This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Eco-anxiety is now omnipresent in our lives. But once upon a time, in the 2010s, it was just one of those mysterious feelings of dread you’d be overwhelmed by.
One of the first times I personally came across it was in Paul Schrader's 2017 movie First Reformed. Obsessed with the impending environmental doom and suffering from raging depression, one of the main characters becomes involved with an eco-terrorist group. Then, in a sudden moment of lucidity, he realises the inevitability of the climate catastrophe and his own inability to act, and ends up taking his life.
Six years and six highly worrisome IPCC reports later, eco-anxiety has basically gone mainstream. Everyone agrees to take the piss out of Just Stop Oil activists who throw soup at paintings, but we’re also all filled with this brimming sense of powerlessness and we simply have no idea what to do with it.
Although dramatic – even “radical” some might say – these kinds of protests are completely harmless. At best, they result in fake outrage and a self-congratulatory pat on the back from the media, and at worst, in a total lack of reaction from state authorities and regular people.
When I say this, I’m not trying to lecture young activists about morality or asking them to re-read their copies of the cult political action book How to Blow Up a Pipeline. But as author Andreas Malm himself put it, “The movement must learn to disrupt business-as-usual.” Sure, blocking refineries, kidnapping oil industry bosses and burning SUVs might be a bit less ‘benevolent’, but things would indeed quickly take a different turn.
French economist and philosopher Frédéric Lordon believes that our reticence to take decisive actions to tackle climate change is linked to how widespread eco-anxiety has become.
“Eco-anxiety is one of those marvellous pieces of crap the media system is used to churning out,” he says during a conference at the University of Lausanne. “You take a real political problem, put it through the media machine, and you get a psycho-social concept completely devoid of politics. Psychologising and depoliticising things are very typical characteristics of neoliberal discourse.”
According to Lordon, what we currently call climate anxiety is more a form of angst – the anticipation of a vague danger, a sort of fear without an object which leaves us unable to react in an articulate manner. “Of course, eco-anxiety refers to a problem that isn’t vague: The planet is burning, we're going to burn it, all that is fairly clear,” he continues. “But it's a problem whose cause is permanently left in the fog. If you have a vital problem and you can’t see its cause, then your psyche is indeed put to the test.”
In other words, our collective psyche is so intent on deflecting from the true cause of climate change (the neoliberal world structure) that we feel totally overwhelmed and incapable of what we truly need to push us forward – fury.
Research into our emotional responses to climate change and how they effect our overall mental health is still in its infancy. But a 2021 study from Australia looked into how people’s “eco-emotions” – eco-depression, eco-anxiety and eco-anger – impacted them and their inclinations to take action.
Although all three emotional states had negatively affected participants’ wellbeing, “eco-anger predicted lower depression, anxiety, and stress,” the researchers writes. They also found that eco-anger was “uniquely associated with greater engagement in both personal and collective pro-climate behaviours” and conversely, that eco-anxious people avoided all sorts of actions.
In short, moping around doesn’t really help any cause, whereas drying your tears, getting off the couch and possibly taking up arms is both more effective and even healthier. This is of course a truism, but it is worth repeating: Whether you consider eco-anxiety media mumbo jumbo or a real pathology, we should all agree it is a transitional stage that must be overcome.
We are at a deadlock: We are faced with an existential threat, yet we struggle to point fingers at anyone in particular or to take actions that would actually disrupt the power dynamics of our society. We are overly concerned with protecting the winners of neoliberalism and giving them the benefit of the doubt. We judge initiatives like grounding planes or physically stopping pipeline from being built as excessive, radical, disproportionate in some way.
And yet we also know capitalism is fundamentally incompatible with the finite nature of earths’ resources. We also know that the people, institutions and countries who benefit most from our world system have no real intention to upend the status quo.
To me, French agronomist Pablo Servigne best summarised the only real path forward. "Yes, the situation is scary. But let's imagine that the building is on fire, the firemen come. They break the windows, they break the doors. We're not going to tell them to calm down, that we need hope and optimism and that they're scaring us. We get off our asses and save our lives.”