Climate change and the long walk back to ourselves

By Garret Barnwell

The taps will run dry, fires will rage, new diseases will emerge and the weather will run an increasingly unpredictable gambit.

This is what you likely have heard of the future in the era of climate change.

But did you know the climate change and environmental destruction has a profound impact on your mental wellbeing?

For millennia, people have grown from and in relation to their more-than-human world. For most of our history, we all carried an intimate understanding of the seasons, planting according to the rains, sun and soil of the places we called home. As hunters, we understood the habits of the animals who lived alongside us. And, as gatherers, we came to be awed by the diversity of plants and their many uses.

Our relationship with this world extended far beyond consumption, to admiration and respect. And this sense of connectedness not only ensured our survival, but had an impact on our identity, cultural and spiritual beliefs.

In a world where many of us pick our fruit from the shelves, meat is cling wrapped for the taking, and takeaways are bought within a second, this history can seem far removed. But, if we reflect on how humanity has grown in relationship to the things around us, it may then be of no surprise that there is a synergistic relation between our wellbeing and that of the Earth.

Distress, anxiety, despair and sense of profound loss have been associated to the de-wilding of place and ourselves. These feelings have come to be known by another name, Solastagia. Coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, the term describes the psychological trauma lived by people and communities who have experienced environmental destruction or deterioration in places to which they have an intimate connection.

The phrase has gained prominence as we seek to understand the psychological impacts of climate change from droughts and floods to the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs.

The mental health impacts of climate change are experienced after disaster, but also experienced more gradually documents the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2014 report, Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change.

Hurricane Sandy was a severe climate catastrophe that left several thousand homeless in its path and inflicted almost $70 billion in damages in the United States. Until today, many survivors of this storm experience severe mental health consequences, including trauma- and stress-related disorders, anxiety, depression and complicated grief. Weather is predicted to be more unpredictable and in cases, such as Hurricane Sandy, more dangerous due to climate change.

The slow transformation of the environment around us has also been found to be associated with increased substance use, anxiety, depression, the APA argues.

“Exposure to unwanted change in one’s environment can also reduce an individual’s sense of control over his or her life,” says the US’ leading body of psychologists.

These environmental changes have been shown to impact on people’s sense of self through the loss of personal belongings, property or work that are closely linked to personal identity.

There are moves to address climate change by adapting to it, or reducing the vulnerability of our social and biological systems to a morphing world. But we can also foster resilience, or the world’s ability to bounce back from environmental destruction.

But building our ability to adapt and be resilient in the face of climate change is also about altering the way we relate to a more-than-human world from which many of us have become alienated. If this alienation is the disease, as ecopsychologists view it, then the disconnect that allows us to continue to exploit “natural resources” is surely a symptom.

And this plays out in our everyday lives, for instance, when we leave the lights on or eat food derived from palm oil.

The United Nations estimates that the felling of natural forests for the production of palm oil, soy, paper and beef accounts for about half of global deforestation, according to the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests. When forests are cut down or burnt to the ground, carbon dioxide (CO2)  is released into the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to climate change. “The second major source of anthropogenic CO2 emissions to the atmosphere is caused by changes in land use (mainly deforestation)” explains the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Yet, disconnected to our reliance on the natural world, we still continue.

Restoring our link to the more-than-human-world involves awakening to the impact that we have on the world around us; moving from a position of commodification, objectification and consumption of the environment to one of symbiosis.

It will be uncomfortable. It will challenge what we have become.

But as we become more aware of the complexity of our connection to our ecosystems, we are also able to dream of new realities. Future-oriented decisions, such as those that address racial and socio-economic inequality, and protect and re-wild ecosystems as well as invest in renewable energy, can be envisioned. A better Earth for those living on it.

But to begin, our efforts needs to extend beyond mitigating the impacts and delve deep into restoring the alienation that stands between us and the more-than-human world. Fighting climate change not only involves a momentous logistical feat, but requires a deep encounter with ourselves.

 

Garret Barnwell is a clinical psychologist and Ph.D candidate at Nelson Mandela University. He has worked for several years in health and humanitarian assistance internationally and in South Africa.