Keeping hope afloat
Deena Kara Shaffer
Concerned about climate change? Alarmed about air pollution? Many of us are. But if those concerns balloon to the point of overwhelm, ecophobia might be the culprit. There is a way to preserve well-being while fighting against environmental degradation.
Although it may be a new word in your vocabulary, ecophobia is a subject of concern for many social science researchers. Reported to be on the rise, ecophobia speaks to the challenge of keeping active, healthy, and hopeful in the wake of sorrowful environmental trends.
With daily reports of GMOs and pesticides, deforestation and desertification, rising sea levels and global temperatures, microbeads in drinking water, and plummeting bee populations, how can we not be concerned?
For some, this worry can feel all-encompassing. Ecophobia, also called eco-anxiety or eco-depression, is the pervasive worry over environmental degradation. According to a University of Colorado researcher, children and adults can become “fearful, cynical, and pessimistic about environmental issues …[and] overwhelmed.”
It can manifest as feelings of helplessness that we’ve reached a point of no return, or guilt over not doing enough to help stop environmental decline. And this distress over environmental destruction is reported to be on the rise.
In an interview, Dr. Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, says the term ecophobia can be misleading. “A phobia is an excessive and unrealistic fear of a specific object or situation that is associated with avoidance and often a panic-like response upon exposure to the feared stimulus. The extent that people are overly concerned about the environment is more closely related to anxiety and worry than a phobia.”
For some, eco-anxiety can take the form of PTSD brought on by lived experience, including climate change-related catastrophes like hurricanes, flooding, drought, or wildfires. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “an estimated 200 million Americans will be exposed to serious psychological distress from climate-related events and incidents.”
Less a true phobia, ecophobia speaks instead to a heightened state of concern over the environment. Antony pointed out that if “environment-related anxiety causes significant impairment, then it may be a diagnosable anxiety disorder. People with obsessive compulsive disorder may also have concerns about contamination from the environment.”
He also pointed to the distinction between this worry over the marring of nature and another more clinical meaning of ecophobia, or nostophobia, the fear of one’s home, which can result from trauma, among other causes.
Education writer, David Sobel, describes the paradox at the heart of ecophobia. As we become more aware, more eco-literate, many of us also become increasingly overwhelmed. “[I]nstead of developing a sense of agency … [some] a helpless sense of dread about the future.” So how to prevent paralysis and powerlessness?
In an American Scientist article, Robert Chianese, professor emeritus of English at California State University, says we want to “remain engaged in actions that work to understand and … reverse or slow climate change—but taking action requires excitement, and often a sense of mission” and this can drain a lot of energy. The first step in combatting ecophobia, then, is to ensure time to replenish energy. Whatever nourishes and refuels you: incorporate these activities as antidotes to fatigue and stress.
Research specifically shows that participating in artistic practices can help reduce feelings of eco-anxiety. As an observer, art can help remind us of awe and reverie, given the power of images to stir action. When we create art, whether image- or text-based, it becomes an outlet for our darkest fears and greatest hopes. Art helps through its intention and engagement of the imagination, and can be a vehicle to confront our environmental worries and woes.
Alongside activism—which can transform despondency and rage at the state of the natural world, into action—a sister option is what some call the “recovery movement.” Recover from what? From overconsumption. From indulging in the very excesses that are largely responsible for the current state of nature.
Above all, connect. I’m coming to understand that I’m far from alone in my sometimes-overwhelming concerns about environmental decline. Turning to my community, sharing fears, and channelling worry into collective action are helping me to shift genuine concern and exhaustion into empowerment.