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New Claim: ‘Climate Despair’ Is Making People Give Up on Life

By Mike Pearl; illustrated by Annie Zhao

In the summer of 2015—the warmest year on record at the time—it was the literal heat that got to Meg Ruttan Walker, a 37-year-old former teacher in Kitchener, Ontario. “Summers have been stressful to me since having my son,” said Ruttan Walker, who is now an environmental activist. “It’s hard to enjoy a season that’s a constant reminder that the world is getting warmer.”

“I think my anxiety just reached a peak,” Ruttan Walker continued. It felt like there was nowhere to go, and although she had spoken to her primary care doctor about anxiety, she hadn’t sought help with her mental health. Suddenly, she was contemplating self-harm. “Though I don’t think I would have hurt myself, I didn’t know how to live with the fear of… the apocalypse, I guess? My son was home with me and I had to call my friend over to watch him because I couldn’t even look at him without breaking down,” Ruttan Walker said. She eventually checked herself into an overnight mental health facility.

Her case is extreme, but many people are suffering from what could be called “climate despair,” a sense that climate change is an unstoppable force that will render humanity extinct and renders life in the meantime futile. As David Wallace-Wells noted in his 2019 bestseller The Uninhabitable Earth, “For most who perceive an already unfolding climate crisis and intuit a more complete metamorphosis of the world to come, the vision is a bleak one, often pieced together from perennial eschatological imagery inherited from existing apocalyptic texts like the Book of Revelation, the inescapable sourcebook for Western anxiety about the end of the world.”

“Climate despair” has been a phrase used at least as far back as Eric Pooley’s 2010 book, The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, but it’s been in wide circulation for perhaps as little as two years. In more progressive Sweden, the term klimatångest has been popular since at least 2011 (the year a Wikipedia article with that name was created). In The Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells notes that the philosopher Wendy Lynne Lee calls this phenomenon “eco-nihilism,” the Canadian politician and activist Stuart Parker prefers “climate nihilism,” and others have tried out terms like “human futilitarianism.”

Whatever you call it, this is undeniably a real condition, if not one with a set of formal diagnostic criteria. (It may reach that status—it took decades for “burnout” to be declared an official “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization.) It’s impossible to know how many people like Ruttan Walker have experienced climate despair as a mental health crisis, but despair is all around us: in our own momentary but intense reactions to the latest bit of climate news, in pitch-black memes and jokes about human extinction, even in works of philosophy and literature. There is now a fringe group of scientists and writers who not only take our imminent doom as an article of faith, but seem to welcome it.

This despair could be a consequence of climate change being on more people’s minds than ever before. According to social scientist and psychology scholar Renee Lertzman, author of 2015’s Environmental Melancholia, large numbers of people have recently come to the realization that climate change is real, scary, and not being addressed. “It’s a surreal experience because we’re still in the same system, so walking around, people are driving, and everyone’s eating a lot of meat [and] everyone’s acting like that’s normal,” she said. For some people, that feeling is incompatible with carrying on with the business of everyday life.

But climate despair goes far beyond a reasonable concern that a warming planet will make life more difficult and force humanity to make hard choices. Instead of rallying us, climate despair asks us to give up. In a 2009 study in the UK by researchers Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, climate-related data visualizations were presented to test subjects who were urged, in fear-based terms, to take action or else. Most of the time these appeals produced “denial, apathy, avoidance, and negative associations.” Ultimately, the researchers concluded, “climate change images can evoke powerful feelings of issue salience but these do not necessarily make participants feel able to do anything about it; in fact, it may do the reverse.” In other words, if you tell people something must be done or we’re all gonna die, they tend to take door number two, however irrational that impulse may seem.

From a distance, climate despair may seem like ordinary anxiety and depression in patients who happen to be fixating on climate, but it’s hard to deny the unique effect climate change is having on mental health. On May 5, a group of psychologists and psychotherapists in Sweden published an open letter to their government that noted the perverse status quo of climate change—the concern wasn’t so much that the environment is breaking down, but that nothing was being done about it.

Specifically, the letter noted that children are aware that the grown-ups are leaving them a shitty world, and that’s a really messed-up thing to be aware of when you’re a kid. “A continued ecological crisis without an active solution focus from the adult world and decision makers poses a great risk that an increasing number of young people are affected by anxiety and depression,” reads the letter, in Swedish.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who led the recent worldwide school strikes, said in her 2018 TED Talk that knowing about climate change was hell on her young psyche. “When I was 11 I became ill. I fell into depression. I stopped talking and I stopped eating. In two months, I lost about 10 kilos of weight.” She would later be told she had Aspergers, OCD, and was selectively mute. Then she came out of her despair and found a voice when she decided to strike—refusing to go to school until the world demonstrated that it’s getting its shit together.

Greta Thunberg at 2018 TED Talk on her climate worry: If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal? To me, that did not add up. It was too unreal. So when I was 11, I became ill. I fell into depression, I stopped talking, and I stopped eating. In two months, I lost about 10 kilos of weight. Later on, I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. That basically means I only speak when I think it’s necessary – now is one of those moments.”

Simply reading facts about climate change can produce reactions not too dissimilar to Thunberg’s. The Uninhabitable Earth calls climate change “the end of normal,” explaining, “We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure.” Last year’s UN report on humanity’s probable failure to stop warming short of the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold had a similar message, as did the one from May about how 1 million species are on track to go extinct due to human-caused environmental degradation, assuming we don’t change our course and stop generating greenhouse gases (alongside other forms of environmental havoc). Also in May, an Australian think tank called climate change “a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”

These warning signs undoubtedly help spread awareness, but for some that awareness can breed hopelessness. Maisy Rohrer, a 22-year-old developmental researcher at New York University, has been struggling to cope with climate change for years. “I guess the despair started when I was 18, and I began learning about how much the earth was changing, and I’d have full-blown panic attacks about the arctic sea ice melting, and the polar bears starving, and I’d call my mom telling her life was pointless,” she said. She believed at the time that the human race “should be wiped out.”

“I became very suicidal, and a large part of my justification for feeling like I’d be better off dead was that humans are hurting the Earth so much, and I as one person [couldn’t] make enough of a positive impact so it would be better if I were not around to cause any more damage,” Rohrer said.

Even those who don’t have thoughts of suicide can be affected in profound ways by climate despair. Brooke Morrison is a 26-year-old radio host in North Carolina who chatters about pop music enthusiastically when she’s on air. Off-air, her world isn’t so bright. “I feel like I’m already grieving my life and my future,” she said. Even her life plans—she wants to move to Los Angeles—are colored by her pessimism. “I 100 percent believe that the West Coast will be underwater soon, and I’d like to experience it while there’s still time left,” she said.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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Here are Climate Depot’s small sampling of wacky mental health climate articles below.  

Claim: ‘If Everyone Tripped on Psychedelics, We’d Do More About Climate Change’ – ‘In 1960s & 70s, frequent use of psychedelic drugs coincided with widespread environmental movements’Vice Mag: “Scientists are looking into what psychedelics do to inspire people to act pro-environmentally…After taking LSD, Bill stood in his kitchen in Merseyside, England, staring at a large tree. When the tree started to speak to him, Bill only found it strange that the tree didn’t formally introduce itself, he told VICE in 2017. During the rest of their 15-minute chat, the tree clued Bill into the profound fact that all life on earth—plant, animal, and human—was intimately connected. “It was as if someone was inside my head judging my feelings, my thoughts, and my emotions,” Bill said…

Psychology Today mag: ‘Millions’ suffer from ‘phenomenon of climate denial’ – ‘Psychologists never faced denial on this scale before’ – Warns ‘human race faces extinction’

STUDY: Concern over climate change linked to depression, anxiety – ‘Restless nights, feelings of loneliness and lethargy’

Miami Herald columnist: Climate ‘denial begins to look like psychosis’ – ‘Deniers just keep on denying’

‘Good Grief!’ Climate Change Makes Warmists Depressed & Gives Them ‘Literal Nightmares’

EnvironMENTAL: Support group provides ‘a safe space for confronting climate grief’ – ‘The Problem With Climate Catastrophizing’

Doctor groups take up ‘global warming’ advocacy – ‘Will tell the public their health is threatened by’ man-made climate

Warmist Meteorologist: ‘Climate Change’ and Trump Have Driven Me to Therapy – Meteorologist Eric Holthaus: ‘I know many people feel deep despair about climate, especially post-election.” And it’s because of this, “There are days where I literally can’t work,” and “We don’t deserve this planet.’

Psychoterratica — environmentally induced mental distress

Warmist Joe Romm claims ‘higher CO2 levels directly harm human cognition’ & ‘Global Warming Threatens Labor Productivity’

A new study shows why we’re polarized about climate change

‘We’re going to need more psychologists!’ – ‘Climate change will have significant negative impacts on health & psychological well-being’


Fed Study: ‘Climate change’ threatens hearts, lungs but also brains

Climate Skeptics May Be Too ‘Mentally Ill’ to Buy Guns Under Obama’s New Rules

Aussie Study: ‘Climate Change’ Is Taking ‘A Toll On Farmers’ Mental Health’ (Based on survey of 22 farmers in one town)“Increasingly variable weather was having a negative impact on many farmers’ wellbeing.”

Carbon causes PTSD (Stressed, anxious, violent? Blame climate change)

Claim: ‘In America, 200 Million People Will Suffer ‘Psychological Distress’ From ‘Climate Change’