This term, I started a new module on my Masters course, which I was very excited about. It’s called Ecotheories and looks at the ways that literature, literary criticism, anthropology, and ecology intersect. As you may know, working towards helping our planet is one of my biggest passions, so you can imagine how overjoyed I was when I found that this module was offered. The first week’s reading, therefore, hit me very hard. All of the ways in which I try to reduce my carbon, plastic, and waste output allowed me to enter a sort of mental echo-chamber where I felt like everyone was making similar efforts – after all, environmental consciousness surely has to be a difficult thing to avoid. Everywhere we look, signs are posted to recycle, news stories cover the vast levels of waste in other distant places and the rise of youth climate protest that has been prevalent through the work of Extinction Rebellion is everywhere (There are even paintings around the city here to raise awareness).
You can imagine then, when I began reading a piece by Tian Song, a Chinese academic, who discussed the rampant disregard for the vast waste being produced daily, the pillaging of the Chinese yew forests and countryside in the name of productivity and the gargantuan thrust of capitalism that demands wave after wave of waste in order to get acquire more, more more. It is so well written, so that anyone can immerse themselves in the content – I can’t find a public version of the exact extract, but here is a link to another piece by Song that follows similar strands and is broken into manageable sections.
At the end of reading this particular piece, I felt a level of futility about my efforts to save the world. Communities in China are drowning in waste and I think that using a shampoo bar instead of a bottle of Tresemme is going to fix it. My small efforts felt like nothing when compared to this tidal wave of emotion I unwittingly sat down before while reading Song. When that wave hit me, I knew that I was experiencing what is being termed ‘eco anxiety’.
So, what is it? Is it a diagnosable term? No, it’s not a literal condition. Rather, it is described by the American Psychological Association as a ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’. This can be triggered from reading about ecological disaster, from watching new reports on extreme weather or plastic leaching, or even from articles like this (it’s becoming rather meta now!). It can also be triggered by an experience of environmental disaster or extreme weather, like droughts or wildfires. The intensity and rapid availability of media coverage only feeds into the anxiety, rather than alleviating it through exposure. The feelings of intense sadness, of powerlessness and helplessness that I felt when reading this journal article was overwhelming, because of the way in which Song’s words painted the terrible picture so vividly.
Of course, I felt silly. I wasn’t there, living in that environment. But I had helped create it, whether through my consumption or choices. My generation were building that tidal wave, as were our parents and their parents before them. The gravitas of the criss became so clear to me in that text and yet I found myself unable to communicate that during my group seminar.
So, how do we solve it? You definitely must not pretend its not there. It is, and unfortunately, it is only going to get worse if we pretend that by sticking our mountains of waste into holes in the ground or sending it overseas that it somehow disappears. The abuses of indigenous and rural land are indescribable. Even if you were somehow happy to ignore that, our water now contains micro-plastics, our food is contaminated, our countries are time bombs for ecological crises. I want therefore to return to the start of this post, where I talked about my small efforts, about the small efforts that I know so many of us are making in order to avoid contributing to the tsunami of debris and detritus. I have written a few posts now on ways to change our lifestyles in order to reduce waste. I don’t do it perfectly, that I am certain of. I know that my pill packets aren’t recyclable, that every time I want a convenience food instead of cooking after a rubbish day, I add to the trash. But to alleviate this eco anxiety, I remember the good things: the woman who refuses a plastic bag and uses a cotton one, the companies turning away from synthetic materials in favour of more natural, biodegradable options, the amazing online communities of zero waste lifestyle people who are raising their children to respect the planet and do their best to reverse the clock on the damage previously done. Eco anxiety os real, and it is heavy, hot and exasperating. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again:
We don’t need a few people acting perfectly to save this world. The world needs everyone to act now, perhaps imperfectly sometimes, in order to make a real change.
If you want some ideas on how to make those changes, why not check out my week of zero waste living for Style of the City magazine, or this post on how and why to reduce your plastic that I wrote in July.
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