto disso nas gerações futuras.
A primeira vez que Luz prestou atenção às questões climática foi após o tsunami em Fukushima, no Japão, quando ondas gigantes mataram 18 mil pessoas. Hoje, ele vive em Salvador, mas conta que pensa em se mudar para o interior. “Converso com a minha namorada de morar longe da costa, mas sei que esses locais também serão afetados”, diz ele que relata viver em um grande dilema.
“Não sei como me comportar nos próximos 30 anos, procuro evitar o consumo desenfreado e evito produzir muito lixo plástico, mas sei que são atitudes muito pontuais que, a grosso modo, não vão mudar a realidade”.
O advogado, porém, também critica o governo sobre sua postura diante da crise climática. Para ele, por exemplo, a prioridade de autoridades deveria estar na mudança da matriz energética brasileira. “Mas, estamos no caminho oposto, voltamos a discutir a implementação de usinas de carvão para produção de energia no Brasil, algo que é totalmente rudimentar”.
Assim como Leandro Luz, a aluna do ensino médio Mariana dos Santos, 16, se recorda de chorar copiosamente quando criança após assistir a reportagens sobre mudança climática. Hoje, ela diz que apesar de não desabar mais diante das notícias, a ansiedade vira e mexe ainda a abala.
Ela costuma temer, por exemplo, o aumento do nível da água dos oceanos. “Penso nas cidades que podem desaparecer e as consequências que isso pode acarretar. Isso se torna uma bola de neve. Sei que não dá para fazer muito e é isso que desencadeia o desespero”, diz.
A estudante de gestão ambiental Maria Antônia Luna, 20, também descobriu recentemente que o aperto no peito, sensação de falta de ar ao ler notícias sobre o incêndio que atingiu o Pantanal em 2020 se referem à eco-ansiedade.
“A sensação é de uma angústia de que nada vai melhorar”, define ela que agora busca uma terapia que a ajude a enfrentar aflições relacionadas às crises climáticas, tópico frequente em sua graduação.
Marina, Maria e Leandro não são casos isolados. Um estudo publicado no The Lancet Planetary Health, no início de setembro, analisou a ansiedade climática entre jovens de dez países, como Brasil, Estados Unidos, Índia, Filipinas, Finlândia e França.
O artigo, em preprint (não revisado por pares), ouviu 10 mil jovens de 16 a 25 anos e apontou que a maioria sente com medo, raiva, tristeza, desespero, culpa e vergonha diante de problemas ecológicos.
Ao todo, 58% consideram que seus governos traíram os jovens e as gerações futuras. Apenas franceses e finlandeses não concordam majoritariamente com a afirmação. Quando os números são destrinchados por países, a sensação de traição tanto por parte dos adultos quanto dos governantes é mais latente entre os brasileiros (77%), seguido por indianos (66%).
Para Alexandre Araújo Costa, físico e pesquisador de crises climáticas há 20 anos, a pesquisa aponta também para um olhar otimista, ou seja, o potencial de conscientização maior entre os mais jovens.
“Eles sentem que o Brasil não faz nada para evitar a atual situação e isso pode ser bom para mobilizar”, diz Costa. Segundo ele, não é possível hoje evitar que o assunto seja debatido. “A consequência relacionada à saúde mental é preocupante, mas não podemos manter nossas crianças e jovens em uma redoma dizendo que está tudo bem, quando corremos o risco de perder a Amazônia”, afirma.
O professor ainda analisa que a situação não deve ser vista apenas como um sofrimento individual, já que todos vão acabar impactados de uma forma com a crise ambiental. “É preciso que a gente troque esse governo que dá de ombros para o problema ou que é sequestrado por interesses econômicos que só visam lucro de curto prazo”, diz.
A bióloga Beatriz Ramos segue a linha de Costa. Para ela, o perigo da eco-ansiedade é a vontade de não saber o que está acontecendo. “Ao nos afastarmos dos fatos, podemos entrar em um processo de negação.’”
“É preciso falar o que vai acontecer, como podemos prevenir, quais são as possíveis soluções e explicar que vai acontecer um aumento de eventos extremos, mas existem formas de nos adaptarmos e ainda temos tempo de mitigar isso. Não dá para agir só com otimismo ou só com a sensação apocalíptica”, diz.
“Eu respiro fumaça de incêndio. É triste, mas é uma forma que encontrei de não me esconder. A sensação de impotência diminui, sinto que não estou parada assistindo à destruição”, diz ela que relata que nos piores momentos do ano passado presenciou cenas desesperadoras de animais agonizando vivos.
A angústia diante às crises climáticas parece cada vez mais latente e atinge, principalmente, os mais jovens. Em Portugal, de acordo com uma reportagem publicada pela Agência Lusa, o termo traz um novo desafio aos psicólogos. Já no Brasil, o uso do termo ainda é emergente, apontam especialistas.
O antropólogo Rodrigo Toniol, por exemplo, não acredita que esse diagnóstico vá emplacar. “Não acho que a gente vai chegar num consultório e será um diagnóstico à mão de todos os psiquiatras, mas eu acho que esse é um sintoma relevante que aponta para problemas ligados à falta de um pacto social”, diz ele.
Para o psicanalista e professor do Instituto de Psicologia da USP Christian Dunker diz que os efeitos da ansiedade causada pelo clima são colaterais. Dunker reflete que, na verdade, nota no consultório o crescente sentimento de injustiça quanto às situações que demandariam ações que não são sendo tomadas, como desigualdade social, racismo, homofobia e desigualdade de gênero.
“No bojo desta modificação da nossa indignação aparece a situação em que passamos a enxergar o planeta como alguém e não como algo”, analisa.
However differently we register this pandemic we understand it as global; it brings home the fact that we are implicated in a shared world. The capacity of living human creatures to affect one another can be a matter of life or death. Because so many resources are not equitably shared, and so many have only a small or vanished share of the world, we cannot recognize the pandemic as global without facing those inequalities.
Some people work for the common world, keep it going, but are not, for that reason, of it. They might lack property or papers, be sidelined by racism or even disdained as refuse—those who are poor, Black or brown, those with unpayable debts that preclude a sense of an open future.
The shared world is not equally shared. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to “the part of those who have no part”—those for whom participation in the commons is not possible, never was, or no longer is. For it is not just resources and companies in which a share is to be had, but a sense of the common, a sense of belonging to a world equally, a trust that the world is organized to support everyone’s flourishing.
The pandemic has illuminated and intensified racial and economic inequalities at the same time that it heightens the global sense of our obligations to one another and the earth. There is movement in a global direction, one based on a new sense of mortality and interdependency. The experience of finitude is coupled with a keen sense of inequalities: Who dies early and why, and for whom is there no infrastructural or social promise of life’s continuity?
This sense of the interdependency of the world, strengthened by a common immunological predicament, challenges the notion of ourselves as isolated individuals encased in discrete bodies, bound by established borders. Who now could deny that to be a body at all is to be bound up with other living creatures, with surfaces, and the elements, including the air that belongs to no one and everyone?
Within these pandemic times, air, water, shelter, clothing and access to health care are sites of individual and collective anxiety. But all these were already imperiled by climate change. Whether or not one is living a livable life is not only a private existential question, but an urgent economic one, incited by the life-and-death consequences of social inequality: Are there health services and shelters and clean enough water for all those who should have an equal share of this world? The question is made more urgent by conditions of heightened economic precarity during the pandemic, exposing as well the ongoing climate catastrophe for the threat to livable life that it is.
Pandemic is etymologically pandemos, all the people, or perhaps more precisely, the people everywhere, or something that spreads over or through the people. The “demos” is all the people despite the legal barriers that seek to separate them. A pandemic, then, links all the people through the potentials of infection and recovery, suffering and hope, immunity and fatality. No border stops the virus from traveling if humans travel; no social category secures absolute immunity for those it includes.
“The political in our time must start from the imperative to reconstruct the world in common,” argues Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. If we consider the plundering of the earth’s resources for the purposes of corporate profit, privatization and colonization itself as planetary project or enterprise, then it makes sense to devise a movement that does not send us back to our egos and identities, our cut-off lives.
Such a movement will be, for Mbembe, “a decolonization [which] is by definition a planetary enterprise, a radical openness of and to the world, a deep breathing for the world as opposed to insulation.” The planetary opposition to extraction and systemic racism ought to then deliver us back to the world, or let the world arrive, as if for the first time, a shared place for “deep breathing”—a desire we all now know.
And yet, an inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.
As we dismantle the rigid forms of individuality in these interconnected times, we can imagine the smaller part that human worlds must play on this earth whose regeneration we depend upon—and which, in turn, depends upon our smaller and more mindful role.
Is it really just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or to get “back to normal?”
The climate movement is ascendant, and it has become common to see climate change as a social justice issue. Climate change and its effects—pandemics, pollution, natural disasters—are not universally or uniformly felt: the people and communities suffering most are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color. It is no surprise then that U.S. surveys show that these are the communities most concerned about climate change.
One year ago, I published a book called A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety. Since its publication, I have been struck by the fact that those responding to the concept of climate anxiety are overwhelmingly white. Indeed, these climate anxiety circles are even whiter than the environmental circles I’ve been in for decades. Today, a year into the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, I am deeply concerned about the racial implications of climate anxiety. If people of color are more concerned about climate change than white people, why is the interest in climate anxiety so white? Is climate anxiety a form of white fragility or even racial anxiety? Put another way, is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get “back to normal,” to the comforts of their privilege?
The white response to climate change is literally suffocating to people of color. Climate anxiety can operate like white fragility, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and devoting resources toward appeasing the dominant group. As climate refugees are framed as a climate security threat, will the climate-anxious recognize their role in displacing people from around the globe? Will they be able to see their own fates tied to the fates of the dispossessed? Or will they hoard resources, limit the rights of the most affected and seek to save only their own, deluded that this xenophobic strategy will save them? How can we make sure that climate anxiety is harnessed for climate justice?
My book has connected me to a growing community focused on the emotional dimensions of climate change. As writer Britt Wray puts it, emotions like mourning, anger, dread and anxiety are “merely a sign of our attachment to the world.” Paradoxically, though, anxiety about environmental crisis can create apathy, inaction and burnout. Anxiety may be a rational response to the world that climate models predict, but it is unsustainable.
And climate panic can be as dangerous as it is galvanizing. Dealing with feelings of climate anxiety will require the existential tools I provided in A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, but it will also require careful attention to extremism and climate zealotry. We can’t fight climate change with more racism. Climate anxiety must be directed toward addressing the ways that racism manifests as environmental trauma and vice versa—how environmentalism manifests as racialized violence. We need to channel grief toward collective liberation.
The prospect of an unlivable future has always shaped the emotional terrain for Black and brown people, whether that terrain is racism or climate change. Climate change compounds existing structures of injustice, and those structures exacerbate climate change. Exhaustion, anger, hope—the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment. What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future.
It is a surprisingly short step from “chronic fear of environmental doom,” as the American Psychological Association defines ecoanxiety, to xenophobia and fascism. Racism is not an accidental byproduct of environmentalism; it has been a constant reference point. As I wrote about in my first book, The Ecological Other, early environmentalists in the U.S. were anti-immigrant eugenicists whose ideas were later adopted by Nazis to implement their “blood and soil” ideology. In a recent, dramatic example, the gunman of the 2019 El Paso shooting was motivated by despair about the ecological fate of the planet: “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist.” Intense emotions mobilize people, but not always for the good of all life on this planet.
Today’s progressives espouse climate change as the “greatest existential threat of our time,” a claim that ignores people who have been experiencing existential threats for much longer. Slavery, colonialism, ongoing police brutality—we can’t neglect history to save the future.
RESILIENCE AND RELATION AS RESISTANCE
I recently gave a college lecture about climate anxiety. One of the students e-mailed me to say she was so distressed that she’d be willing to submit to a green dictator if they would address climate change. Young people know the stakes, but they are not learning how to cope with the intensity of their dread. It would be tragic and dangerous if this generation of climate advocates becomes willing to sacrifice democracy and human rights in the name of climate change.
Oppressed and marginalized people have developed traditions of resilience out of necessity. Black, feminist and Indigenous leaders have painstakingly cultivated resilience over the long arc of the fight for justice. They know that protecting joy and hope is the ultimate resistance to domination. Persistence is nonnegotiable when your mental, physical and reproductive health are on the line.
Instead of asking “What can I do to stop feeling so anxious?”, “What can I do to save the planet?” and “What hope is there?”, people with privilege can be asking “Who am I?” and “How am I connected to all of this?” The answers reveal that we are deeply interconnected with the well-being of others on this planet, and that there are traditions of environmental stewardship that can be guides for where we need to go from here.
Author’s Note: I want to thank Jade Sasser, Britt Wray, Janet Fiskio, and Jennifer Atkinson for rich discussions about this topic, which inform this piece.
This is an opinion and analysis article.
Sarah Jaquette Ray, Ph.D., is professor and chair in the Environmental Studies Department at Humboldt State University.
A year’s diary of reckoning with climate anxiety, conversation by conversation.
By Emily Raboteau Photo: Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Emily Raboteau, Anadolu Agency/Getty, Courtesy Emily Raboteau (4), Alex Coppel/Newspix/Getty, courtesy Emily Raboteau, Daniel Volpe/The New York Times/Redux, Courtesy Emily Raboteau (2), Kevin Hagen/The New York Times/Redux
Some scientists say the best way to combat climate change is to talk about it among friends and family — to make private anxieties public concerns. For 2019, my New Year’s resolution was to do just that, as often as possible, at the risk of spoiling dinner. I would ask about the crisis at parent-association meetings, in classrooms, at conferences, on the subway, in bodegas, at dinner parties, while overseas, and when online; I would break climate silence as a woman of color, as a mother raising black children in a global city, as a professor at a public university, and as a travel writer — in all of those places, as all of those people. I would force those conversations if I needed to. But, it turned out, people wanted to talk about it. Nobody was silent. I listened to their answers. I noticed the echoes. I wrote them all down.
Tuesday, January 1
At last night’s New Year’s Eve party, we served hoppin’ John. Nim said that when he used to visit relatives in Israel, he could see the Dead Sea from the side of the road, but on his most recent trip, he could not. It was a lengthy walk to reach the water, which is evaporating.
Chris responded that the beaches are eroding in her native Jamaica, most egregiously where the resorts have raked away the seaweed to beautify the shore for tourists.
Wednesday, January 2
After losing her home in Staten Island to Hurricane Sandy, Lissette bought an RV with solar panels and has been living off the grid, conscious of how much water it takes to flush her toilet and to take a shower, I learned at Angie’s house party. Get unlimited access to The Cut and everything else New YorkLEARN MORE »
Monday, January 14
At tonight’s dinner party, Marguerite said that in Trinidad, where they find a way to joke about everything, including coups, people aren’t laughing about the flooding.
Wednesday, January 16
On this evening’s trip on the boat Walter built, he claimed with enthusiasm that we might extract enough renewable energy from the Gulf Stream via underwater turbines to power the entire East Coast.
Moreover, Walter predicted with the confidence of a Swiss watch, no intelligent businessman will invest another dime in coal when there is more profit to be made in wind, solar, and hydrokinetic energy. Economic forces will dictate a turnaround in the next ten years, he said.
Monday, January 21
After Hurricane Irma wrecked her homein Key West, Kristina, a triathlete librarian, moved onto a boat and published a dystopian novel titled Knowing When to Leave, I learned over lobster tail.
Tuesday, February 12
We ate vegetable quiche at Ayana and Christina’s housewarming party, where Christina described the Vancouver sun through the haze of forest-fire smoke and smog as looking more like the moon.
Monday, February 18
In the basement of Our Saviour’s Atonement this afternoon, Pastor John said he’s been preaching once a month about climate change, despite his wife’s discomfort, and recently traveled to Albany to lobby for the Community and Climate Protection Act.
Saturday, February 23
When I see those brown recycling bins coming to the neighborhood, said a student in Amir’s class at City College in Harlem, it tells me gentrification is here and our time is running out.
Thursday, February 28
Just between us, Mik said over drinks at Shade Bar in Greenwich Village, it scares me that white people are becoming afraid of what they might lose. History tells us they gonna get violent.
Sunday, March 17
On St. Patrick’s Day, Kathy, who’d prepared the traditional corned beef and cabbage, conversed about the guest from the botanical garden in her master gardening class, who lectured on shifting growing zones, altering what could be planted in central New Jersey, and when.
Tuesday, March 19
Sheila, who brought weed coquito to the tipsy tea party, said that when people ask her, “What are you Hondurans, and why are you at the border?,” she says, “Americans are just future Hondurans.”
Monday, March 25
Mat recalled vultures in the trees of Sugar Land, Texas, hunting dead animals that had drowned in Hurricane Harvey, during which he’d had difficulty fording flooded streets to reach his mother’s nursing home.
Tuesday, April 16
After a bite of roasted-beet salad in the Trask mansion’s dining room, Hilary spoke of the historic spring flooding in her home state of Iowa, where the economic impact was projected to reach $2 billion.
Thursday, April 18
Carolyn warned me at the breakfast table, where I picked up my grapefruit spoon, that I may have to get used to an inhaler to be able to breathe in spring going forward, as the pollen count continues to rise with the warming world. My wheezing concerned her, and when she brought me to urgent care, a sign at the check-in desk advised, DON’T ASK US FOR ANTIBIOTICS. Valerie, the doctor who nebulized me with albuterol, explained that patients were overusing antibiotics in the longer tick season for fear of Lyme.
Tuesday, April 23
On his second helping of vegetable risotto, Antonius reflected that in Vietnam, where his parents are from, the rate of migration from the Mekong Delta, with its sea-spoiled crops, is staggering.
Sunday, April 28
Due to Cyclone Fani, Ranjit said he was canceling plans to visit Kerala and heading straight back to Goa, where he would be available for gigs, lessons, jam sessions, meals.
Michael said that beef prices were up after the loss of so much livestock in this spring’s midwestern flooding, and so he’d prepared pork tacos instead.
Friday, May 3
At the head of the table where we sat eating bagels, Aurash said we won’t solve this problem until we obsess over it, as he had obsessed over Michael Jordan and the Lamborghini Countach as a kid.
He added that, just as his parents weren’t responsible for the specific reasons they had to leave Afghanistan, in general the communities most impacted by climate change are least responsible for it.
Balancing an empty plate in his lap, Karthik said that New York City (an archipelago of 30-odd islands), with all its hubris, should be looking to Sri Lanka, another vulnerable island community, for lessons in resilience.
We have more in common, he went on, with the effective stresses of low-lying small-island coastal regions such as the Maldives, the Seychelles, Cape Verde, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean than with a place like Champaign, Illinois —
“I’m from Champaign!,” Pamela interrupted, her mouth full. “It’s in a flood plain too!,” she cried. We’re all sitting at this table now.
Tuesday, May 7
“Personally, I’m not that into the future,” said Centime, who had a different sense of mortality having survived two bouts of breast cancer. She uncorked the fourth bottle of wine. We’d gathered over Indian takeout for an editorial meeting to comb through submissions to a transnational feminist journal centering on women of color. “But I can respect your impulse to document our extinction.”
Sunday, May 19
Eating a slice of pizza at a kid’s birthday party in a noisy arcade, Adam reminisced about the chirping of frogs at dusk in northern Long Island — the soundtrack to his childhood, now silent for a decade.
“Sad to say,” he mused, “among the 9 million meaningless things I’ve Googled, this wasn’t one. It’s like a postapocalypse version of my life: ‘Well, once the frogs all died, we shoulda known.’ Then I strap on a breather and head into a sandstorm to harvest sand fleas for soup.”
Friday, June 7
Hiral, scoffing at what passes for authentic Punjabi food here in New York, was worried about her family in Gandhinagar and the trees of that green city, where the temperature is hovering around 110 degrees Fahrenheit weeks before monsoons will bring relief.
Sunday, June 9
After T-ball practice at Dyckman Fields, while the Golden Tigers ate a snack of clementines and Goldfish crackers, Adeline’s dad, an engineer for the Department of Environmental Protection, spoke uneasily of the added strain upon the sewage system from storms.
Saturday, June 15
Jeff, who’d changed his unhealthy eating habits after a heart attack, said, “We are running out of language to describe our devastation of the world.”
Lacy agreed, adding, “We need new metaphors and new containers with which to imagine time.”
Sunday, June 16
Keith confessed that he was seriously losing hope of any way out of this death spiral.
Tuesday, June 18
We sipped rosé, listening to Javier read a poem about bright-orange crabs in the roots of the mangrove trees of Estero de Jaltepeque in his native El Salvador, where the legislative assembly had just recognized natural forests as living entities.
The historic move protects the rights of trees, without which our planet cannot support us. Meanwhile, Javier discussed the lack of rights of migrants at the border, recalling the journey he made at age 9, unaccompanied, in a caravan surveilled by helicopters.
In Sudan, where Dalia (who read after Javier) is from, youth in Khartoum wish to restore the ecosystem through reforestation using drones to cast seedpods in the western Darfur region, hoping to stymie disasters such as huge sandstorms called haboob.
Owing to this month’s massacre, one of Dalia’s poems proved too difficult for her to share. “I’d be reading a memorial,” she said.
I strained to hear the unspoken rhyme between the rising sandstorms and the dying mangroves, hemispheres apart.
Wednesday, June 19
Salar wrote to me about the call of the watermelon man this morning in Tehran where groundwater loss, overirrigation, and drought have led to land subsidence. Parts of the capitol are sinking, causing fissures, sinkholes, ditches, cracks.
The damage was most evident to him in the southern neighborhood of Yaftabad, by the wells and farmland at the city’s edge. There, ruptures in water pipes, walls, and roads have folks fearing the collapse of shoddier buildings. The ground beneath the airport, too, is giving way.
Thursday, June 20
“Our airport’s sinking too!,” mused Catherine, who’d flown in from San Francisco for this evening of scene readings at the National Arts Club, followed by a wine-and-cheese reception.
Friday, June 21
“It’s not true that we’re all seated at the same table,” argued David, a translator from Guatemala, where erratic weather patterns have made it nearly impossible to grow maize and potatoes.
Retha, David’s associate, quoted the poem “Luck,” by Langston Hughes:
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Then we went out looking for the Korean barbecue truck.
Saturday, June 22
“Say what you will about the Mormons,” said Paisley, who lives in Utah, “but they’ve been stockpiling for the end of days for so long that they’re better prepared.”
Sunday, June 23
At the Stone Barns farm, where tiara cabbages, garlic scapes, snow peas, red ace beets, zucchini flowers, and baby lambs were being harvested for the Blue Hill restaurant’s summer menu, Laura spoke hopefully of carbon sequestration in the soil.
Edgily, Lisa argued, “There’s not a single American living a sustainable lifestyle. Those who come close are either homeless or are spending most of their time growing food and chopping wood.”
Tuesday, June 25
S.J. said their car as well as eight of their neighbors’ cars, including a freaking Escalade, got totaled by a flash flood in the middle of the night in Charleston without warning. Living in a sea-level coastal city is becoming more terrifying by the day, said S.J. They now check the radar before parking.
Thursday, June 27
Magda turned philosophical before returning to Tepoztlán, Mexico. What is the future of memory and the memory of the future? she pondered. We were eating raw sugar-snap peas, remarkable for their sweetness, out of a clear plastic bag.
Her eyes, too, were startlingly clear. “My daughter’s 27 now,” she said. “By mid-century, I’ll be dead. I can’t imagine her future or recall a historical precedent for guidance …” Magda lost her thread.
Meanwhile, Roy had been pointing out the slowness of the disaster; not some future apocalypse, but rather our present reality — a world’s end we may look to culturally endure with lessons from Gilgamesh, the Aeneid, the Torah, and the Crow.
Friday, June 28
The other Adam sent word from Pearl River at breakfast: “Today’s temps at camp are going to reach 100. It will feel hotter than that. We’ll be taking it slower and spending more time in the shade. Don’t forget sunscreen, water bottles, and hats; they’re critical to keeping your kids safe.”
There was no shade at the bus stop in front of the Starbucks on 181st Street. “Why wasn’t climate change the center of last night’s Democratic presidential debate?,” asked Ezra, a rabbi.
“They didn’t talk about it at all in 2016,” pointed out Rhea’s mom, who preferred to see the glass as half-full. “This is progress!,” she cheerfully exclaimed.
Sunday, June 30
Ryan, Albert’s head nurse on the cardiac unit, feared the hospital was understaffed to deal with the upswing of heat-induced diseases. Delicately moving the untouched food tray to rearrange the IV tube, he said, “It’s hard on the heart.”
Tuesday, July 2
“My homeland may not exist in its current state, a bewildering, terrifying thought I suffer daily,” Tanaïs said of Bangladesh. “Every time I go to the coast, there’s less and less land and now a sprawling refugee camp. Every visit feels closer to our end.”
Wednesday, July 3
“Let’s lay off the subject tonight,” suggested Victor, as he prepared the asparagus salad for dinner with Carrie and Andy, who were back in town for the music festival.
Thursday, July 4
Holding court over waffles this morning in the stately dining room of the black-owned Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast in Philadelphia, Ulysses, who works to diversify the U.S. Geological Survey, said, “We need representation. Earthquakes affect us, too. Volcanoes affect us, too. Climate change affects us, too.”
Charlie stirred the gumbo pot. He speculated that his girls’ public school had closed early this year because its sweltering classrooms lacked air-conditioning to manage the heat wave. “Our seasons are changing,” he said, regarding the prolonged summer break.
While Lucy distributed glow necklaces to her little cousins on the Fourth of July, her aunt learned the fireworks display had been canceled by the Anchorage Fire Department owing to extreme dry weather conditions. Alaska was burning.
Cyrus yanked off his headphones with bewilderment and looked up from his iPad toward his mom. “It says there’s a tornado warning,” he cried. All through the airport, our cell phones were sounding emergency alarms, warning us to take shelter. A siren sounded.
“Take shelter where?” begged his mother in confusion. She clutched a paper Smashburger bag with a grease spot at the bottom corner. The aircraft was barely visible through the gray wash of rain at the wall of windows rattling with wind.
Sunday, July 7
Nadia, a flight attendant in a smart yellow neck scarf, served us Würfel vom Hahnchenkeulen in Pilzsauce on the delayed seven-hour red-eye from Philly to Frankfurt, on which each passenger’s carbon footprint measured 3.4 metric tons.
Monday, July 8
Owing to a huge toxic algae bloom, all 21 of the beaches were closed in Mississippi, where Jan was getting ready to start her fellowship, I learned before tonight’s dinner at the Abuja Hilton.
Jan ordered a steak, well done, and swallowed a malaria pill with a sip of South African wine. She referred to Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” which starts:
The world begins at a kitchen table.
No matter what, we must eat to live.
Wednesday, July 10
Eating chicken suya in the mansion of the chargé d’affaires, Chinelo spoke quietly of the flooding in Kogi state at the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers.
Few Nigerians realize, Buchi said, that the longevity of Boko Haram in the Northeast, the banditry in the Northwest, and the herder-farmer crises in the North Central are a result of rapid desertification and loss of arable land even as the country’s population keeps exploding.
Thursday, July 11
Jide, a confident and fashionable hustler, slipped me a business card claiming his sneaker line was the first innovative, socially conscious, sustainable footwear brand in all of Africa. His enviable red-laced kicks said, “We’re going to Mars with a space girl, two cats, and a missionary.”
Stacey, a science officer for the CDC, was geeking out about the data samples that would help control the spread of vector-borne diseases like yellow fever and dengue when the waiter interrupted her epidemiological account with a red-velvet cake for my 43rd birthday.
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / Ché la diritta via era smarrita!,” shouted Nicole, my college roommate from half a lifetime ago, before we had kids, before she went blind. We had memorized the opening lines of The Inferno, had crushes on the Dante professor, and knew nothing yet of pain.
Tuesday, July 16
Naheed said, “The southwest monsoon is failing in Nagpur. For the first time in history, the municipal corporation will only provide water on alternate days. There will be no water on Wednesday, Friday, nor Sunday in the entire city for two weeks.”
Chido told us that in Harare, she was one of the lucky ones on municipal rotation getting running water five days out of the week, until fecal sludge appeared, typhoid cases cropped up, and the taps were shut off entirely. “They are killing us,” she said.
Friday, July 19
Kate said the back roads of Salisbury, Vermont, were slippery with the squashed guts and body fluids of the hundreds of thousands of northern leopard frogs — metamorphosing from tadpoles in explosive numbers — run over by cars.
Centime sent a picture of a memorial for Okjökull, the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. “For your time capsule,” she offered. The plaque read, THIS MONUMENT IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT WE KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING AND WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.
Posed as a letter to the future, the message ended, ONLY YOU KNOW IF WE DID IT.
“What would you do if the power went out and you were stuck underground in a subway tunnel?” Lissette drilled, showing me the prepper items in her crowded backpack, heavy as a mother’s diaper bag: water, protein bars, flashlight, battery, filter, knife …
Saturday, July 20
“Bobby was stuck underground on the 1 train during last night’s commute for 45 minutes,” said his wife, Angela, describing the clusterfuck of six suspended subway lines. “And in this heatwave, too,” she griped. “Folks were bugging out! — ten more minutes and there woulda been a riot.”
Monday, July 22
Morgan wasn’t the only one to observe it was the poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn that had power cut off in yesterday’s rolling blackout. The powerless scrambled to eat whatever food was in their fridges before it spoiled. Wealthier hoods were just fine.
Tuesday, July 23
“Can you rummage in my mind and take out the fire thoughts and eat them?,” asked 8-year-old Geronimo at bedtime. This was the ritual. He felt safer with his anxieties in my stomach than in his brain.
Just back in L.A. from an empowering trek to Sicily where she’d visited the Shrine to the Black Madonna despite sizzling temperatures, Nichelle shared her two rules for dealing with the global heat wave: “(1) Drink lots of water. (2) Watch how you talk to me.”
Wednesday, July 24
Marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the Reverend John sermonized, “You’d think after seeing the Earth from afar, we would do anything to protect this planet, this home. You’d think wrong.”
“We’ve become drunk on the oil and gas poisoning the waters that give us life,” he preached. “And we have vomited that drunkenness into the atmosphere. Truly, the prophet is right,” he said, quoting Isaiah 24:4. “The Earth dries up and withers. The world languishes and withers. The heavens languish with the Earth.”
“We have broken the everlasting covenant,” reasoned the Reverend John. “Nevertheless, the Bible tells us that God loves this world.”
Thursday, July 25
At last night’s “Intimate Dilemmas in the Climate Crisis” gathering at a software company on Madison Avenue, we were told to write our hopes and fears for the future on name tags as a silent icebreaker, then to stick these messages to our chests and walk about the room. Sebastian’s was only one word: war.
Mary, who left the event early, said she worried about her aging mother down South. “I’m the first person in my family born after Jim Crow. They fought battles so I could live the dreams my mother couldn’t. How can I talk to her about this existential grief of mine when she’s already been through so much?”
“Having one less child reduces one’s carbon footprint 64.6 U.S. tons per year,” Josephine from Conceivable Future informed us.
“Why is it so easy to police reproductive rights of poor women and so hard to tell the fossil-fuel industry to stop killing us?,” asked Jade, a Diné and Tesuque Pueblo activist in New Mexico, whose shade of red lipstick I coveted.
Friday, July 26
Ciarán set down our shepherd’s pie and Guinness on a nicked table at Le Chéile. On one of the many drunken crayon drawings taped to the walls of that pub were scrawled these lines from Yeats:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Protesters from Extinction Rebellion Ireland staged a die-in at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, where Ciarán’s family is from, arranging their inert bodies on the floor among silent stuffed “Mammals of the World.”
Tuesday, July 30
Ari cooked lamb shoulder chops with eggplant and cilantro purée, a family recipe from Yemen, where swarms of desert locusts, whose summer breeding was ramped up by extraordinary rainfall, are invading crops, attacking farms, and eating trees.
Meanwhile, Yemeni villagers are eating the locusts, shared Wajeeh, catching them in scarves at nightfall, eating them with rice in place of vegetables, carting sacks of them to Sanaa and selling them, grilled, near the Great Mosque.
Wednesday, July 31
When Nelly and I chewed khat with Centime in Addis Ababa a decade ago, discussing creation myths at the New Flower Lounge while high as three kites, we never imagined that Ethiopia would plant 350 million trees in one day, as they did today.
Eric distributed Wednesday’s fruit share under a canopy in Sugar Hill, Harlem. I took note of the Baldwin quote on the back of his sweat-soaked T-shirt when he bent to lift a cantaloupe crate:
The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
Thursday, August 1
Off the rugged coast of Devon, where Jane grew up picking wild blackberries, the Cloud Appreciation Society gathered to slow down and gaze up at the sky in gratitude and wonder. Nobody spoke of the modeled scenario released by scientists of a cloudless atmosphere.
“In the beginning,” said Elizabeth, who lives in Pass Christian, a block from the Mississippi shore, “before they closed the beaches, I saw the death with my own eyes. Dead gulf redfish, dead freshwater catfish dumped from the river. Thousands. I saw a dead dolphin in the sand.”
Friday, August 2
“I’m always so pissed at plastic bags and idling cars, but I feel like there’s no point in caring anymore,” said Shasta upon learning that between yesterday and today, more than 12 billion tons of water will have melted from the Greenland ice sheet.
Saturday, August 3
Meera grew disoriented when she returned to the Houston area to finish packing up the house that her family had left behind and could not sell; it was languishing on the market for a year as if cursed.
Sunday, August 4
Because he dearly loved taking his boys camping in the Mojave Desert, Leonard felt depressed about the likely eventual extinction of the otherworldly trees in Joshua Tree National Park.
Monday, August 5
The El Paso shooter’s manifesto said, “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist … If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.”
In her kitchen, Angie nearly burned the platanos frying in oil on her stovetop. “That ecofascist targeted Mexicans,” she said, swatting at the smoke with a dish towel. “He called us invaders.”
Wednesday, August 7
“In the Black Forest,” said Daniel, “there are mainly firs and spruces. Many of them die because it is too dry. We used to have something called land-rain. That was light rain for days. It’s gone. When it rains (like now) it feels like an Indian monsoon. What I really want to say to you about Waldersterben (dying forest): Come now, as long as the Black Forest exists.”
Friday, August 9
Claire, a former Colorado farmer, spoke of intensifying forest fires. “The mountains are full of burn scars like this,” she said, sharing a shot from a blaze near Breckenridge.
None of us will be able to say later that we didn’t know we were doing this to the Earth.
Thursday, August 15
Isobel stopped planning our 25th high-school reunion to study the weakening of global ocean circulation and the tanking of the stock market when the Dow dropped 800 points today. Back to back, she traced with a painted fingernail the lines of the inverted yield curve and the slowing Gulf Stream.
Friday, August 16
Zulema wasn’t surprised when Pacific Gas & Electric went bankrupt from the billions of dollars in liability it faced from two years of raging California wildfires, though it wasn’t a downed power line that ignited the Detwiler fire she fled. It was a discharged gun.
On being evacuated from Mariposa for six days by that fire, whose smoke reached Idaho as it burned 80,000 acres of trees dried into tinder by bark beetles and drought, she said over soup dumplings: “I almost lost my house. It’s surrounded by charred forest now. We’re like those frogs in the boiling pot.”
Sunday, August 18
“The developers don’t live here, so they don’t care,” said Jimmy, the tuxedoed waiter who served me linguini with clam sauce for lunch at Gargiulio’s on Coney Isalnd, where the new Ocean Dreams luxury apartment towers are topping out despite sea-level rise. “All they care about is making a buck.”
Monday, August 19
Manreet said she felt anxious. Yesterday in Delhi, where her sister in-law lives, the government sounded a flood alert as the Yamuna River swelled to breach its danger mark.
“Punjab, where I come from, means ‘The Land of Five Rivers,’” she explained. “It’s India’s granary. After a severe summer left the fields parched, the brimming rivers are now flooding them. It’s worse and worse each year. I feel weirdly resigned.”
Tuesday, September 3
Although the sky directly above her wasn’t blackened by smoke from the burning Amazon rain forest, Graduada Franjinha saw protests along the road to a capoeira competition in Rio. “It’s so sad to see how humankind destroys the lungs of the earth that gives us breath,” she said.
Saddened by the loss of 28 wild horses in Pamlico Sound to a mini-tsunami, Chastity remembered seeing them as a kid and swearing to commit them to her forever memory. “You don’t see beautiful things like that and question whether there’s a higher being,” she said. “You just don’t.”
Wednesday, September 4
Chaitali said she can’t stop thinking about Grand Bahama after learning that 70 percent of it is now underwater. “Where are all those people going to go?,” she asked, mystified and horror-struck.
It is an unprecedented disaster, said Christian, struggling to control his voice. He had cut his hair since last I saw him. Dorian was still hovering over his birthplace of Grand Bahama. “Natural and unnatural storms reveal how those most vulnerable are disproportionately affected,” he said.
Friday, September 6
At last night’s party, Jamilah, a Trini-Nigerian Toronto-based sound artist and former member of the band Abstract Random, took a bite of pastelito and said she’d like to get to the Seychelles before they drop into the Indian Ocean.
Saturday, September 7
“Eat the fucking rich,” said Jessica, in reply to a quarterly investment report on how to stay financially stable when the world may be falling apart.
Thursday, September 9
Arwa feared that the plight of 119 Bahamian evacuees thrown off a ferryboat to Florida for being without visas they did not legally need was a sign of climate apartheid.
Wednesday, September 11
“Ma’am, I am the heat,” Maurice replied to the woman in New Orleans’s Jackson Square who warned him against jogging outdoors because of the heat advisory in effect.
Thursday, September 12
Maya, proud owner of a Chihuahua–pit bull–mini-pin mix in Montclair, was saddened to learn that nearly 300 animals had drowned at a Humane Society shelter in Freeport during the hurricane.
Melissa, incensed, asked why they didn’t let the animals out of their damn crates.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, a shit ton of people died too,” argued Sanaa.
Tons of babies, tons of elderly and infirm people, even perfectly healthy people died, too. Over 2,500 people are still missing, and 70,000 now homeless.
“Did you not see the videos of people trapped in their attics with the waves crashing over their houses? Y’all sound fucking stupid,” Sanaa fumed.
Friday, September 13
“Did you hear the NYC Department of Education approved absences from school for the youth climate strike next Friday?,” Elyssa asked during the Shabbat Schmooze while the children swarmed around a folding table tearing off hunks of challah and dunking them in Dixie cups of grape juice.
“I’d rather go to school,” said Jacob. His dislike of large crowds outweighed his dislike of third grade.
Wednesday, September 18
Amanda, whom I last saw at Raoul’s, where we ate steak au poivre and pommes frites, said she had to sell off half the herd on her family’s Texas cattle ranch after a drought left the tanks dry, the lake depleted, and the hayfield shriveled.
She mentioned, almost as an aside, that they’d lost half the honeybees in their hives to colony-collapse disorder in the past five years too.
“Everyone here is linked to someone who works in oil,” she said. “It’s the center of the damage, and all that industry makes my efforts feel small. Sailing in Galveston Bay after a tanker spill, I wondered if my soaking-wet clothes were flammable.”
Thursday, September 19
TaRessa, from Atlanta, said, “I have always loved awakening to birdsong. This year, for the first time, I hear none.” A third of North American birds had vanished from the sky in the span of her lifetime.
Friday, September 20
“I’m here to sign out my child for the climate strike,” said a dad to Consuelo, the parent coordinator in the main office at Dos Puentes Elementary.
“By the time they’re our age, they won’t have air to breathe,” worried Consuelo. “They’ll be wearing those things on their faces — mascarillas respiratorias.”
Ben’s sign said, I’M MISSING SCIENCE CLASS FOR THIS. He was 6, in the first grade and studying varieties of apples, of which he knew there were thousands. He’d also heard that as many as 200 species were going extinct every day.
Shawna told her daughter on the packed A train down to Chambers Street that a teenage girl had done this, had started protesting alone until kids all over the world joined her to tell the grown-ups to do better, had sailed across the ocean to demand it.
Along Worth Street toward Foley Square, the signs said:
SHIT’S ON FIRE, YO
COMPOST THE RICH
THIS IS ALL WE HAVE
I WANT MY KID TO SEE A POLAR BEAR
SEAS ARE RISING AND SO ARE WE
MAKE EARTH GREAT AGAIN
SAVE OUR HOME
In yellow pinafores, Grannies for Peace sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while a nearby police officer forced a protester to the ground for refusing to move off the crowded street to the sidewalk. “Shame!,” chanted the massive crowd in lower Manhattan.
“When our leaders act like kids, then we, the kids, will lead!,” shouted a gaggle of outraged preteen girls in Catholic-school uniforms. Their voices grew hoarse, though the march had not yet begun.
Saturday, September 21
Humera’s Sufi spiritual guide, Fatima, said, “Alhamdulillah! Let’s offer a Fatiha for the young generations who are inheriting a heavy, sad burden left by their predecessors but who are in process of finding their own voice of goodness. This is a movement of consciousness. “
Thursday, September 26
“You need to use an AeroChamber that goes over his nose with the pump so he gets all the asthma medicine,” La Tonya, the school nurse, instructed me. Her office was full of brown boys like our son, lined up for the first puff of the day.
Friday, September 27
“The point of the shofar is to wake us up,” Reb Ezra said, lifting the ram’s horn to his mouth. He blasted it three times with all he had. “Shana tova!,” he shouted. The table was dressed for the New Year with apples and honey.
“Who shall perish by water and who by fire?,” went a line in the Rosh Hashanah service as we were asked to think about atonement. So began the Days of Awe.
Sunday, September 29
Namutebi said at Andrew’s memorial service that in the 25 years since that picture of him holding his son in Kampala was taken, Uganda has lost 63 percent of its trees.
Monday, September 30
“The Rollerblades are $5,” said Abby, who sold books, clothes, toys, puzzles, and games she’d outgrown, spread over a blanket on the sidewalk leading to the Medieval Festival, to make money to fight climate change.
Tuesday, October 8
Danielle made risotto in the pressure cooker for dinner tonight in Marin County to feed her 91-year-old grandparents, who are staying over because they lost power in Sonoma as part of the huge, wildfire-driven blackout.
“I’m almost scared they aren’t turning off our power and we’re going to end up engulfed in flames,” said Danielle. “My grandfather keeps asking when the storm is coming, and I keep trying to explain to him that this isn’t like a hurricane.”
She was curious about how the rest of America sees this — 800,000 people without power as risk mitigation by the gas-and-electric company against wildfires during high winds. She asked, “Do they know this is how we live now?”
Wednesday, October 9
“We are okay, but it is starting to get smoky, and we are sorry about our friends closer to the fire,” Zulema alerted us. The Briceburg fire was 4,000 acres and 10 percent contained. “PG&E will cut power to the northern part of the county,” she said.
Friday, October 11
“You’re going to feel some discomfort,” Dr. Marianne warned me at yesterday’s annual gynecological checkup. She inserted the speculum. I stared at the wall with a picture of her taken five years prior on the white peak of Kilimanjaro.
“Are you in pain?,” the doctor asked, discomfited by my tears. The glaciers that ring the mountain’s higher slopes were evaporating from solid to gas, the wondrous white ice cap towering above the plains of Tanzania for as long as anyone can remember disappearing before our eyes.
Saturday, October 12
In the highlands of Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda — where Damali is from — the climate is no longer hospitable for growing coffee. Damali will likely serve hot milky spiced tea at the family gathering she invited us to with a proper note card through the mail.
Baby Kazuki’s mother feared her breastmilk had sickened him after she reintroduced eggs into her diet. And she feared for the 8 million people ordered to evacuate their homes, as Typhoon Hagibis flayed Tokyo, including the house where her father was born.
Sunday, October 13
In the park this morning, Ana said her Realtor had advised against the offer she wished to make on purchasing her first home through the subsidized Teacher Next Door program. The house she’d fallen in love with was in a flood zone.
Tuesday, October 15
Romy sent us video of the churches in Damour ringing bells before sunrise to warn people of the raging wildfires. “Lebanon is burning,” Romy said. “Probably the biggest fire this country has seen. Please send help.”
Amaris said, “Mount Lebanon, the refuge of persecuted native minorities and their history in the Middle East, is on fire. For a place that represents holy land for us, I’m not joking when I say I feel my soul has been set aflame.”
And then, as if by listing the scorched villages, she could turn them verdant again, she mourned their names: “Mechref, Dibbeyye, Damour, Daqqoun, Kfar Matta, Yahchouh, Mazraat Yachoua, Qournet El Hamra, Baawarta, Al Naameh …”
Wednesday, October 16
Yahdon, bred in Bed-Stuy, bought his gold Maison Martin Margiela designer sneakers secondhand to stay sustainably fly, he said.
Tuesday, October 22
Amelia posted a picture of the view from her kitchen window in Quito last week. “Gracias a Dios, we escaped the fire and the house is still standing!,” she said amid nationwide civil unrest, wherein protesters clashed with riot police and a state of emergency was declared.
“Fossil-fuel subsidies were reinstated to stop the protests in Ecuador, a petrostate where the price of an unstable, fossil-fuel-dependent economy is paid by the poor. It’s been a tough week,” said Amelia, following up with a picture of a chocolate cupcake. “We all need a treat sometimes.”
“What’s your position on public nudity?,” slurred Elliott, my seatmate on this morning’s flight to San Francisco. In Melbourne, where he’s from, Extinction Rebellion activists had stripped for a nudie parade down Exhibition Street.
Thursday, October 24
“Are we under the ocean or in the clouds?,” asked Geronimo, looking up at the illusion of undulating blue waves made by a trick of laser light and fog machines at tonight’s Waterlicht show, both dream landscape and flood.
“Anyone else have their fire go-bag ready just in case?,” asked Lizz, who paints wrought iron in San Diego and writes about brujas. Six hundred fires had burned in California in the past three days.
“For me as a parent, knowing that my ancestors have overcome the brutality of colonialism gives me hope for the future,” said Waubgeshig, originally from the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario. “My people have seen the end before.”
Tuesday, October 29
Salar, just back from Beirut, described a contrast between streets of festering trash and citizens forming a human chain, across sect, at the start of revolution. “It’s like we forgot the planet was our house until it grew so dirty we had to wake up,” he said.
Wednesday, October 30
Felicia, Mark, Dean, Robin, Dara, Kellen, Alexandra, Roxane, Alethea, Susan, David, and Roy all marked themselves safe in Los Angeles during the Getty fire, which started near I-405 and Getty Center Drive, destroying 12 homes and threatening 7,000 more.
No word as yet on the safety of Samara, Marisa, Nkechi, Josh, Kelela, Anika, or Laila.
Thursday, October 31
“It’s because of global warming,” said Geronimo, dressed as a wizard, when his father recalled having to wear a winter coat over Halloween costumes during his own New York City childhood. The jack-o’-lanterns were decaying. It was 71 degrees when we walked to the parade.
Friday, November 1
Naheed brought us back a painting of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, and his wife Parvati, from the Dilli Haat handicraft bazaar in New Delhi, where schools have closed because of the dirty, toxic air.
Tuesday, November 5
“I feel guilty,” said Alejandra, a City College student, at the first Extinction Rebellion meeting held on campus, the same day 11,000 scientists declared a global climate emergency.
“Is there going to be food at this meeting?,” Hector asked, poking his head in the door of the nearly empty classroom with mismatched, broken chairs. Down the hall was a food pantry. “You’d get more students to act if you offered food,” Hector said, then left.
“Our aim is to save humanity from extinction,” said Tom, an Iowa native. He’d volunteered to give the presentation, having joined the protest back in August. The slideshow included a picture of him drenched in fake blood at the feet of the Wall Street bull.
“This is a decentralized movement. Our nonviolent civil-disobedience actions are theatrical. We disrupt the status quo by occupying space. This was my first time getting arrested,” Tom said. “You can do this too.”
“Not me,” said Cedric, referencing the obstacles to his participation, as a black man. “If I get arrested, will it go on my record? Who pays my bail?”
Valentin, a full-time rebel since graduating with a degree in architecture, said we could address the criticism of the rebellion as a white movement that fetishizes arrests at our next house meeting. Demanding divestment, he added, should be on the agenda.
Wednesday, November 6
“Back home in Ontario, the backyard rinks are gone,” lamented Michael, the man we met playing solo street hockey in the schoolyard of PS 187. He showed my boy, wobbling on new inline skates, how to balance himself with a hockey stick, how to gracefully sweep the puck across concrete.
Sunday, November 10
At Václav’s baby shower, Yana, who’d ordered the usual Mediterranean platter, told him to just rip the wrapping paper off the gift. That’s how Americans do it, she said. Vaclav held up the bibs, booties, and dresses she’d bought for his baby, due in five weeks.
“Is it just me or does it feel like this is the last baby we will produce?,” whispered Renata, depressed by our aging and shrinking department in an age of endless austerity with several retirements on the horizon but no new hires. “It feels like Children of Men.”
Monday, November 11
Geronimo climbed into our bed with The Children’s Book of Mythical Beasts and Magical Monsters open to a page of flood stories, floods delivered by vengeful gods: Utnapishtim, Viracocha, Zeus, Vishnu, Noah, and Chalchiuhtlicue.
“ ‘The Mexican goddess of rivers and lakes once flooded the whole world to get rid of all those who are evil, but those who were good were turned into fish and were saved,’ ” he read. “Will I be saved?”
“You will be safe because we are privileged, not because we are good,” I said, torn between wishing to comfort him and wanting to tell him the truth. “Those who are less safe aren’t drowning because they are bad but because they are poor.”
Thursday, November 14
“Samantha’s got serious respiratory issues now too,” said her mother, as we waited for the school bus to drop off our kids outside our building around the corner from a busy bus terminal in a neighborhood at the nexus of three major highways and the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world.
Friday, November 22
“Are we rebels or are we not?,” asked Lena, a French international student studying environmental biotechnology. “The best way to make people know the movement is to plan an action and make demands,” she said.
Saturday, November 23
“Wow, and here I thought it was going to be just another game,” said Aaron, class of ’98, after student activists from both schools disrupted today’s Harvard-Yale football game, rushing the field to demand fossil-fuel divestment. “I guess I should have gone in to bear witness instead of hanging out at the tailgates.”
Friday, November 29
Next to me at Kathy’s Thanksgiving table sat her eldest son, who’d driven up for the holiday from Virginia, where he said his neighbors in the coalfields knew their industry was dead and were understandably fearful of the transition into new lines of work.
Sunday, December 8
The Ghost of Christmas Present encouraged Ebenezeer Scrooge to do the most he could with the time he had left, in the Harlem Repertory Theater’s opening-night production of A Christmas Carol. The last ghost waited in the wings.
Monday, December 9
Sujatha said it was getting harder to see outside in Sydney, but the failure of state and federal government action was clear: No mitigation policy. No adaptation policy. No energy-transition policy. No response equal to the task of this state of climate emergency.
“I am worried,” she said, as ferries, school days, and sports were canceled because of air quality 11 times the hazardous levels. Mike bought air filters for the house, face masks for their two kids. Shaad had asked her, “Will this be the future?”
Friday, December 13
The other Ben had been at the U.N. climate conference in Madrid all week and felt depressed about our chances of getting through this century “if it wasn’t for these kids,” he said, sharing a picture of teens with eyes drawn on the palms of their upheld hands. “They are watching and awake.”
“We’re not here for your entertainment. The youth activists are not animals at a zoo to look at and go, Awww, now we have hope for the future. If you want hope for the future, you have to act,” said Vega, a Swedish Fridays for Future leader.
Wednesday, December 18
“You know it’s bad when the sun looks red and there’s ash on every windshield,” said Sarah from Sacramento, who could feel it constricting her lungs.
“What’s the right balance of hope and despair?,” asked the other Laura.
Friday, December 20
In the Netherlands, where Nina just submitted her doctoral-dissertation proposal to the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the government must protect the human rights of its citizens against climate change by cutting carbon emissions.
“Everyone not from Australia, I’m begging you,” said Styli in Sydney. She feared international ignorance due to the lack of celebrity and location. “The truth is, our country is burning alive,” she said, on the nation’s hottest day on record, one day after its prior record.
Sunday, December 22
“It looks like an alligator’s head,” said Ben from the backseat on the drive to Nana’s for Christmas. “No, a hydra,” said Geronimo. Billowing smoke from the towers of the oil refinery and petrochemical plant to the side of the New Jersey Turnpike at Linden took shifting monstrous shapes.
Monday, December 23
“It’s always the women who pick up the mess at the end of the meal,” sighed Angie, doing the dishes at the kitchen sink in a pink T-shirt that said, SIN MUJERES NO HAY REVOLUCIÓN.
Tuesday, December 24
Though it was the third night of Hanukkah, Rebecca was still preoccupied by the Parshas Noach she’d heard weeks before, admonishing her to be like Noah, who organized his life around saving his family despite the part of him that couldn’t fathom the flood.
The hardest pill for her to swallow was this: Knowing that a single transatlantic flight for one person, one way, is equivalent to commuting by car for an entire year, she now feels flying to Uruguay to see friends and family for the holidays is a kind of violence.
Friday, December 27
Home in Bulawayo for the holidays during Zimbabwe’s worst drought of the century, NoViolet described hydropower failure at Kariba Dam. Downstream from Victoria Falls, shrunken to a trickle, the Zambezi River water flow was too anemic to power the dam’s plants, and so, NoViolet said, there was no running water three to four days a week, and power only at night, “A terrible living experience.”
“The time of the month can be a nightmare for women and girls. Showers are a luxury. Those who can afford to turn to generators and solar power, but for the poor, it means adapting to a maddening and restricted life,” she said.
Saturday, December 28
“Mom!,” called Geronimo from the bath. “I can’t breathe.”
Sunday, December 29
Ben was disturbed by the dioramas on our visit to the American Museum of Natural History. “Who killed all these animals?,” he demanded. “Don’t they know this is their world, too?”
“I learned to fish at my grandparent’s house on the beach, and now my kids enjoy its calm waters,” said Trever from Honolulu. “Every year, the ocean inches higher. We will sell the house next year.”
Monday, December 30
From Gomeroi Country, Alison wrote, “Even away from the fires, we saw a mass cockatoo heatkill on the Kamilaroi Highway near Gunnedah. Willy-willy after willy-willy followed us home down that road. I can’t find it in me to be reflective about the decade right now. Love to everyone as you survive this, our night.”
“The worst part is feeling helpless, held hostage at the whim of an abusive, inconsistent parent who wreaks havoc, then metes out arbitrary punishment in the name of protecting us,” said Namwali from Zambia, about the failing of the hydroelectric company and the failures of those in power. “In a word, capitalism.”
Tuesday, December 31
Another New Year’s Eve. In distant parts of the planet, it was already tomorrow. The future was there and almost here. We drank prosecco at Angie’s party, awaiting the countdown while thousands of people in the land Down Under fled from the raging bushfires and headed for the beach, prepared to enter the water to save their lives on New Year’s Day.
The screen of my phone scrolled orange, red, gray, black — fire, blaze, smoke, ash. A window into hell on earth. I shut it away to be present for the party and the people I loved. Before he kissed me, Victor said, “Here’s to a better 2020 for our country and the whole world.”
140 blocks to the south of us in Times Square, the ball is about to drop.
*A version of this article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine.
Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to participate in discussions about climate change threats and environmental issues with people across private, public, governmental, and research sectors. Whether at an island retreat in Puget Sound, a corporate conference at a resort or in the halls of our esteemed universities, the same questions get asked: How can we get people to care more? How do we motivate people? What’s it going to take?
What if these are the wrong questions to be asking?
Let’s consider this question by first reconsidering the context.
Environmental issues can generate huge anxieties that make them hard for many people to contemplate. Climate change in particular taps into all sorts of cognitive dissonances and feelings of guilt, leaving many people feeling overwhelmed about their role in the problem and solution. This anxiety is often managed through an array of brilliant (usually unconscious) strategies, often both privately and socially, that help us avoid pain, discomfort and conflicts.
Assuming we can agree on these things, the questions we should be asking are: How can our well-established insights into loss and cognitive dissonance guide new approaches to reaching people? How can our understanding of the way anxiety impacts our psyche and conduct inform the way we engage, message and campaign for a more sustainable future?
Psychology and sustainability may seem like strange bedfellows but more than 100 years of psychoanalytic research reveals a lot about how people use unconscious processes to manage anxiety. If I am feeling rather down about the prognosis of our planet, I like to ask myself: “What would a good therapist do?” Does a therapist berate the patient for being scared, reticent or a bit stuck? Does a therapist offer cash incentives for changing behaviors? (I hope not.) One of the first things a (good) therapist does is create what’s called a sense of safety and containment. They can do this by acknowledging their patient’s conflict, suffering and struggle, by helping the patient feel “seen”. Then – and only then – do they form an alliance with the patient to work together in a collaborative, participatory way towards change.
How this translates into engaging people more widely and creatively can be surprising. For starters, acknowledging that people use unconscious strategies for managing anxiety changes the ways we consider (and research) how people think and feel about our world. Analysis needs to go beneath the surface to explore where people feel stuck in conflict and anxious. Second, a psychoanalytic paradigm asks not whether people care or not but focuses onwhere care may exist but may not have permission to be expressed.
This approach can infuse our engagement work, whether in research or strategy, with a mood of curiosity as opposed to frustration and irritation at how wasteful, greedy and short-sighted societies can be. And this mood of curiosity and inquiry can lead us into some unexpected behavior change strategies – particularly through conversation.
The power of conversation may be the most profound insight we can gain from those on the frontlines of the therapeutic professions. Conversation changes people. As Rosemary Randall’s development of Carbon Conversations demonstrates, it’s very simple – if we want people to change, we have to listen to them. Humans are designed to learn, be changed and process information in the act of conversing. In this context, engagement can move beyond the creation of “Green Teams” and champions, into a far more dynamic evolution that creates contexts for creative participation. This means letting go of some control and being open to seeing what emerges when we invite people to contribute (a concept usefully offered by British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) and exercise their agency.
What all of this amounts to is a radical reframe, a shift from a focus on motivating, persuading, cajoling and gamifying to inviting, enabling, facilitating and supporting. This is about giving people permission to care. As deeply social beings, we need some permission, we need to feel safe. Now, more than any other time, we need to start practicing a new form of engagement that presumes there is more care than can be contained – it just needs some help being channeled.
I have been researching and writing about anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) for Truthout for the past year, because I have long been deeply troubled by how fast the planet has been emitting its obvious distress signals.
On a nearly daily basis, I’ve sought out the most recent scientific studies, interviewed the top researchers and scientists penning those studies, and connected the dots to give readers as clear a picture as possible about the magnitude of the emergency we are in.
This work has emotional consequences: I’ve struggled with depression, anger, and fear. I’ve watched myself shift through some of the five stages of grief proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance I’ve grieved for the planet and all the species who live here, and continue to do so as I work today.
I have been vacillating between depression and acceptance of where we are, both as victims – fragile human beings – and as perpetrators: We are the species responsible for altering the climate system of the planet we inhabit to the point of possibly driving ourselves extinct, in addition to the 150-200 species we are already driving extinct.
Can you relate to this grieving process?
If so, you might find solace in the fact that you are not alone: Climate science researchers, scientists, journalists and activists have all been struggling with grief around what we are witnessing.
Take Professor Camille Parmesan, a climate researcher who says that ACD is the driving cause of her depression.
“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan said in the National Wildlife Federation’s 2012 report. “It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again,” she said in reference to an ocean reef she had studied since 2002, “because I just know I’m going to see more and more of the coral dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae.”
Last year I wrote about the work of Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, eco-philosophy, general systems theory and deep ecology, and author of more than a dozen books. Her initiative, The Work That Reconnects, helps people essentially do nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see, know and feel is happening to our world.
In order to remain able to continue in our work, we first must feel the full pain of what is being done to the world, according to Macy.” Refusing to feel pain, and becoming incapable of feeling the pain, which is actually the root meaning of apathy, refusal to suffer – that makes us stupid, and half alive,” she told me. “It causes us to become blind to see what is really out there.”
I recently came across a blog titled, Is This How You Feel? It is an extraordinary compilation of handwritten letters from highly credentialed climate scientists and researchers sharing their myriad feelings about what they are seeing.
The blog is run and operated by Joe Duggan, a science communicator, who described his project like this: “All the scientists that have penned letters for this site have a sound understanding of climate change. Some have spent years designing models to predict changing climate, others, years investigating the implications for animal life. More still have been exploring a range of other topics concerning the causes and implications of a changing climate. As a minimum, they’ve all achieved a PhD in their area of expertise.”
With Joe’s permission, I am happy to share the passages below. In the spirit of opening the door to a continuing dialog among readers about our collective situation, what follows are the – often very personal – thoughts and feelings of several leading climate scientists.
“Like many others I feel frustrated with the current state of public discourse and I’m dismayed by those who, seemingly motivated by their own short-term self interest, have chosen to hijack that discussion,” wrote Dr. John Fasullo, a project scientist in the climate analysis section of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, on the Is This How You Feel? blog. “The climate is changing and WE are the primary cause.”
Professor Peter B. deMenocal with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory shared an analogy to the climate scientist’s predicament, comparing it to how a medical doctor would feel while having to inform their patient, who is an old, lifelong friend, of a dire but treatable diagnosis. The friend goes on to angrily disregard what you have to say, for a variety of very human reasons, as you watch helplessly as their pain and illness unfold over the rest of their now-shortened life. “Returning to our patient, I feel frustrated that my friend won’t listen,” he concluded.
Dr. Helen McGregor, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences, shared a very emotionally honest letter about her experience as a climate scientist. Here is what she wrote in full:
I feel like nobody’s listening. Ok Sure, some people are listening but not enough of our leaders are listening – those that make decisions that influence all our lives. And climate change is affecting and will continue to affect all our lives.
I feel perplexed at why many of our politicians, business leaders, and members of the public don’t get that increased CO2 in the Earths atmosphere is a problem. The very premise that CO2 traps heat is based on fundamental physics – the very same physics that underpins so much of modern society. The very same physics that has seen higher C02 linked with warmer periods in the geological past. And sure, there have been warm periods in the past and the Earth weathered the storm (excuse the pun) but back then there weren’t millions of people, immovable infrastructure, or entire communities in harms way.
I feel astonished that some would accuse me of being part of some global conspiracy to get more money – if I was in it for the money I would have stayed working as a geologist in the mining industry. No, I do climate research because I find climate so very interesting, global warming or not.
I feel both exasperation and despair in equal measure, that perhaps there really is nothing I can do. I feel vulnerable, that perhaps by writing this letter I expose myself to trolling and vitriol – perhaps I’m better off just keeping quiet.
Dr. Jennie Mallela with the Research Schools of Biology and Earth Sciences at the Australian National University shared a range of emotions, including optimism.
“I believe people are capable of amazing things and I do believe that climate change can be halted and even reversed,” she wrote. “I just hope it happens in my lifetime. I don’t want to become the generation that future children talk of as having destroyed the planet. I’d like to be the generation that fought back (and won) against human induced climate change. The generation that worked out how to live in harmony with the planet – that generation!”
She wasn’t alone.
“So whilst there is enough good and committed people we can change our path of warming,” wrote Dr. Jim Salinger, an honorary research associate in climate science with the University of Auckland’s School of Environment. However, he went on to add, “I am always hopeful – but 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of change will be a challenge to survive.”
I asked Dr. Ira Lefier, an Atmospheric/Oceanic Scientist whose research has focused on methane how he felt about our current situation. He expressed his concerns and frustration, but also optimism.
“I find the current situation is highly distressing, in that the facts regarding global warming have been known for many decades, because like an aircraft carrier avoiding a collision, course changes can easily be managed well in advance, but become impossible at the last minute – inertia seals the future destiny,” he said. “And I ask myself, what did we (scientists and activists and concerned citizens of the planet), how did we get here, so close to the midnight? And I think that there was a tragic underestimate based on the successful campaign to save the Ozone Layer through the fight against CFCs – a gas with almost no political lobby, that the global society could easily accept the widespread changes needed to address global climate change through reducing CO2 emissions – which affects almost everyone on the planet. And that political change could be engendered simply by scientists presenting their facts and observations.
“So yes, I find it highly distressing that we are having a societal discussion on whether to take climate change seriously, half a century late. Still, I refuse not to be an optimist, – it is not yet too late. I continue to do whatever I can both scientifically and by communicating with the public, firstly, because it is the right thing to do, and secondly, in the hope and belief that even now, positive action will reduce the damage from ma warming climate to the ecosystem. I refuse to accept ‘apres moi le deluge’ [after me comes the flood].”
“As a human-being, and especially as a parent, I feel concerned that we are doing damage to the planet,” wrote Professor Peter Cox, of the University of Exeter, on the blog. “I don’t want to leave a mess for my children, or anyone else’s children, to clear-up. We are currently creating a problem for them at an alarming rate – that is worrying.”
Professor Gabi Hegerl, a professor of climate system science with the University of Edinburgh, wrote, “I look at my children and think about what I know is coming their way and I worry how it will affect them.”
For sometime now I’ve been terribly worried. I wish I didn’t have to acknowledge it, but everything I have feared is happening. I used to think I was paranoid, but it’s true. She’s slipping away from us. She’s been showing signs of acute illness for quite a while, but no one has really done anything. Her increased erratic behavior is something I’ve especially noticed. Certain behaviors that were only rare occurrences are starting to occur more often, and with heightened anger. I’ve tried to highlight these changes time and time again, as well as their speed of increase, but no one has paid attention.
It almost seems everyone has been ignoring me completely, and I’m not sure why. Is it easier to pretend there’s no illness, hoping it will go away? Or because they’ve never had to live without her, so the thought of death is impossible? Perhaps they cannot see they’ve done this to her. We all have.
To me this is all false logic. How can you ignore the severe sickness of someone you are so intricately connected to and dependent upon. How can you let your selfishness and greed take control, and not protect and nurture those who need it most? How can anyone not feel an overwhelming sense of care and responsibility when those so dear to us are so desperately ill? How can you push all this to the back of your mind? This is something I will never understand. Perhaps I’m the odd one out, the anomaly of the human race. The one who cares enough, who has the compassion, to want to help make her better.
The thing is we can make her better!! If we work together, we can cure this terrible illness and restore her to her old self before we exploited her. But we must act quickly, we must act together. Time is ticking, and we need to act now.
Sharing both his frustration and concern, Dr. Alex Sen Gupta with the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales wrote:
I feel frustrated. The scientific evidence is overwhelming. We know what’s going on, we know why it’s happening, we know how serious things are going to get and still after so many years, we are still doing practically nothing to stop it. I feel concerned that unmitigated our inaction will cause terrible suffering to those least able to cope with change and that within my lifetime many of the places that make this planet so special – the snows on Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef, even the ice covered Arctic will be degraded beyond recognition – our legacy to the next generation.
“My overwhelming emotion is anger; anger that is fuelled not so much by ignorance, but by greed and profiteering at the expense of future generations,” wrote Professor Corety Bradshaw, the director of ecological modeling at the University of Adelaide. “I am not referring to some vague, existential bonding to the future human race; rather, I am speaking as a father of a seven year-old girl who loves animals and nature in general. As a biologist, I see irrefutable evidence every day that human-driven climate disruption will turn out to be one of the main drivers of the Anthropocene mass extinction event now well under way.”
The rest of his letter is worth reading in full:
Public indifference and individual short-sightedness aside, I am furious that politicians like Abbott and his anti-environment henchman are stealing the future from my daughter, and laughing about it while they line their pockets with the figurative gold proffered by the fossil-fuel industry. Whether it is sheer stupidity, greed, deliberate dishonesty or all three, the outcome is the same – destruction of the environmental life-support system that keeps us all alive and prosperous. Climates change, but the rapidity with which we are disrupting the current climate on top of the already heavily compromised environmental health of the planet makes the situation dire.
My frustration with these greedy, lying bastards is personal. Human-caused climate disruption is not a belief – it is one of the best-studied phenomena on Earth. Even a half-wit can understand this. As any father would, anyone threatening my family will by on the receiving end of my ire and vengeance. This anger is the manifestation of my deep love for my daughter, and the sadness I feel in my core about how others are treating her future.
Mark my words, you plutocrats, denialists, fossil-fuel hacks and science charlatans – your time will come when you will be backed against the wall by the full wrath of billions who have suffered from your greed and stupidity, and I’ll be first in line to put you there.
“The Pivotal Psychological Reality of Our Time”
Joe told me the response to his project has been, in general, positive.
“I have received emails from all over the world from people of all walks of life thanking me for establishing the website – from retired grandmothers through to undergraduate university students,” he said. “The letters have been picked up by various social media sites like Science Alert…and have subsequently reached massive audiences.”
He was happy to add that the responses from scientists have been positive, and said his question of “How does climate change make you feel?” is “something they have not been asked before.”
“Of course there have been some very vocal opponents to my work,” Joe added. “This is to be expected. As I have said in the past, there is a small but very vocal group of people out there whose sole goal is to misinform and mislead the general public about climate change. These people don’t have to use the facts, they don’t have to even use the real data. They can cherry-pick from graphs, or even tell flat-out lies in an attempt to mislead the greater public. To what end, who knows? ITHYF [Is This How You Feel] does not exist to change the minds of deniers. It exists to provide an avenue through which every day people can relate to climate change.”
The term “climate change deniers,” then, has an entirely new – and ever more relevant – meaning when viewed through the lenses of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, given that “denial” is literally one of the five stages.
“This approach is not the only way to communicate on climate change, but it is one way, and I certainly feel that it is effective,” he concluded.
The practice of scientists sharing their feelings runs contrary to the dominant consumer capitalist culture of the West, which guards against – and attempts to divert attention from – the prospect of people getting in touch with feelings provoked by witnessing the wholesale destruction of the planet.
In fact, Joanna Macy believes it is not in the self-perceived interest of multinational corporations, or the government and the media that serve them “for us to stop and become aware of our profound anguish with the way things are.”
Nevertheless, these disturbing trends of widespread denial, disinformation by the corporate media, and the worsening impacts of runaway ACD, which are all increasing, are something she is very mindful of. As she wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”
We don’t know how long we have left on earth. Five years? 15 years? 30? Beyond the year 2100? But when we allow our hearts to be shattered – broken completely open – by these stark, cold realities, we allow our perspectives to be opened up to vistas we’ve never known. When we allow ourselves to fully experience the crisis in this way, we are then able to truly see it through new eyes.
Like reaching new heights on a mountain, we can see things we’ve never seen before. Our thinking, attitudes, and outlook on life changes dramatically. It is a new consciousness, one in which we realize the pivotal stage in history we find ourselves in.
Perhaps, within this new consciousness, we can live in this time with grace, dignity, and caring. Perhaps, here, we can find ways to save habitat for a few more species, while we share this precious lives and this precious time with loved ones, in the wild places we love so much, on this rare and precious world.
In recent years, neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in the idea that there may be a powerful link between the human brain and gut bacteria. And while a growing body of research has provided evidence of the brain-gut connection, most of these studies so far have been conducted on animals.
Now, promising new research from neurobiologists at Oxford University offers some preliminary evidence of a connection between gut bacteria and mental health in humans. The researchers found that supplements designed to boost healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract (“prebiotics”) may have an anti-anxiety effect insofar as they alter the way that people process emotional information.
While probiotics consist of strains of good bacteria, prebiotics are carbohydrates that act as nourishment for those bacteria. With increasing evidence that gut bacteria may exert some influence on brain function and mental health, probiotics and prebiotics are being increasingly studied for the potential alleviation of anxiety and depression symptoms.
“Prebiotics are dietary fibers (short chains of sugar molecules) that good bacteria break down, and use to multiply,” the study’s lead author, Oxford psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dr. Philip Burnet, told The Huffington Post. “Prebiotics are ‘food’ for good bacteria already present in the gut. Taking prebiotics therefore increases the numbers of all species of good bacteria in the gut, which will theoretically have greater beneficial effects than [introducing] a single species.”
To test the efficacy of prebiotics in reducing anxiety, the researchers asked 45 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 45 to take either a prebiotic or a placebo every day for three weeks. After the three weeks had passed, the researchers completed several computer tests assessing how they processed emotional information, such as positive and negatively-charged words.
The results of one of the tests revealed that subjects who had taken the prebiotic paid less attention to negative information and more attention to positive information, compared to the placebo group, suggesting that the prebiotic group had less anxiety when confronted with negative stimuli. This effect is similar to that which has been observed among individuals who have taken antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.
The researchers also found that the subjects who took the prebiotics had lower levels of cortisol — a stress hormone which has been linked with anxiety and depression — in their saliva when they woke up in the morning.
While previous research has documented that altering gut bacteria has a similarly anxiety-reducing effect in mice, the new study is one of the first to examine this phenomenon in humans. As of now, research on humans is in its early stages. A study conducted last year at UCLA found that women who consumed probiotics through regularly eating yogurt exhibited altered brain function in both a resting state and when performing an emotion-recognition task.
So are we moving towards a future in which mental illness may be able to be treated (or at least managed) using targeted probiotic cocktails? Burnet says it’s possible, although they’re unlikely to replace conventional treatment.
“I think pre/probiotics will only be used as ‘adjuncts’ to conventional treatments, and never as mono-therapies,” Burnet tells HuffPost. “It is likely that these compounds will help to manage mental illness… they may also be used when there are metabolic and/or nutritional complications in mental illness, which may be caused by long-term use of current drugs.”
The findings were published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
Segundo pesquisadores, elevada incidência de transtornos é consequência da alta urbanização associada com privações sociais
São Paulo representou o Brasil no estudo (Foto: Andre Deak / Flickr)
O relatório São Paulo Megacity Mental Health Surve mostrou que a região metropolitana de São Paulo possui a maior incidência de perturbações mentais no mundo. O estudo feito pela OMS (Organização Mundial de Saúde) revela que 29,6% dos paulistanos, e moradores da região metropolitana, sofrem de algum tipo de perturbação mental. O levantamento pesquisou 24 grandes cidades em diferentes países.
Entre os problemas mais comuns apontados no estudo estão a ansiedade, mudanças comportamentais e abuso de substâncias químicas. Dentre eles, a ansiedade é o mais comum, afetando 19,9% das 5.037 pessoas pesquisadas.
Depois de São Paulo, cidade que representa o Brasil no estudo, os EUA aparece em segundo lugar, com aproximadamente 25% de incidência de perturbações mentais. A cidade norte-americana utilizada no levantamento da OMS não foi revelada.
Além de ser a cidade com maior incidência de perturbações mentais, São Paulo também aparece na liderança do ranking de casos graves, com 10% da população afetada. Neste ponto, a capital paulista também é seguida pelos EUA, que possui uma incidência de casos graves de 5,7%
De acordo com os pesquisadores responsáveis pelo estudo, a alta incidência de perturbações mentais é causada pela alta urbanização associada com privações sociais. Segundo eles, os grupos mais vulneráveis são homens migrantes e mulheres que residem em regiões de alta vulnerabilidade social.
Em São Paulo, a pesquisa da OMS foi financiada pela Fapesp (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo), sob a coordenação da Profa. Laura Helena Andrade, professora do Departamento e Instituto de Psiquiatria da Faculdade de Medicina da USP, e da Profa. Maria Carmen Viana, professora do Departamento de Medicina Social da Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo.
June 5, 2013 — A faith in the explanatory and revealing power of science increases in the face of stress or anxiety, a study by Oxford University psychologists suggests.
The researchers argue that a ‘belief in science’ may help non-religious people deal with adversity by offering comfort and reassurance, as has been reported previously for religious belief.
‘We found that being in a more stressful or anxiety-inducing situation increased participants’ “belief in science”,’ says Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. ‘This belief in science we looked at says nothing of the legitimacy of science itself. Rather we were interested in the values individuals hold about science.’
He explains: ‘While most people accept science as a reliable source of knowledge about the world, some may hold science as a superior method for gathering knowledge, the only way to explain the world, or as having some unique and fundamental value in itself. This is a view of science that some atheists endorse.’
As well as stressing that investigating a belief in science carries no judgement on the value of science as a method, the researchers point out that drawing a parallel between the psychological benefits of religious faith and belief in science doesn’t necessarily mean that scientific practice and religion are also similar in their basis.
Instead, the researchers suggest that their findings may highlight a basic human motivation to believe.
‘It’s not just believing in God that is important for gaining these psychological benefits, it is belief in general,’ says Dr Farias. ‘It may be that we as humans are just prone to have belief, and even atheists will hold non-supernatural beliefs that are reassuring and comforting.’
The researchers report their findings in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
There is evidence from previous studies that suggests religious belief helps individuals cope with stress and anxiety. The Oxford University group wondered if this was specific to religious belief, or was a more general function of holding belief.
The researchers developed a scale measuring a ‘belief in science’ in which people are asked how much they agree or disagree with a series of 10 statements, including:
‘Science tells us everything there is to know about what reality consists of.’
‘All the tasks human beings face are soluble by science.’
‘The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.’
This scale was used first with a group of 100 rowers, of whom 52 were about to compete in a rowing regatta and the other 48 were about to do a normal training session. Those about to row in competition would be expected to be at a higher stress level.
Those who were competing in the regatta returned scores showing greater belief in science than those in the training group. The difference was statistically significant.
Both groups of rowers reported a low degree of commitment to religion and as expected, those rowers about to compete did say they were experiencing more stress.
In a second experiment, a different set of 60 people were randomly assigned to two groups. One group was asked to write about the feelings aroused by thinking about their own death, while the other was asked to write about dental pain. A number of studies have used an exercise on thinking about your own death to induce a certain amount of ‘existential anxiety’.
The participants who had been asked to think about their own death scored higher in the belief in science scale.
The researchers say their findings are consistent with the idea that belief in science increases when secular individuals are placed in threatening situations. They go on to suggest that a belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions.
Dr Farias acknowledges however that they have only shown this in one direction — that stress or anxiety increases belief in science. They suggest other experiments should be done to examine whether affirming a belief in science might then reduce subsequent experience of stress or anxiety.
Miguel Farias, Anna-Kaisa Newheiser, Guy Kahane, Zoe de Toledo. Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013; DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.05.008
In two different presentations on April 8 at the British Neuroscience Association Festival of Neuroscience (BNA2013) in London, researchers have shown for the first time that the heart’s cycle affects the way we process fear, and that a part of the brain that responds to stimuli, such as touch, felt by other parts of the body also plays a role.
Dr Sarah Garfinkel, a postdoctoral fellow at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (Brighton, UK), told a news briefing: “Cognitive neuroscience strives to understand how biological processes interact to create and influence the conscious mind. While neural activity in the brain is typically the focus of research, there is a growing appreciation that other bodily organs interact with brain function to shape and influence our perceptions, cognitions and emotions.
“We demonstrate for the first time that the way in which we process fear is different dependent on when we see fearful images in relation to our heart.”
Dr Garfinkel and her colleagues hooked up 20 healthy volunteers to heart monitors, which were linked to computers. Images of fearful faces were shown on the computers and the electrocardiography (ECG) monitors were able to communicate with the computers in order to time the presentation of the faces with specific points in the heart’s cycle.
“Our results show that if we see a fearful face during systole (when the heart is pumping) then we judge this fearful face as more intense than if we see the very same fearful face during diastole (when the heart is relaxed). To look at neural activity underlying this effect, we performed this experiment in an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] scanner and demonstrated that a part of the brain called the amygdala influences how our heart changes our perception of fear.
“From previous research, we know that if we present images very fast then we have trouble detecting them, but if an image is particularly emotional then it can ‘pop’ out and be seen. In a second experiment, we exploited our cardiac effect on emotion to show that our conscious experience is affected by our heart. We demonstrated that fearful faces are better detected at systole (when they are perceived as more fearful), relative to diastole. Thus our hearts can also affect what we see and what we don’t see — and can guide whether we see fear.
“Lastly, we have demonstrated that the degree to which our hearts can change the way we see and process fear is influenced by how anxious we are. The anxiety level of our individual subjects altered the extent their hearts could change the way they perceived emotional faces and also altered neural circuitry underlying heart modulation of emotion.”
Dr Garfinkel says that her findings might have the potential to help people who suffer from anxiety or other conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We have identified an important mechanism by which the heart and brain ‘speak’ to each other to change our emotions and reduce fear. We hope to explore the therapeutic implications in people with high anxiety. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating and are very prevalent in the UK and elsewhere. We hope that by increasing our understanding about how fear is processed and ways that it could be reduced, we may be able to develop more successful treatments for these people, and also for those, such as war veterans, who may be suffering from PTSD.
“In addition, there is a growing appreciation about how different forms of meditation can have therapeutic consequences. Work that integrates body, brain and mind to understand changes in emotion can help us understand how meditation and mindfulness practices can have calming effects.”
In a second presentation, Dr Alejandra Sel, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at City University (London, UK), investigated a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex — the area that perceives bodily sensations, such as touch, pain, body temperature and the perception of the body’s place in space, and which is activated when we observe emotional expressions in the faces of other people.
“In order to understand other’s people emotions we need to experience the same observed emotions in our body. Specifically, observing an emotional face, as opposed to a neutral face, is associated with an increased activity in the somatosensory cortex as if we were expressing and experiencing our own emotions. It is also known that people with damage to the somatosensory cortex find it difficult to recognise emotion in other people’s faces,” Dr Sel told the news briefing.
However, until now, it has not been clear whether activity in the somatosensory cortex was simply a by-product of the way we process visual information, or whether it reacts independently to emotions expressed in other people’s faces, actively contributing to how we perceive emotions in others.
In order to discover whether the somatosensory cortex contributes to the processing of emotion independently of any visual processes, Dr Sel and her colleagues tested two situations on volunteers. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain response to images, they showed participants either a face showing fear (emotional) or a neutral face. Secondly, they combined the showing of the face with a small tap to an index finger or the left cheek immediately afterwards.
Dr Sel said: “By tapping someone’s cheek or finger you can modify the ‘resting state’ of the somatosensory cortex inducing changes in brain electrical activity in this area. These changes are measureable and observable with EEG and this enables us to pinpoint the brain activity that is specifically related to the somatosensory cortex and its reaction to external stimuli.
“If the ‘resting state’ of the somatosensory cortex when a fearful face is shown has greater electrical activity than when a neutral face is shown, the changes in the activity of the somatosensory cortex induced by the taps and measured by EEG also will be greater when observing fearful as opposed to neutral faces.
“We subtracted results of the first situation (face only) from the second situation (face and tap), and compared changes in the activity related with the tap in the somatosensory cortex when seeing emotional faces versus neutral faces. This way, we could observe responses of the somatosensory cortex to emotional faces independently of visual processes,” she explained.
The researchers found that there was enhanced activity in the somatosensory cortex in response to fearful faces in comparison to neutral faces, independent of any visual processes. Importantly, this activity was focused in the primary and secondary somatosensory areas; the primary area receives sensory information directly from the body, while the secondary area combines sensory information from the body with information related to body movement and other information, such as memories of previous, sensitive experiences.
“Our experimental approach allows us to isolate and show for the first time (as far as we are aware) changes in somatosensory activity when seeing emotional faces after taking away all visual information in the brain. We have shown the crucial role of the somatosensory cortex in the way our minds and bodies perceive human emotions. These findings can serve as starting point for developing interventions tailored for people with problems in recognising other’s emotions, such as autistic children,” said Dr Sel.
The researchers now plan to investigate whether they get similar results when people are shown faces with other expressions such as happy or angry, and whether the timing of the physical stimulus, the tap to the finger or cheek, makes any difference. In this experiment, the tap occurred 105 milliseconds after a face was shown, and Dr Sel wonders about the effect of a longer time interval.
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