Have you heard the term “eco-anxiety”? You can probably intuit the meaning even if you haven’t. To me, it’s a creeping feeling accompanying “environmental awareness”. YES, I am aware of the benefits of recycling so I push the bin to the corner AND I worry, “what else should I do..? is this enough?”
As a kid I watched classmates leave their homes as underground coal mine fires spread through the neighboring town of Centralia, PA. Fear of ground collapse is a very real threat (in fact it happened) and no amount of meditation or prayer changes the fact. Decades of political strife dragged on about whose responsibility it was to pay for the fire to be extinguished while it raged and undermined the town. Poisonous gasses infiltrated homes from below and families lost sleep— if they were lucky enough to have carbon monoxide alarms. Now Centralia is abandoned and sensationalized as a ghost town.
Serious cases of eco-anxiety may cause obsessive focus on dystopian scenarios draining our physical energy leading to depression. This state of “dis-ease” is becoming more common as we hear stories from around the world about dangerous changes that threaten all living things. Scientific American recently reported that even medical professionals are at a loss :
“The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes climate change as a growing threat to mental health, but many mental health professionals feel unequipped to handle the growing number of people anxious and grieving over the state of the planet.”
Scientific American, April 19, 2021
Therapists Are Reckoning with Eco-anxiety
Although the social media algorithms and the 24 hour news cycle attempts to hold us hostage to bad news, there are reasons for hope. Icon and primatologist-turned- environmental-activist, Dr. Jane Goodall says:
“I do have reasons for hope: our clever brains, the resilience of nature, the indomitable human spirit, and above all, the commitment of young people when they’re empowered to take action.”
Jane Goodall, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times
Visit the “Good For All News” page at JaneGoodall.org to learn about real change makers, or if you prefer a podcast tune in to her HOPECAST. My favorite podcast is “Climate of Change” hosted by Danny Kennedy and the actress Cate Blanchett. It’s entertaining and substantially informative. Best of all it’s a reminding you that we can–and are–solving problems. People of every generation are participating and finding new ways to adapt. It’s what all living things do and will keep doing.
You may be an artist whose work inspires awe or raises awareness, you may be a clinician that provides physical relief; you may be a retiree, gardener, writer, or have a job that allows you access to the public—whatever your gift and station in life, emerge from your shadowy thoughts and assist as the spirit moves you. Though we are human- with the power to reason and myriad fralities- we are also divine. Something energetic is at work in and around us guiding us towards connectedness and peace. You have felt it. If it has a “voice” it’s inaudible to me but I can usually recognize it by a subtle sensation of warmth in my heart, hands, and eyes. It’s a softening– a sensation that reminds me that young people are watching every generation that came before them to figure out how to move forward. You may not know exactly what to say about smoke turning our skies orange but you do know how to put on an N95 mask. If modeling persistence, loving-kindness and humility is your gift, this is enough. It is the best gift to share because it nourishes other acts of generosity that naturally live inside others. What I learned from watching the devastation in Centralia is: the better the primordial health of a community before a crisis, the better it can cope.
In July I’ll be visiting Pennsylvania and will make a trip to Centralia to take more reference images for a new body of artwork about Centraila. I want to meet the man who returns every week to mow the grass on the site of his old home. I also have plans to connect with old friends who’ve remained in the region, and learn about the newly discovered heat loving microbes that are helping researchers better understand resilience. Imagine that, new insight about resilience straight from the disaster zone!
To see new art visit the visual essay, “Environmental Crisis Through the Lens of Centralia, Pennsylvania”. This body of work was selected by The Environmental Peacebuilding Association and the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform-led Community of Practice on Environment, Climate, Conflict, and Peace (ECCP). It will be exhibited in Dubai in 2024 as part of a global grassroots project showcasing the impact of environmental and climate change on communities and conflict around the world.