“My parents had strictly warned me not to participate. But my friend and I ran out of the house [carrying] posters and banners until we reached the [nearest] metro station,” said Yashna Dhuria, a 20-year-old climate activist, recalling her experience of going to attend the first global climate strike in Delhi, India’s capital, in 2019.
Dhuria and activists like her continue to spearhead campaigns, call out inaction, and unnerve the administration. But they also have to cope with feelings of fear, betrayal, and abandonment, as their words go unheeded.
“The more I learn about the climate crisis, the more helpless I feel. I have broken down emotionally so many times in front of classmates and family just explaining what’s going to happen. My question is, why do people not care? Will they ever?” asked Dhuria.
While there isn’t an official mental health diagnosis for it, Dhuria is likely experiencing ecological anxiety or “eco-anxiety”. Researchers and others have defined the term as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
The coinage of eco-anxiety is likely an attempt to address the impact of climate change on people’s mental health. While it bears mentioning that eco-anxiety isn’t something experienced exclusively by activists, it’s possible that they experience it more often and more deeply than others might, given the nature of their work.
“The irony is that I took the most flights in the last year, and that too for climate advocacy work like going to the United Nations and the Conference of the Parties to meet and engage with people [including] decision makers,” said Sriranjini Raman, a student and community organiser who has previously worked with Fridays For Future (FFF) India, a global climate-strike movement led by young people. “It makes me feel so guilty that my individual emission is probably more than so many communities in India. I really don’t know how to deal with it.”
Gang of guilt
Like Raman, most activists can’t escape the deep, all-consuming guilt about how they are contributing to the destruction of the planet every time they take a flight, don’t cycle to work, eat a meat burger, forget to carry a cloth bag (to shop) or a steel straw to a restaurant.
The anxiety can be so debilitating that a few have had to head to therapy to deal with feelings of impending doom. According to Agrima Chatterjee, a Delhi-based psychotherapist, who works with the youth-led environment action group There Is No Earth B (TINEB), a likely reason for these overwhelming feelings is that the saviour complex is strong for young people working on climate change.
“You’re doing what you can, but the problem is so huge that it’s not making an impact. The effort invested feels meaningless. There’s a constant sense of loss, leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,” said Chatterjee.
Shivani Goyal, a 22-year-old member of FFF, Guwahati, spends her time researching, writing emails, creating social media content, and conducting Twitterstorms against policies bound to push the Indian state of Assam towards climate doom. Still, she often questions if her actions help create an impact. The tragedy is that they are too young (as per the state) to sit on negotiation tables, and too old not to give a fuck.
“Is anything coming out of this?” Goyal asked. “We have just 10 years for climate action. Assam is a big state and there’s so much to do. It feels like a privilege to even consider taking time off.”
Who to turn to
Vijay Sehrawat, 27, a founding member of Youth For Climate India, spoke about how acquiring more knowledge on the climate crisis made him a bit “too negative” for his family and friends.
“I used to bring up climate issues in all my interactions, no matter what the place or occasion. For years, I didn’t have any other topic to talk about. I remember people having fun at birthday parties and me directing the conversation to climate justice, my friends watching funny YouTube vlogs and me telling them that there are bigger things to worry about. I used to become aggressive when people didn’t pay attention [to what I was saying],” said Sehrawat.
He added, “I thought it was my responsibility to educate them about the climate crisis. Later, I realised that I was looking for places to unload the information I was consuming. I also learnt that these conversations need to happen constructively. One should also ask the other person if they have the space to [listen].”
Mohini Singh, a Bangalore-based psychologist who has also worked with TINEB’s volunteers, explained how the constant invalidation of work done by young climate activists adds to their mental health woes.
“In the Indian context, anxiety itself is not given weightage. While you’re provided with support from loved ones when you go through a breakup or an academic failure, climate anxiety is not something everyone experiences, so you don’t get any help,” said Singh.
There’s joy, solidarity, and radical love to be found in this space, too. Disha Ravi, the Indian youth climate change activist, arrested in February 2021 for sharing an online toolkit that listed ways to support the Indian farmers’ protests, finds solace in her climate community. “I get a lot of energy and optimism from them. It’s the best thing that has happened to me,” said Ravi.
There are times, however, when the situation seems bleak. “I, too, wonder why I’m doing this. Is anything even coming of it? But then I realise that while we may not be making things supremely better, we are stopping things from getting worse. It’s slow and decimal, but it’s happening. Even if I feel like giving up, our collective strength reminds me that we need to continue [working],” added Ravi.
However, the chilling effects of Ravi’s arrest have changed the course of climate activism for many in the country.
While protecting the planet is essential, so is protecting one’s online privacy. From organising workshops to sharing campaign documents, a lot of what activists do is online and, therefore, could be monitored and used against them by those opposed to their cause. No one knows what words like “strike” and “action” could mean for those in power. The “toolkit” in question that Ravi was arrested for was also seen as a call to wage a social, cultural, regional, as well as an economic war against India as opposed to the basic purpose it served — that of being a collection of resources that can be used by individuals to learn about an issue, the farmers’ protests in Ravi’s case.
“We are now alert and conscious all the time,” said Sania Rehmani, a member of TINEB. “Our website got banned while we were campaigning against the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020. We were so spooked. For so long, my teammates have been pushing me to get a VPN (Virtual Private Network).”
Most are not untouched by the trauma and anguish that follows after being attacked by online trolls. There are also those who blame activists for being against development, said Goyal. “Just because our movement is called ‘Fridays For Future,’ it was attacked by many who thought we were anti-nationals and terrorists. But we still believe that climate change is an issue that can unite people.”
Goyal’s belief is seconded by Burhan Bhat, 23, a member of Climate Front India – a youth-led national organisation headquartered in Jammu – focused on creating awareness about climate change.
“Environmental groups [led by young people] in Kashmir have to face far greater obstacles like intermittent curfews, restrictions on communication, and apprehension from elders. Yet, we continue to organise clean-up drives and register peaceful protests,” said Bhat.
Anmol Ohri, a 25-year-old activist, joined Climate Front’s Jammu chapter in October 2019, just months after the contentious repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution of India that stripped Jammu & Kashmir of its special status and divided it into two federal territories. At the time, their most immediate challenges were the 4G internet ban and political instability.
“It’s been difficult to spread the word about climate change through social media. It’s really challenging to convince people that climate change deserves attention, while they still need to fight for basics like economic empowerment and political rights,” said Ohri.
As they nervously watch the lack of initiative taken by “grown-ups,” who by default have more power than them, giving up is not an option for many young activists, not even when there are opportunities for building more comfortable lives.
“People have told me to get a job in the tech field but, in my heart, I know things are bad. I can’t overlook that,” said Lakshay, who preferred to be known by only his first name, a 24-year-old who has worked with the Delhi chapter of FFF.
Goyal even changed the likely trajectory of her career, so that she could do more for the planet. “I was a commerce student, but now I’m pursuing my masters in environment and sustainable development studies. I wish that what I learned from the movement was taught in schools,” she said.
Raman spoke about how young people are always caught in the dilemma between working for a corporation where they can gain experience and make a lot of money, and taking a paycut and working on solutions to prevent the planet from dying. The choice for her, though, is a clear one. “Having value-driven jobs will reduce eco-anxiety. Knowing that I am working for an organisation that is contributing to the economy as well as climate justice would definitely make me feel less anxious compared to [working for] one that just wants to generate profit,” said Raman.
The fight for climate justice also shapes their romantic relationship choices. A partner could be the closest person in someone’s life, and finding one with shared values on climate isn’t an option for some – it’s a must. When fighting in a battered world, having someone who invalidates their fear of environmental doom is the last thing they want.
“More than looks and a sense of humour, I see if they are interested in climate justice,” said a 25-year-old climate activist, who preferred not to reveal their name. “It’s an instant turnoff when I [meet] someone who’s apolitical, denies my fears of the climate crisis and boasts about their flight and cab journeys. It all boils down to envisioning a shared future. And I can’t be with someone who doesn’t realise how climate change is going to shape that future.”
Alice Barwa, 24, an Adivasi educator and researcher, explained how it was infuriating for her to learn that in spite of coexisting with nature for centuries, Indigenous communities like hers are at the forefront of the climate crisis.
Recounting her experience of attending COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties), held in Glasgow, last year, Barwa stressed on how her privilege made the journey possible.
“I have access to those radical spaces and to social media, and I know the language and the elite vocabulary those people use to communicate. They listened to me because I spoke in their language. People in my community have more experience and knowledge than I do, [but] they can’t access these platforms. I aim to work on bridging that gap.”
Barwa explained how saddening it is for her to see her community’s presence being tokenised in the climate justice space. “Even if I had the language, I’ve seen how we are patronised on international platforms. It’s less about my opinion and more about my presence as an Indigenous person on their forum. Half the time, I was not even asked what I did. It came down to: ‘You’re an Adivasi, just represent the community.’”
Ways to cope
When asked how they deal with this all-consuming anxiety that has fallouts in every sphere of their lives, Dhryshtadyumn Khera, a member of TINEB, said that he channels his anxiety into collective anger against the system.
“When I joined the movement, it was more about not eating meat, cycling, shopping sustainably, but I [soon] learnt that the responsibility is not totally on individuals like me. Much of it comes down to the economic incentives of large businesses and the government. So, now, I focus on building this movement and bringing more people together,” he said.
Raman shared that she had to take a break from her college and the advocacy work she was doing as a result of the burnout she was experiencing. She also realised that the climate justice movement is a marathon and not a sprint.
“Yoga, mindfulness, being in nature, hiking, farming, and making friends with the land are the ways [in which] I deal with eco-anxiety,” she said.
Sharing the advice she offered in her counselling sessions, Chatterjee said, “The first step is embracing these emotions and validating your experiences. The second is interacting with like-minded people – people, like you, who are worried about the climate, as doing this can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.”
While large corporations are “greenwashing” or showing their ecologically responsible image among the public, and politicians are “youth-washing” or inviting activists on platforms for photo-ops but ignoring their actual demands, these young activists continue to work for issues they’ll bear the brunt of without having contributed to. But many have realised that they need to find support in their community and invest in themselves alongside.
As Raman said, “If we don’t take care of the weather on the inside, we can’t take care of the climate on the outside.”