Frequently asked questions
What is eco-anxiety? Ecophobia?
In my personal life and work, I’ve experienced eco-anxiety as feelings of stress, overwhelm, fear and grief toward the climate and ecological crisis. Eco-anxiety’s close cousin is “ecophobia” - the feeling of powerlessness in the face of environmental catastrophe. This crops up in the stories I hear not only in the classroom, but in the boardrooms of some of the most world’s biggest companies;
“The system is too broken to change,” “I’m just one in 7.6 billion people… what difference can I make, really?”, “The future is something happening to me, not something I have control over”, “People who do take action are smarter or more experienced. I could never do what they do.”
There are many folks already experiencing the direct impacts of the climate crisis. In places like the Maldives, Indonesia and Australia (with sea-level rise, flooding and fires, respectively), anxiety and trauma may stem from a personal existential threat - either in the face of impending natural disaster, or having survived the effects of one.
Is eco-anxiety a condition?
Eco-anxiety is not an illness or clinical condition. Feeling anxious in response to the 6th mass extinction, pervasive plastic pollution, and climate tipping points is a perfectly human, natural response. It shows that you care. Indeed, I would argue that anxiety is not the problem, but that a lack of it is. Society is experiencing mass amnesia toward the damage we’re inflicting on nature (and ourselves). We’ve been lulled into complacency and subscribed to a story that serves neither the future we want to create, nor us, because we’re plastering over our feelings - and the knowledge that something is seriously wrong.
Anxiety can be a critical catalyst for action. When we allow ourselves to experience the depth of our feelings (creating a ‘container’ by way of community, and ‘outlet’ through activism), we’re in a better position to step up, rather than shut down.
Why are we seeing this surge in climate anxiety now?
For our grandparents, the threat was being razed to the ground by foreign enemies. For our parents, it was an imminent nuclear attack. But for our generation, there isn’t a frontline to bomb, a country to point at; our nemesis is slow-creeping. It lives under your roof, and mine. It lurks in the light bulbs we install, the food in our fridges, the clothes on our backs — the device you’re reading this on. We’re all responsible for the greatest threat facing humanity.
Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change is a piece by Nathaniel Rich, addressing the period from 1979 to 1989 when humankind first came to a broad understanding of the causes and dangers of climate change, and when we “came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels.”
The Unchained Goddess is a film released in 1958 that warned “man may be unwittingly changing the world’s climate” through the release of carbon dioxide.
Just as existential angst is nothing new, nor is climate change. And while it has shifted from the periphery of our collective vision to taking front and centre stage, I would argue that much of climate anxiety today stems not only alarming science, but a) greater awareness of the long-coordinated effort to pull the blanket over our eyes, b) people in elected positions of power failing to act with the urgency required, c) guilt at our personal, individual responsibility, and d) an uncertain future. People are awakening to the fact we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security and comfort. And we lack a clear path forward.
Is eco-anxiety part of a broader mental health crisis?
While physicians say that fears about the climate can worsen or trigger pre-existing mental health problems, I would reflect that eco-anxiety is part of a broader mental health crisis based on the isolation normalised in Western society. We’re disconnected from nature, one another, and ourselves - disconnected from intrinsic values of connection, community, and contribution. The way I’ve reinforced these values in my own life is through tribe, maintaining a spiritual practice, and making decisions in service of a mission that’s bigger than myself. Also by limiting my time on social media - which often feels like a blackhole of negativity.
In many ways, it feels like we’re at a culmination point. This broader ‘disconnect’ dates back millennia, and while the severing between people, home and environment has been known for some time to indigenous cultures around the world, we’re only now appreciating its impact in the West.
How are young people experiencing eco-anxiety?
I’ve observed that climate anxiety is more evident in younger generations. We’re told that we have 11 years to transform the systems we’ve inherited, but had zero role in creating, and realise that while we might be the last generation with a window for change, we will also experience the worst brunt of the crisis if we fail.
The young people I’ve worked with have a very clear sense of right and wrong. And because they haven’t grown accustomed to the systems that climate change tells us are broken, they see the absurdity of continuing with business as usual. This moral conviction is coupled with a level of naive optimism and radicalism that I believe is necessary to redesign every part of how we live, breathe and exist in the 21st century. These young trailblazers haven’t been around long enough for society to clip the wings of their imaginations.
How do I navigate my own feelings of overwhelm and eco-anxiety?
I used to think that my anxiety and overwhelm were things I had to beat into submission. However, my friend and pioneering eco-psychotherapist
Caroline Hickman helped me realise that becoming friends with my feelings was essential to navigating these increasingly turbulent, uncertain times.
It is essential to hold space for your feelings - to hold the tension between grief and optimism, and find space someplace in the messy middle for hope. We must look in the face of the damage already inflicted on the planet, and the role that we have each played. Equally, we must be able to imagine a new future - write a better story - and bring pockets of that future into the present.
We’re very good at internalising feelings, and we’ve become ok as a society with experiencing grief alone. But grief or anxiety should not be kept in the shadows. Attempting to deal with it alone can leave you feeling frozen and isolated. And in the same way “forest bathing” is prescribed for mental health, I immerse myself in nature whenever I feel untethered or overwhelmed. In doing so, I’m able to reacquaint with the very thing I’m fighting for.
I feel depressed when I turn on the news. How do you navigate the negativity of media?
Mythology tells us that staring straight into hell will eventually turn someone to stone. Often, scrolling through Twitter feels like peering into that hellscape - stories of declining species, the failings of politicians, an ever-ticking doomsday clock. While social media has been an awesome tool for me to connect with change-makers from all corners, and stay up to date with developments, I don’t find it constructive to inundate myself to the point where I feel incapacitated.
I manage my time online and I surround myself with kickass individuals who are taking action in the face of extreme adversity. I feel that their stories - of individual initiative - do more to incite action and inspire hope in me than the dystopian, doomsday narrative. Because while it serves a role, it currently crowds out the canopy, and I’d like to see media opening up for new shoots. Alternative types of story-telling.
How can I talk to my kids about the climate crisis?
I was reflecting on this as I strolled through the natural history museum with my 6-year-old cousin, when she turned to me abruptly and asked about climate change and global warming. My first instinct was to wrap her in my arms and tell her everything would be ok. But that would be a lie - and while we may be compelled to protect our young, the best way we can do so is to prepare them for the future. That means having caring, considered conversations that do not attempt to shield them from the challenges they’re to inherit, but empower them to feel agency. Keeping children in the dark and concealing the truth is enormously irresponsible and plants the seeds for resentment. We see this brimming in the millions of young activists banner-blazing in the streets, who feel that the story they’ve grown up with has been a fairytale.
Children often have a greater carrying capacity and emotional intelligence than we give them credit for. Discussions with young people needs to come from a place of kindling ecophilia, or love and respect for our natural world (something already innate) - and be enshrined in igniting agency and self-efficacy. In very simple terms, "It's normal to feel sad when you see the environment in distress, and overwhelmed by problems like climate change - but we all have a responsibility to be guardians of our planet, and we each have an essential role to play." Then explore what this can look like for your family, and help your children single out the issues they care about most deeply.
The climate crisis is multi-faceted, and overwhelm can stem from trying to tackle all of the problems. This is why I’d encourage you to help your kid(s) hone in on just one, i.e. deforestation from palm oil or plastic in your local river, and then brainstorm possible projects in the community or at school. Support them to realise these. And lead by example - not by passing on the baton but stepping up, to solve for your own challenge. We all need to appreciate our potential when we choose action over inaction.
Mobilising mindsets and taking action
How can we move away from small, token gestures and toward transformation?
We all know it’s impossible to confront such a massive, snowballing problem with stop-gap solutions. Yet much of activism today is tokenistic. When Starbucks replaces its plastic straws with paper ones, it isn’t addressing the systemic problem — disposable living. It’s rebadging it and profiting from the attention. You may desperately want to help orangutans in Borneo, but as you Tweet about it in 280 characters or less, you’re doing little more than swathing yourself in the self-assurance that you’ve “done your bit”. Monthly donations, turning off the lights when you leave a room, going to the polls and choosing between a climate change denier and seasoned procrastinator: these are mosquito bites on the bum of a giant that gets stronger by the day. And our window for action is closing.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” That’s true of so much of the change that needs to happen in society. I’m so inspired by the trailblazing individuals like
Pat O’Brown (founder of
Impossible Foods) and
Elizabeth Wathuti (founder of the
Green Generation Initiative) who are achieving the previously-thought impossible by driving solutions to the messiest of problems. Let’s tell their stories — of courage, creation, imagination. And let’s write those stories for ourselves.
Why is it so hard to mobilise mindsets?
This is the question that has fuelled me and been my fascination since the age of 16. The world’s biggest problems are of our own making, so they’re solvable. We don’t lack the money, resources, or manpower — just the tenacity, focus, and uncompromising resolve. While the biggest hurdles in your way may seem to exist in front of you, they actually live in your own mind. We humans are wired to be risk-averse; we harbour confirmation biases and stay within the safety of our many comfort zones. We learn to fear our own potential, and fall victim to thoughts like:
“I’m just one in 7.6 billion. What can I do really?” But to solve our beautiful, bright planet’s dark problems, we must refuse to be ruled by these stories.
I’ve reflected that inaction in the face of the climate crisis - while super complex - loosely boils down to three bucket causes. These are:
This is very much a personal hypothesis, and ever-evolving as we progress our research.
You can see how my thinking has evolved since I first spoke about ecophobia (age 16):
Human psychology (how we’re wired, from an evolutionary perspective - things like optimism bias, loss aversion, cognitive dissonance, disavowal, etc.)
Cultural narratives (which keep us feeling disempowered, and are rooted in extrinsic values over intrinsic ones - e.g. pursuing status and wealth over community and contribution, or seeking fulfilment through consumerism and disposable living rather than in nature or connection to a higher purpose).
Self-limiting beliefs (how the stories we tell ourselves about the world, and our role in it, can minimise our potential; by negatively reinforcing expectations, attitudes, and decisions concerning what we’re capable of.)
What is ‘climate denial’?
There are lots of different types of denial. We’re familiar with denial of the science, but there is a more subversive form that is near-impossible to escape: disavowal. The definition of disavowal is to “disclaim knowledge of, responsibility for, or association with” something. With the climate crisis, these coping mechanisms are voiced as,
“Nature will prevail - this is mere climate alarmism,” “It’s not my job to fix - that’s on business leaders (say the politicians),
or politicians (say the business leaders)
,” “Technology will fix it…” Among many, many more.
There’s only so long that you can perform these mental gymnastics. Often, these stories are so convoluted or steeped in feelings of shame and guilt, that it’s near-impossible to address them on a topical, rational level. This is why depth psychology can be such an effective tool to cut through the surface and present all the unconscious mind has to offer. Ignorance is not bliss. The longer you try to distance yourself from the truth, and from your feelings, the more painful it’s going to be when you face up to the facts. To take it further yet: climate despair can invite us to live a fuller life. In the words of
“We can gain greater presence, depth, courage and wisdom through our willingness to step through the gateway of anticipated suffering.”
This is such an overwhelming problem. How can I make a difference?
Because we’ve so royally screwed the planet, there are any number of ways to help it. I used to think that to be an environmentalist, I’d have to chain myself to trees and ride zodiacs into the path of whaling ships. But I’m a bit too word-nerdy for that. My potential to create ripples lay elsewhere (and yours might, too). If fashion is your passion, ask yourself how we make our relationship with clothes fully circular? If motivated by your gut, how might we prevent ⅓ of the world’s food being wasted? Are you a gifted musician? Then how do we communicate the urgency, and opportunity, of global challenges through a universal language?
Rather than projecting responsibility onto people in 'positions of power' - i.e. elected officials in government, or the heads of big business - we must harness our innate power as individuals and show up to solve these problems. I believe that the fate of our world is a 7.6 billion-piece puzzle in which everyone has a place.
Where do I start? How do I take that first step?
Start by asking yourself: if I could solve any problem in the world today, what would it be? Think of the injustice that most riles you up in conversation, that ignites a fire beneath your skin. Now imagine what the world would look like without that problem. How would we do things differently? Who – or what – would benefit?
Every change-maker in history has claimed their own challenge. And I bet they would all agree that, while it’s great to care for lots of causes, effective change requires you to target just one. For Martin Luther King Jr., it was justice for people of colour. For Elizabeth Stanton, the liberation of women. For Sir David Attenborough, sharing his fascination for the natural world.
Having the courage to commit yourself to a single challenge enables you to shift gear, from do-gooder to change-maker. To focus. Gandhi didn’t sit on a mountainside and whisper to the wind about global peace; he had one goal, to liberate India from Great Britain. An impossible task, but he succeeded. A clear agenda ensures impact. Know also that no one is born a leader. You learn to become one through courage, imagination, and a mindset of achievability. Getting from where we are today to where we must be tomorrow may seem like trying to jump the Grand Canyon. That’s only fear at work. Be brash enough to assume that you will realise your goals, and expend your energy not on pessimism, but experimentation. Motivation
follows action. Take a small step today, and the giant leap will follow.
The future is so uncertain… what if we fail?
The hardest pill to swallow is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. We could throw all of our energy behind mobilising mindsets, changing society, transforming the system; and still fail. Still lose the Amazon, still lose Borneo, still trigger irreversible climate tipping points, and lose the life on this planet that we’re fighting for. As counterintuitive as it sounds, we need to reconcile this. We need to relinquish our expectations.
We don’t know what’s going to happen. And if we are too attached to a particular outcome, or take action because we think we’re going to win and succeed, we make ourselves vulnerable to defeat when things don’t go as planned. We must not act from a place of fear, but simply because we know it’s the right thing to do. I can live with myself, then. Knowing that even if I fail, I’ve done everything in my power to be a voice for the voiceless.
How do I develop my solution?
Once you’ve identified where you want to have impact, it’s time to figure out how. Become obsessive - learn as much as you can while cultivating your tribe.
I have some old school mates who, barely into their teens, were outraged over problems like plastic pollution, unequal opportunity for children in developing nations, deforestation in the tropics, etc. Each set to work imagining how they would do things differently, and then put these fantasies into action with their own grass-roots movements.
They knew close to nothing when they started out, but by committing to the challenge and embracing their lack of knowledge, they quickly became experts at asking the right questions and honing skills they didn't know they had (like managing mammoth projects, rallying communities, and harassing bureaucrats.) Because they were young, they were not seen as a threat to the status quo. This gave them enormous power. A few years on, they have each amassed a huge following and are setting ever-more ambitious goals for themselves and their teams. They’ve enjoyed success early on because they identified that guiding North Star, took action, and built tribes to support them.
Personal | Force of Nature
What's the problem you're trying to solve?
I don’t believe that the greatest threat facing us is the climate crisis - but our feeling of powerlessness in the face of it. We often feel too small to make a difference. And while it’s normal to feel grief over the damage we’ve inflicted on the planet, and overwhelmed by the task before us to reverse it - we can’t afford stories like, “I’m just one in 7.6 billion - what can I change, really?” to keep us from taking action. Our shared future depends on how effectively people step up, rather than shut down, in the face of our planet’s messiest problems. The challenge I’m trying to crack is how we mobilise mindsets.
What was your catalyst moment?
Since the age of 16, I have been researching ecophobia, eco-anxiety, and the psychology of agency. I started Force of Nature in 2019 to develop a corresponding formula to mobilise mindsets. Through our in-school programmes, we’ve found that things like self-efficacy, self-determination, and clarity of cause are essential ingredients to cultivate in young people who want to shift from anxiety to agency, and turn passion into action. Our efforts have since been recognised in outlets such as
The Guardian and
Financial Times, within a wider conversation on climate and mental health.
How are you making a difference?
I’m a climate activist, founder of a social enterprise, and my obsession is understanding why we do or don’t take action on the issues we care about most deeply. This year, I am not only researching barriers in mindset, but the universality of needs (across mental health, spiritual / emotional, knowledge, and resources) expressed by change-makers from all corners of the world. This research is fuelling our in-school and virtual programmes, while informing an ecosystem of interventions and activations to change the education system. These range from conversation guides for intergenerational exchange on climate; to street classrooms; to in-school curriculum reform; and algorithm-based apps for personalised change-making.
In tandem with Force of Nature, I am the campaign manager for
@myecoresolution - an online campaign to get people pledging for the planet. We’re bringing together world-leading research (e.g.
Project Drawdown), and the platforms of influencers (with an accumulated reach of 500 million), to ignite individual initiative - and help people go beyond token gestures to pursue transformative action.
How can I help? How do I get involved?
At Force of Nature, our 2020 mission is to mobilise 100,000 young people to turn passion into action. We’re rolling out our programmes in schools, developing online content, recruiting talent, and launching an exciting body of research on the barriers and needs expressed by aspiring activists. To make this possible, we’re looking for funders, partners, and to broaden our community of change-makers. We need all the help we can get. Please shoot a message to
firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to join forces!
On a personal level, you can support our mission by showing up with courage and committing yourself to a challenge that enables you to shift gear, from do-gooder to change-maker; identifying the problem you most want to see solved in your lifetime, then wielding your unique gifts and skills to solve it.
How can I support young activists?
A friend recently told me,
“Young people know what they’re angry about before they know who they are.” What if we were to listen? Imagine what the world could look like if we stopped asking our youngest and brightest to pick careers they have no love for - and started asking them which challenges they wish to solve? The young people I work with are naturally better change-makers. They’re less afraid of mistakes, more connected to their moral conviction, and, to be frank, are naively optimistic. When we bring together the energy of youth with the knowledge of experience, we can make magic happen.
The climate crisis isn’t about one generation versus another, and we sure as hell won’t get very far by pointing the finger. Invite young people, from a diversity of backgrounds, into your organisations; give them a seat at the table; and allow them to rekindle your own childhood dreams of being a superhero who saved the world (because your spandex-clad self is still there, inside. They’re just waiting to be set free).