Credit: Michelle Mendieta Mean
Columns Environment News

Climate anxiety and writing to cope: welcome to my column!

Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean

Not exactly the cheeriest of openings, is it?

Climate anxiety, however, is as real as the climate and ecological crises we face.

I’ve always used writing as a coping mechanism – after all, I’m not much good at other ‘creative outlets’ – so I usually put pen to paper as a way to understand things, and go from there.

Nothing is perhaps as existential and as daunting to comprehend as the climate and ecological crises. There are no greater problems facing me, you, or any of us than the fact that we are living in suicidal societies. Whether it be our obsession with infinite economic growth on a finite planet, the incessant plunder of our planet’s resources, or the short-termism of our politics and media, the structures that govern our lives are taking an axe to the tree of life to which all our fates are inextricably bound.

Writing about these existential threats empowers me to do something about them, and at the end of each week’s column, I’ll give you an action point to take away and implement in your own lives before next week’s instalment.

As with many things in life, I take the words of the poet and musician Kae Tempest as the basis for my environmental outlook. They write, in ‘Hold Your Own’:

“When everything is fluid

and nothing can be known with any certainty

Hold your own.”

This Climate Column is an act of me holding my own, and I hope that it will inspire you to do the same.

The climate and ecological crises are existential and thus, by definition, are inescapable. They cannot be hidden or run away from. They must be faced.

How to face these crises keeps me up at night, distracts me from my work, and appears in constant daily reminders, from plastic bags floating down our streets to aeroplane trails crisscrossing our skies.

Covid has demonstrated to us all the consequences of humanity’s destruction of the natural world; this climate disaster has claimed millions of lives, a warning of things to come if we do not fundamentally and urgently transform the systems and structures in which we live.

The first step in facing these existential crises is exactly that: facing them. Acknowledging and understanding the challenges we face, and why we are facing them, is instrumental to being able to do anything about them. “Face the climate emergency!” as Greta Thunberg says.

This understanding subsequently engenders empathy, and empathy in turn develops greater understanding of the problems we face from other peoples’ perspectives. From here, we can act, empowered with the understanding of what we can and should do, and with the empathy that motivates us to take these actions.

This is the process through which I turn my anxieties about the uncertain future we face into empowerment and positive actions, for it is only through acting that we can begin to take our futures into our own hands, however futile that may seem individually.

Yet individual actions need not be futile – Greta Thunberg’s school strikes have provided hope and empowered millions of us to do likewise. That’s millions of young people going through the same process of understanding, empathy, and action.

Whilst no one can do everything, everyone can do something.

True though this sentiment is, it is equally the case that some can do more than others, for the same reason that others face barriers that some of us do not.

Through blind fortune over which I had no control, I have ended up in a privileged position which I cannot and should not ignore.

In many regards I am the personification of what got us into this mess in the first place: I am a white, British male. I’ve never had to deal with mental illnesses growing up. I have a nuclear family, a safe home, I went to a good school, and go to one of the best universities in the world.

Among the privileges I enjoy as a result of my position are: feeling safe in public at any time of the day; never having experienced discrimination based on my looks or how I identify; enjoying an uninterrupted and healthy school life and childhood; having food, water and energy security.

These privileges must be acknowledged and addressed, for the climate and ecological crises we face are a direct consequence of the systems from which I have benefitted whilst others have not. Time and again, we see reports detailing how those least responsible for the climate and ecological crises are those who are, and will be, those most immediately and damagingly affected by them. Thus, women from India or Vietnam who are responsible for growing the majority of those countries’ rice yields, are seeing their crops ruined by unprecedented floods caused by the actions of wealthy men in the West.

In this column, I hope to use my privilege to pass the microphone onto others, and thus continue that process of understanding, empathy, empowerment and action which is crucial to our success in facing up to the greatest challenge in our species’ history.

ACTION: In his book ‘The Future Earth’, Eric Holthaus writes: “The single most important thing each of us can do about climate change is to talk about it.” So, this week’s action is to talk, over the phone or in person, to a friend or family member about the climate and ecological crises. Ask them how they feel about these crises, how much they know about why we’re in this mess, and what we can do to face up to these challenges.

I will sign off with a little phrase used by Costa Ricans which means ‘pure life’, and encapsulates what we should all strive for during our stay here on Earth:

Pura vida,

Max.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue, and now writes a weekly Climate Column. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.