On Eco-Activism & Solastalgia

This is an exclusive Indigo Express essay published by The Indigo Press

On eco-activism & solastalgia

Grace Maddrell

I ’m sure many of us know what it’s like waking up and feeling as if there’s a weight on your chest, for no apparent reason at all; of crying about nothing because everything just seems pretty hopeless; of fighting for something to look forward to because the present circumstances are just so very bleak; and of wondering why you don’t take the same joy in things as you used to. These emotions are far from universal, but they’re pretty common – much too common, but that’s a discussion for another time, or at least later on in this piece.

Yes, many of us know these feelings, but, as ever, their causes are far from uniform. For some, depression and anxiety will have no obvious cause. For others, it might be losing someone or something dear to them. For others, it might be bullying or abuse. And for some, it might be the state of the world. Knowingly or unknowingly, I think the state of things is probably always, to some extent or other, a contributing factor to mental-health struggles, particularly in young people. However, these kinds of things rarely have just one cause, and I know that, for me, issues such as the climate crisis, pandemics, and global inequality are probably only half the reason for my struggles with mental health.

All contributing factors are important, but what we’re talking about here is those global issues and crises that impact our mental well-being often more than even we know. More particularly, about a single, overwhelming global issue, which connects with all the others to a great extent. And that issue is the climate crisis.

Climate change. Climate breakdown. Global warming. The climate emergency. It goes by many names, some of them less comforting than others – correctly so, in my opinion, as there is nothing comforting about it – but all of them mean more or less the same thing: the fact that humans, and our emissions of greenhouse gases, are heating up our planet, leading to disasters such as flooding, wildfires, desertification, mass extinction, and the melting of the polar ice caps.

When you think about this crisis, the first thing that probably comes to mind is sea-level rises, or hotter temperatures, or wildfires, or dying polar bears. If you’re living on the front lines, mention of it may instead make you remember a disaster your community has faced, or will face, such as Typhoon Haiyan, which hit Kristine Marie Sabate’s area of the Philippines in 2013, and which is described in her essay.

What you probably won’t think about, whatever kind of community you live in, however much you’ve been affected, is mental health struggles. And that’s completely fair. These overwhelming disasters, which cost lives, property, and homes, are naturally at the forefront of our minds. And that’s totally understandable. It’s vital that all of us, particularly those in privileged countries, recognise the enormous damage we have done and the terrible ways in which the crisis is affecting people, especially front-line communities, right now.

By writing about mental health, I’m not devaluing or distracting from conversations about the direct physical impacts of this crisis. However, according to a report by the Grantham Institute, less than 1 per cent of 54,000 medical-research papers that mentioned climate change from 2010 to 2020 mentioned mental health, showing that this connection has been critically ignored. Mental health impacts are another facet of the climate crisis that aren’t talked about enough. This issue has a lot of relevance to me personally, as well as to millions around the world, and it’s a topic I consider myself more qualified to write about than about many other impacts, which I don’t experience to a great degree, living in a privileged country in the global North. The theme recurs in discussions around climate breakdown – Grace Yang of the USA, for example, references it specifically in her essay.

So, without delaying any longer, let’s actually get into the piece. I’m going to divide this into two sections: the impacts of the climate crisis on mental health and the way activism and advocacy against the climate crisis affects mental health.

Mental health and the climate crisis

The climate crisis, in terms of its impacts, both current and predicted, has a huge impact on mental and emotional wellbeing, particularly in younger people. I mean, it stands to reason. There’s a massive crisis looming, caused by older generations. For those of us lucky enough to be (mostly) escaping current impacts, it casts a dark shadow over our future. And for many of the writers in Tomorrow Is Too Late, it’s even worse. They’re facing drastic effects, right now, and the future only looks darker.

In the face of global crises, most people have what seems to be an inbuilt panic protocol. They avoid feeling anything beyond a vague concern by focusing only on their present, their small world. To some extent, there’s a place for this response. If we were all constantly feeling the full and devastating emotional impact of the climate crisis, we would be in a very bad way. If the entire world were facing that kind of emotional bleakness at the same time, there would be no one to help anybody else through it. If we were all to reach a point of hopelessness, then it would be much harder to act.

However, when this mindset takes over, and most of the privileged world is stuck in a sort of inertia, while communities in countries such as Afghanistan and Argentina face devastating impacts that they do not have the luxury of ignoring, is when we sit back and allow this crisis to continue. This emotional ‘freeze’ response, the very thing which in some ways protects those of us in privileged countries, is one of our greatest blocks in doing anything to mitigate climate impacts. With the vast majority of older and more powerful people stuck in one of four mindsets (protective inertia, outright denial, ‘we’re doomed anyway’ and flat-out lack of care), taking any genuine action sometimes seems impossible, especially as those of us not stuck like that will often find ourselves being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this crisis and the task we face.

Of course, these positions, from fearful but activist to flat-out denial, vary massively depending on a country’s regime, privileges and the climate impacts faced. Living in a privileged country, these are my observations, but in front-line communities, I’m sure many of the mindsets are very different. That’s why this piece shouldn’t be the only thing you read about this topic. Make sure to read content by communities at the forefront of the climate crisis, such as many of the activists featured in my book, because their voices are the most vital and simultaneously the least heard in this fight. But back to my point. There are good and bad things about the various mindsets, both for individuals and for the global community and future.

Protective inertia. This is the phrase I’m using to describe one of the most prevalent mindsets, at least in the Global North. This is the belief that ‘climate change is bad, but I’m not going to worry too much. It’s not affecting me right now, and anyway, my kids’ after-school club is more important at this moment in time.’ (The ‘after-school club’ is, of course, an example that can be replaced by any number of things.) This mindset protects the individual to a large extent. They’re able to ignore the crisis at hand and get on with their lives without worrying constantly about feedback loops or flooding or food insecurity.

Many people with this mindset are actually pretty well-meaning about the climate crisis. They’ll sign the odd petition, nod knowingly when you try to explain the current situation, tell youth strikers that we’re ‘so inspiring’ and perhaps aim to reduce their personal usage of plastic, or car travel, or aviation. What they won’t do is aim to effect real, genuine, people-powered change. Of course, within every mindset, there are vast differences between people. Some may retreat into the inertia when thinking about the crisis just gets to be too much.

And that’s valid to an extent. However, too many remain inert no matter what, and this is a huge block in terms of getting the amount of people we need to push real change. I’m not talking here about those who are genuinely unable to act due to socioeconomic circumstances, age, health, or any number of other reasons. My criticism is that this mindset is often the only thing stopping people, who are otherwise very able to, from acting. What’s dangerous about this is that it helps prevent any real action from being taken. Of course, you’re not going to get out into the streets and lend your voice to the fight if all you’re feeling is a vague concern about polar bears. And much as that mindset may be comfortable for you, it lays the weight of the crisis elsewhere.

Failing to act, choosing to ignore and compartmentalise, leaves those who refuse to do so shouldering the weight. This automatically places huge amounts of responsibility on young people and front-line communities, neither of which groups generally has the political or economic power to be able to make an instant difference. For every privileged adult who chooses to turn their back, there will be another weight on the shoulders of people with far less power and privilege, particularly of those who are part of minorities or groups that face oppression. This mindset delays real action and allows companies and politicians to greenwash and lie, convincing people that by buying their food in cardboard and ‘offsetting’ their flights, they are somehow solving an overwhelming crisis that began with colonialism and capitalism, hundreds of years ago.

Basically, the inert mindset protects the individual at the expense of far too many others. And while it might be hard to break through (after all, the ‘freeze’ response is a natural defence mechanism), it is absolutely vital that people in privileged positions stop focusing solely on their own lives and act for all those who are being affected right now, as well as the future of the entire world.

Outright denial. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Every climate activist or advocate will have dealt with some form of ‘climate denier’. This mindset may, in the short term, protect the individual, but it is incredibly dangerous. At the personal level, flatly denying science and fact is never going to be actually beneficial in the long run, and climate denial opens the door to many other dangerous ‘conspiracy theories’ and uncaring viewpoints. Besides that, climate deniers have the ability to influence other people, mostly those in the ‘inert’ mindset. By presenting made-up facts and random anomalies as scientific proof, deniers manage to if not convince people then at least cause levels of doubt that prevent many from actually taking real action.

The reasons for climate denial are hugely varied, from fear to right-wing views to religious convictions. Wherever they come from, these kinds of theories are dangerous and a huge block to any meaningful action being taken. Deniers are incredibly attached to whatever convictions they’ve decided to follow, whether it be a fervent devotion to business as usual or the ridiculous belief that ‘climate change’ is a leftist conspiracy designed to force communism or anarchy on the world. To be honest, while some minds may well change, there will always be some people who cling to fiction, who will try their utmost to find literally any other excuse for what’s happening to the world. In general, it’s best just to ignore them, wherever possible.

The ‘doomist’ approach: ‘we’re already doomed, it’s too late, might as well enjoy our fossil fuels while we can’. Basically, this one is another convenient way of getting out of taking real action. This mindset gets in the way of any real action and often manages to come across as believable enough that it drags activists down and causes people to give up hope. Again, some people are attached to foretelling doom, and there’s really very little we can do about it. However, it’s important to remember that climate-denying ‘science’ isn’t the only bogus science out there. There are many who will attempt to portray things as utterly hopeless in order to avoid taking any action.

Not caring. Again, pretty self-explanatory. There are many – far too many – who will claim to ‘believe’ in the climate crisis but who just do not care enough to do anything about it. This is one of the most common mindsets among the rich and powerful. For example, leaders will talk about ‘combatting climate change’ while setting targets for 2050, at least twenty years too late; CEOs will hold ‘climate solution’ competitions that lead to nothing before flying off in private jets; and companies such as BP and ExxonMobil will talk about putting money into renewables while continuing to extract and sell fossil fuels, destroy communities, and generally pollute the Earth.

The uncaring mindset is very dangerous, not just for the obvious reasons, but because it normally goes hand in hand with greenwashing, as with the examples I listed above. These companies, CEOs and politicians know full well that the climate crisis is real. For example, Exxon’s scientists knew it in the 1970s, and politicians have access to countless experts who have outlined the realities of the crisis. They know, and they don’t even deny it, but they just quite simply do not care. This mindset benefits them and them only. They protect their money and power at all costs, knowing and just not caring about the enormous, devastating emergency we face.

Many activists will say ‘we’re all in this together’, and while that may be true to a certain extent, it also isn’t. Having money, power, prestige, and privilege goes a long way to getting the world leaders and CEOs out of having to face climate impacts. They will never face situations like those experienced by Maureen Damen of Senegal or Nasratullah Elham of Afghanistan, and by ignoring that, by claiming that ‘we’re all in the same boat’, we ignore historical oppression, racism, classism, and capitalism, among other -isms. We ignore the sheer extent to which society benefits certain people, giving them all the assets they need to cease caring at all about a crisis that even they acknowledge the reality of.

Activism. The final mindset is activism. This is the only one that gives us hope. This means that people not only acknowledge the reality of the crisis but are willing to push for change. It looks different across the board, and some people in the activist mindset may not be able to actually take action, but the attitude goes a very long way towards helping. If most of the world thought this way, then far more people would be ready for change. After all, it doesn’t even take all that many people to make a genuine, tangible difference. Of course, the activist mindset comes with its own set of challenges, which leads us nicely into the next section.

Mental health and activism

Activism has the potential to either be very good, or very bad, for one’s mental state and well-being. For most activists, it seems to be some mixture of both. Activists are often susceptible to overworking, getting overwhelmed, and burning out – an experience that I am all too familiar with. My activism journey started off with just one strike, but in a matter of months I was getting more and more involved, until, in early 2020, I was utterly overwhelmed with all the different groups, calls, action points and Google docs.

Eventually, it got to the point where I crashed and burned. And I know I’m not alone in this. To tell the truth, I still haven’t picked myself back up. Even the slightest bit of activism feels like a huge effort. And while it’s vital that we take breaks, of course it’s a privileged position to be able to. Some people are fighting daily, quite literally, for their lives, like Nia, one of the book’s essayists, who comes from an Indigenous Argentinian community, and don’t have the luxury of pausing. That’s something we have to acknowledge. However, activism and mental health is a very mixed topic to explore, and below I’m going to look at both sides of the coin.

Positive. Many activists will at some point, have felt very alone. When they finally discover that there’s something they can do about the state of the world, that there are other people who feel the same way, they may start to feel a lot better. Many, many people – from Greta Thunberg to some of my own friends – report improved mental health since joining the climate movement. I personally definitely had a point where being part of this felt like I was actually doing something meaningful for the first time in my life. Like maybe I actually had a purpose. There were times when I felt unstoppable, times when I felt so powerful as a part of this wave of change. The positive impacts of activism on mental health shouldn’t be downplayed. However, the movement tends to gloss over the negative ones, which is far from helpful.

Negative. By its nature, being an activist normally comes with a lot of grief, rage, fear, and pain about the state of the world, especially for front-line communities. Many activists talk about lying awake at night feeling terrified for their lives or futures. Awful as it sounds, that’s almost a given. But activism itself can also hurt your mental state. Overworking and burnout, as previously discussed, can really mess up your life. And even when you are in a fairly good place in terms of workloads and taking breaks, there will always be issues in the movement. Being an activist doesn’t automatically equal being a good person, and there will likely be times that your group or campaign has to deal with someone perpetuating bigotry or harassment, which is the opposite of good for you or the movement.

Additionally, activism often feels like a huge responsibility. There have been times when I felt like if I stopped for just a second something terrible might happen which I could have helped stop. And guilt is not a foreign emotion to most activists either, whether that guilt is about the state of the world, not doing enough or going about something in the wrong way.

In general, activism doesn’t equal any one mental state. It’s different for everyone. Helen, for example, found the chaos of climate breakdown mirrored her mental-health struggles and disordered eating patterns. As she says so powerfully, ‘Sometimes it takes a sick mind to recognise a sick system.’ And while it’s very important that we all do what we can, particularly those of us from the countries which are most to blame for this crisis, it’s also important to remember that we, as activists, and particularly youth, don’t have to take all the responsibility. We can live our lives too and taking breaks does not make us any less worthy, moral, or caring. We have to remember that.

In conclusion, the climate crisis has many links to mental health. I am far from the first to explore this, and I won’t be the last. But if this piece helps even one person think about how deeply the climate crisis links to basically every other issue we have today, including mental-health crises, then the effort it has taken me will be worth it.

About the author

Grace Maddrell first went on school strike for the climate at the age of thirteen, and has since become a passionate activist for equality and climate justice. Grace was first inspired to tweet asking for contributions to what became Tomorrow Is Too Late in November 2019, two months after marching in the September global climate justice strike. 

Grace has worked with various activist groups, including Fridays for Future and the #SaveCongoRainforest, and helped co-found of Solo But Not Alone, a social media solo striker support group. Grace is home-schooled and lived in Somerset in southwest England at the time of compiling Tomorrow Is Too Late.

You can order Grace’s book Tomorrow Is Too Late here

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This essay is part of a series of Indigo Express works exclusive to The Indigo Press. Our authors have written moving, insightful and entertaining pieces in conjunction with and in celebration of the publication of their books with the press.

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