Among rising fascism, a potentially endless pandemic and the constant threat of global economic collapse, there are many ways a knowledge of current events could impact our mental health. However, none of these issues seriously challenge “climate despair.” This phrase describes the recent trend — mainly among youth in affluent, western nations — to experience anxiety, depression and other harmful mental health conditions due to simply learning about the effects of climate change, a human-induced sixth mass-extinction event and other environmental trends which threaten civilization in the 21st century.
Climate despair gained serious public attention following a 2018 report from the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change — a body of prominent global environmental scientists who recommend policy to the UN. The report claimed that, in order to forego catastrophic environmental impacts of climate change including sea level rise, increased temperatures, refugees and the shortage of essential resources, the governments of the world would need to commit to drastic policy efforts to lower consumption of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gasses, limiting global warming from pre-industrial levels to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Concern about this report was arguably a factor in the prominence of youth activist Greta Thunberg and the climate strike movement of 2019, which pointed to global inaction against annually growing fossil fuel industries, especially in the wealthiest nations.
Climate despair has become more widespread among youth who know they may live to see a radically damaged ecosystem, no longer responsive to human needs. Amid global governmental inaction, we have completely ignored the 1.5 degrees Celsius target of industrial warming, and the recent IPCC 6 report claims we must now act radically to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In reality, given present global environmental policy, we are poised to experience 8.5 degrees Celsius of warming during the 21st century alone. This amount of climate change would render earth unrecognizable and, while the number of humans our new planet will support is unknown given current science, the predictions indicate that a kind of historic catastrophe is coming.
First, I want to validate the experience of grief caused by the ongoing violence done to our ecosystem and the people who live here. It would be profoundly sick for someone to truly understand the crisis occurring right now, and not to experience some level of grief. A critical task for everyone during the 21st century will be learning how to survive unforeseen amounts of grief. If current trends can teach us anything, each year more and more people will be lost to disease, shortages, forced migrations and resource wars, so long as there is no end in sight to the use of fossil fuels, the sixth mass extinction and the general increase of ecological collapse.
In spite of this situation, government officials, billionaires, corporations and world governments continue ignoring popular demands to prioritize renewable energy and sustainability. Further, environmental activism, organized labor, community organizing and even more revolutionary forms of grassroots politics have thus-far failed to push global capitalist industry away from harmful environmental practices such as the use of fossil fuels. The longer that this situation persists into the 21st century, the more organizers will need to balance pursuing mitigation with attending to the victims of such violence.
This isn’t a simple task or one for which I have a blueprint here, but our collective survival will mean developing practices by which we can, in whatever way possible given the circumstances, maintain a strong awareness of global suffering and continue to struggle without becoming debilitated by mental illness. If we can’t find a way to help each other through immense grief, we will not survive greater climate violence when it arrives at our door.
To be able to recognize that the world is dying and still personally maintain a standard of material comfort is a monumental privilege in a global context. This privilege is proven by those in North America whose homes are destroyed by wildfires and floods at increasing rates. This is proven by hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Global South who are forced from their homes by scarcity-induced wars. This privilege is proven by the indigenous communities whose homes are plundered by corporations with the assistance of the state for fossil fuels and other natural resources, destroying our ecosystem in the process. This the beginning of a long line of populations who will be targeted as environmental catastrophe worsens.
The reality I describe above where a community either learns how to persevere through and beyond suffering — no matter how unjust, unforeseen and inhumane — or perishes, is already the norm for millions and will become so for billions as resource scarcities, extreme weather events and social conflicts increase in the coming decades. The longer each of us waits to join in constructing global solidarity, the sooner we subject ourselves to the sufferings which today we have the privilege of simply witnessing.
Our situation speaks to the truly insidious nature of privilege in oppressive societies. The privileged, at the expense of the oppressed, enjoy unique standards of material comfort due to their proximity to wealth, whiteness, masculinity, heteronormativity and many other forms of social and monetary capital. Yet in moments of crisis, privileged peoples are blinded to the true violence their benefits are derived from. They are often unable to see common cause with those less privileged than themselves. The more we benefit materially from systems of exploitation, the more difficult it will be for us to imagine losing these privileges and no longer being able to rely on the exploitation of less fortunate others, even if the hierarchy itself threatens to topple.
Attending UConn, living in the United States or even just reading this article, we are the privileged ones whose livelihoods have not yet personally been challenged by climate catastrophe. The most oppressed are those whose labor and resources are being exploited today, although as time progresses they will have proportionately less access to a shrinking amount of necessary goods on earth. Dramatically, we all need to develop the ability to understand, question and challenge our relationships to structures of oppression if we want movements of global environmental solidarity which legitimately challenge the destruction of the ecosystem.
Addressing climate despair in a humane way is not a matter of making illegitimate, suppressing or ignoring our grief and our emotional reactions to a crumbling world. It’s a matter of validating and contextualizing this grief, and then moving on to create stronger practices of love and solidarity.