When I was a child, there was little I had to worry about. Most of my needs were met and many of the issues that would plague my adult life were simply over my head. Life was filled with hope and while I lacked the confidence I have now, terms such as climate anxiety had yet to come into existence. Had I known how much would change in a decade I would have wished I had focused on the present moment more back then.
Society as a whole is anxious and it seems there is no escape from the problems of the world. When the world shut down in 2020 the impact was quite magnificent for the environment and for a brief moment the world could take a break. During this time I picked up stoicism, which I have been practicing for the last year. Stoicism at its essence is focus on the present moment. All else matters very little to the stoics. I have struggled for the longest time to pull myself into the present moment. I have always had a focus on the future and the past keeps finding its way back into my life. This is anxiety in a nutshell. So while I’m not completely opposed to the idea behind climate anxiety, I wonder how much it helps to constantly focus on the terminology itself. Is the terminology itself doing more harm than good? Are there better ways to approach the modern problems of the world?
Where I first saw the term
How many years ago, I do not know. But it must have been when I was still in college and it was most definitely a New York Times article. In fact, the NY Times throws the terminology around quite liberally. I’m not saying the idea itself is wrong but the term is designed to create a sense of urgency that more often than not is less helpful than it initially seems. It paints a picture of climate drama when really we should be having climate hope (these terms are just as bad, I know). If we were to approach this issue from the lens of a philosopher, the conversation might look something like this, ‘The climate is in bad shape, but it could be worse, so what can we do today to make it better?’ This conversation acknowledges the problem but instead of an over emphasis on the future, it looks at taking it one day at a time. College Mike would have said no, that we need to focus on the big picture, which is true to a certain extent. However, the Mike of today sees the wisdom in just simply living life.
Years of Sustainability under my belt
A focus on sustainability has been one of those few things that has been a constant throughout my life. When I was younger, I would take trash and make art. When I was in high school, I sowed a community garden and recycled cans. In college I gardened, composted, and used energy efficient bulbs. I’ve cared about sustainability so much that I took sustainability as an elective course. When I was the service chair, I had our entire fraternity plant a pollinator garden for Earth Day. While it hasn’t always been a perfect journey, I can hold my head high knowing that I’ve made an effort to be more sustainable in every aspect of my life and know that I am all the better for it.
What the Future Holds
So the question is really whether or not we want to add to overall societal anxiety, which is another issue altogether. I’m grateful we live in a society where there are pressing headlines regarding the environment and ecofriendly options available. But it is not enough. In the 70s corporate America made a push to make environmental focus on the consumer to take attention away from what they themselves were doing to the environment. Instead of changing their behavior in a meaningful way, they chose to shift responsibility (and in turn, blame) to the consumer. The idea of a consumer focused environmental stewardship is not in itself a bad idea. I feel great when I compost, I feel great when I ride my bike, and I feel great when I walk. The anxiety comes with knowing no matter what I do, if corporations are left unchecked, very little can be done. And then you add that on a global scale. Even if the United States does its part, you still have industrial polluters such as China and India that have their own laws and regulations.
New Technologies Emerge
To counter this a few ideas have been thrown around. One is to go full nuclear which has seen much pushback throughout the years. Nuclear energy is a very safe form of energy and highly efficient. Nuclear waste can pose a problem but there are emerging technologies that can recycle the fuel rods and eliminate waste altogether. Wind and solar are good but can be dependent on the weather itself. The other exciting technology is carbon recapture technology which can one day hopefully be used as a source of energy and could even make diamonds. So there is hope for the future and it is not as bleak as it may seem. And the beauty of technology is that there will be future technology that we cannot even begin to comprehend.
Stoicism has been near and dear to my heart for the last year as I’ve read through ‘The Daily Stoic’. It turns out the ancient Greeks had much of the same problems we do in our modern society. There is a certain comfort in this. To know that centuries later, human beings as a whole have not much changed. We spend so much time obsessing about the future and dwelling on the past that it becomes all consuming. So for the last year I’ve done away with it all. I didn’t think much of the book when I first got it. A friend got it for me as a gift and it looked interesting enough so I did as the book said and have been reading a stoic quote each day. It’s been close to six months now and I can say with confidence my mindset has fundamentally changed. The journey has been up and down but overall the impact has been profound. My mindset has changed looking back and I’m excited to see where the next six months lead. And I think we can all take a page or two from the stoics. The present is what we say we all want to live in but how many people truly live in it? Anxiety forms when we think about what could be and what never was so stoicism as a practice is a noble pursuit.
Applying this to Climate Anxiety
I think to reduce climate anxiety, we really must truly understand what it is. The only time I truly felt it was with the Oregon Wildfires a year or two ago. It seemed like the world was going to end and there was a sense of helplessness that went along with it. I couldn’t go outside and the fires kept burning. I lost sleep with worry and where as a child the environment felt like an unmovable mountain that sense of stability was lost as I wondered if the next year would be worse. Looking outside and seeing clear blue skies puts a smile on my face this year as I can’t remember a summer ever being as nice as it is right now. I’m walking and biking almost everyday and it’s been a joy. The spring had a lot of rain and I thought it would never end, which I was more than happy to have as it meant wildfire season would be much less extreme. And with a summer this nice, I can only imagine a Fall that will follow suit.
Devil’s advocate would argue that this approach is too relaxed but the way I figure is the environment is always on my mind and I can make a difference each and every day. My long term goals are to buy a portable composter and use the compost to take up gardening. Our garden has been long neglected and it would be extremely gratifying to revive it.
Some other Cool Causes to Mitigate Climate Anxiety
Another thing I can feel good about is I can support causes through lifestyle choices. Many years ago, I took up meditation. And then I bought ‘Playne’, a meditation video game. Upon completion, the developer has a tree planted in honor of the milestone. It may seem insignificant but if enough people are focused on causes such as this, eventually you’ll have entire forests planted. The other app is ‘forest’ which is a productivity app where you plant a virtual forest. If you so choose, however, you can use the in game currency to plant a real tree. While these are small differences, they can help reduce the feeling of helplessness when it comes to being a good steward of the environment.
Being anxious does not solve problems. We are constantly pulling ourselves out of what is and for no reason. The world is not all doom and gloom. New technologies are emerging that can mitigate the damage that’s been done to the planet and even reverse it. A life lived as a stoic can reduce some of the anxiety felt by a planet that arguably could have been better taken care of. However, there is a lot we can do ourselves to regain control. Ride your bike, walk more, even proper dieting can go a long way. It turns out a healthier life might just lead to a healthier planet.