Having been alerted to its existence by Douglas Dragonfly in this thread at Notalot, I forced myself to listen to a recent episode of the “Bristol 24/7 Behind the Headlines” podcast that discussed my least-favourite topic: climate anxiety. [Also on Spotify and perhaps elsewhere.]
The expert interviewee was Dan O’Hare from the University of Bristol, an educational psychologist who has recently written an article on some aspect of climate anxiety and young people (I don’t know exactly what, because I can’t find it). I did not bother to transcribe the interview, so my impressions of it that follow are necessarily broad-brush. I may have taken liberties with O’Hare’s exact words, but the gist is accurate, I think.
O’Hare begins with an anecdote about a schoolchild who, deep in the mire of climate anxiety, refused to get into his parents’ car so they could visit a grandparent. The car was part of the problem that the kid was anxious about; the kid was not talking nonsense, because his fears were justified. The school framed the issue as a problem with the child rather than concluding that the child’s actions were a rational reaction to a disturbing reality; O’Hare thinks they got it wrong.
Bearing in mind that the story was related to the psychologist by the school’s SENCO, we might – reading between the lines – guess that we are dealing with an autistic child, someone who has taken the reports of the “climate crisis” as literal fact, when even those of us who blather on all the time about the “climate crisis” as if we believe it implicitly recognise that the tales of imminent catastrophe are exaggerated.
An alternative hypothesis might be that the kid really did not want to get in the car [maybe for a long journey] and his rational mind provided him with a useful excuse. Either way, I don’t believe that legitimising his anxiety would have been the right way to respond to it. [Caveat: I have no expertise in psychology beyond what I call “Psychology 101,” which is a foundation course that every human has taken in observing the behaviour of others and the machinations of our own minds.]
According to O’Hare, young folks are raising our awareness of environmental issues, and our response is to “medicalise” them [my word] by labelling them with the condition “climate anxiety.” Instead, this should be considered to be a normal reaction to some “pretty scary stuff” [his phrase] that is likely to happen in the near future.
Thus it is that we reach the true dichotomy in this tale of climate anxiety: it’s either a rational response to doom impending as O’Hare thinks, or it’s an irrational response to untrue propaganda about a doom that is not at all impending as I think. Am I justified in describing climate anxiety as “irrational”? I think so, because anxiety generally is irrational. Try telling someone who is afraid of flying that the stats show that air travel is by far safer than going by car and see how far you get. Most of our anxieties do not have rational foundations. But even if we recognise that fact [again with the example of fear of flying] we cannot automagically dispel the underlying anxiety. My theory is that the best answer is to face the anxiety head on. But like most of us I prefer an avoidant approach, which deepens the anxiety even in the absence of new data.
O’Hare says that young people
suffering [not suffering; he dislikes attaching that verb] experiencing climate anxiety often know more about the “climate crisis” than the adults they interact with. So adults need to educate themselves on the topic at hand. That way, rather than be bewildered by the young person’s point of view, they can empathise with the climate anxiety experiencer and, yes, validate their fears. Better than addressing climate anxiety, according to O’Hare, would be to address the “climate crisis” by cutting carbon dioxide emissions etc. My rejoinder would be that fulfilling the wishes of the climate anxious would probably have civilisation-level effects, and not in a good way. The climate anxiety experiencer has become fixated on one answer to an enormously exaggerated problem – and it would be the wrong answer, even if the crisis was real.
But I do accept that it would be of no use to wheel out sceptics’ talking points – graphs of declining death rates or increasing literacy etc – for the same reason that the air travel safety statistics wouldn’t work. Simply saying “everything is going to be all right” won’t do either, even though everything is going to be all right.
Children, says O’Hare, find that they are not listened to by the powers that be. My answer is neither are adults. Populism is politicians doing what the people want, and I see precious little evidence of that happening. Anyway, the children’s message of existential doom absent radical change falls on deaf ears. To which we might reply that the politicians are trying not to destroy their countries while madly signalling to everyone who matters how much they care about the climate. At some stage, we sceptics think, if the politicians stray too far, they will instigate a populist uprising – something they fear far more than the “climate crisis.”
Next, according to O’Hare, climate anxiety is partly a reaction to inaction. I dispute this. It is a reaction to incessant propaganda, a victory of righteousness over objectivity, and political actions that try to display virtue while, as mentioned, not driving too close to the edge of the cliff of societal collapse. The response the climate anxious would like would see their lives take a distinct turn for the worse.
Do I have an answer? Not really. But as I put differently above, anxieties, like ghosts, thrive on rumour but die in the light. In other words, those of us who are sheltered from the climate are more likely to be anxious about it than those to whom it actually matters day to day. We are simultaneously sheltered from the climate, while constantly being bombarded by how dangerous it is becoming. This is not too dissimilar to our opinions about our immediate neighbourhoods – with parents shuttling their children from one safe haven to the next like a Chinook ferrying troops around hostile territory.
I suppose what I am saying is that schools need to get their students out into the world, preferably the natural world, so that they can discover not just how marvellous it is, but also how resilient it is. I would suggest getting them clearing scrub, making habitat piles and bonfires or digging ditches, collecting rubbish, that sort of thing – but I suspect that Health and Safety might say no.
See also a previous rant of mine on this topic, Advice for Climate Worriers.
PS. I’ve just heard on the radio that it’s anxiety week on R4’s PM show.