"Climate anxiety" isn't going to solve anything
I think depression is basically what the doomers ordered in the first place. It's this very Dostoevskian belief that what we need, as a society, is more repentance, more sense of obligation; you see the same thing in the segment of writers on race that runs from Robin DiAngelo griftwards, who claim we are making progress as a society inasmuch as people are getting yelled at. You see the same thing from Covid hawks whose response to questions about when we go back to normal is to claim that we live in an excessively "individualistic" society with no sense of "the common good". (When people invoke "community", it means "you should be taking orders from me, personally.") This is of course not exclusive to the left; until recently I would have thought it was a right-wing viewpoint. But it turns out when you give people orders about what feelings to feel, it does not yield social progress; it yields people feeling miserable all the time.
Climate dooming doesn’t cause depression — depression encourages people to hyperbolize climate doom. The depressed brain is path-dependent and thus wants to “stay depressed,” so it looks for any reason it can find to justify the current state of affairs. I can’t think of any depression-maintenance belief more seductive than “Holy shit the planet is on fire and will only get worse from here!”
As a general rule, the external explanation is never the primary cause of depression — just the thing the brain needs to maintain its story of pain and suffering.
One thing I think you left out is the impact an individual person can have locally, which can have huge impact globally! Right now there is a big fight in my town over the transmission line connection for 1400 MW offshore wind. Several people showing up to give unequivocal support to the proposed plan by the utility could sway the Select Board to grant the required variances, rather than cave to the NIMBYs and drag out the process for years. That's a huge amount of renewable energy!
Great column. I think that toning down the doomsday rhetoric has an important additional benefit in that it makes it more likely that the squishy median voter will go along. If you paint a scenario where it is imperative that we all stop flying, ban traditional cars, eat lentils instead of meat, and so on, then a lot of people are simply going to tune you out. Moreover, you'll make it impossible for any Republican legislator to work with you.
Much better to argue for more investment in nuclear power, for subsidies for renewable energy production and EVs, for better building codes and zoning regulations, and so on.
Great piece. I'm a German journalist who writes a lot about climate change and the energy transition, and the discourse can sometimes be insufferable from two angles at once. On the one side, you have your old-white-male columnists and politicians who engage in climate action delay or outright climate change denialism. And then you have the depressed alarmists who absolutely insist that Hamburg will be swallowed by the sea in a hundred years. Some of these alarmists are climate journalists themselves, which makes industry meetups feel like funeral services.
Now to be clear: I think the denialists are a lot worse than the alarmists. And I think there is a case for alarmism if the stakes are really high (would people otherwise care as much about climate change?) But still, it makes nuance so needlessly difficult (and the job, at times, pretty annoying).
I’m reading this in the very early morning while trying to get my baby to go back to sleep, a time when I often find myself worrying about his future. Thank you for your grounded, nuanced, and well researched perspectives on this and so many other issues.
I'm reading Eisenhower's "Crusade in Europe" right now about his experiences in the war from 1939 - 1945. It's a great book, but what really comes through is Ike's genius at managing sentiment both directly in his command, within the governments he worked with, and to his best ability, in the Allied civilian populations. He was meticulous in his belief that the only way to win the war was for the Allies to first and foremost believe they could win the war. There are many instances of commanders being removed from positions or reassigned stateside for persistently downcast attitudes or whiffs of defeatism.
Climate change is not an impossible problem. We're not going to get out of this scot-free, but I think the overall benefits of industrialization more than outweigh costs.
To paraphrase another great American general - I am heartily tired of hearing what climate change will do to us. I want you to come back and tell me what we will do to climate change.
Like lots of things, activists have a view that talking about positive things will cause people to let their guard down or something like that. You see it with things like feminism. Women have made huge strides educationally, economically, and politically over the last few decades. But people still talk intersectionality of women like the social conditions of 1940 are still in place.
Same with environment.
The seemingly prolific belief among some Americans that the Earth will be literally uninhabitable in 20 years is a bit bizarre. The sad reality is that even in the more grim scenarios, the burden will fall mostly on poorer at-risk countries like, say, Bangladesh or the Pacific islands. Life in the developed world may change somewhat, but it’s not gonna be Mad Max.
We can’t get progressives in SF to sacrifice parking spots in order to build homeless housing. We’ve managed to make lifesaving vaccines a political issue. If anyone thinks you’re going to mobilize action to solve climate, I’m selling the Golden Gate Bridge for two bucks and a cup of coffee.
Like most things, technology will bail us out of what, yet again, politicians can’t accomplish.
I think we’re realizing for a lot of liberals “follow the science” means take the most risk-averse position and gloomy attitude possible, but that is not following the science.
Nice piece. Part of this, along with anxiety about Covid and more or less everything else, is probably attributable to the shift in the corporate media's business model, which is dependent on "engagement," which is in turn increased by stoking anxiety. Calm people spend their days doing things, instead of "engaging" online. Which reminds me, I gotta go do some stuff, instead of engaging...
I think history shows apocalypticism is actually a pretty typical human response to certain conditions. If you feel: helpless, misanthropic, and generally hateful of the world-as-it-is, apocalypticism is in some ways a coping mechanism.
In other words, I think a lot of the people suffering climate anxiety (not all, but maybe most) are in fact just victims of the post-industrial spike in mental health problems, bitterness, hatefulness, etc., and climate is just the vehicle through which those feelings and sentiments are expressed. If it wasn't climate, it'd be something else. There is a widespread sense among many (mostly upper-middle and upper class) that the world as we know it is a sinful abomination full of detestable people, and it is only natural that an Old Testament punishment cleanse the Earth of our Sodom and Gomorrah
Not to criticize this fine piece, but it would also be good to emphasize that if fears about climate change are affecting your mental health, becoming politically active isn't just going to be good for the climate. It's also likely to be more effective than any other type of therapy.
So if psychiatrists are seeing a lot of patients with this issue (and the patients don't read Slow Boring) they need to familiarize themselves with some of the technical aspects of the issue, and steer their patients towards the type of activism that's going to help. Being confident that you're following the right strategy is very important: again, not just for the climate but also for the effectiveness of your own treatment.
I'm not really a touchy-feely person and I kind of resist the idea that politics should be viewed through the lens of mental health, but we seem to be living in a moment where there's no alternative. Matt is talking mainly about educated liberals who worry a lot about this particular issue but aren't doing anything... but I also think there's a sizeable group of people, especially some of the super-woke, who have mental health challenges of their own and are deeply engaged in politics as a kind of self-medication.
Those people have the right idea, at least, because activism really is the best therapy. But they're not focused enough on whether their style of activism produces the right results. If we could get both groups mobilized for practical action--the ones who are posturing on social media and doing counterproductive things, and the ones who are miserable because they don't do anything except worry--the world would be a better place.
I think cbt for politics would be a very useful program for a lot of left people. I certainly could use it.
I think it’s very easy to end up in a perfectionist space when you’re dealing with problems that are abstract and somewhat distant. I think about in my 9-5 I’m much more open to shitty compromises than I am in politics because I’m in the kitchen making the sausage.
Make me hit my head against the wall hearing climate doomers