Eco-anxiety in a global context: those most affected are being left out of the conversation

Thomas Pienkowski

In 2017, the American Psychological Association published a report describing the mental health impacts of climate change. In this report, they used the term ‘eco-anxiety’ to describe “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” During the recent climate protests that have taken place around the world, the scale of environmental degradation has been thrust into public awareness. Accompanying this, eco-anxiety has gone from being a niche term in environmental psychology to one commonly used in public discourse – Prince Harry suffers from it. According to the Climate Psychology Alliance, eco-anxiety is a healthy and reasonable response to concern about environmental change.

Most public discourse around eco-anxiety comes from an affluent western context, like the anxiety felt among Greenlanders or discussed by the BBC. Herein lies the problem with some of the conversations around eco-anxiety; most of the discussion is centred in places that are least harmed by environmental change.

My PhD looks at links between environmental change and mental health. This year, I spent several months interviewing farmers in rural western Uganda. During one of these interviews, a farmer told me how unseasonal rainfall had left crops rotting in fields, which means he will struggle to feed his kids next year. For him, this was a source of “thinking too much” – a term characterised by symptoms similar to those used to diagnose anxiety or depression, recurrent across east Africa. His story was not unique; it was repeated by many others I spoke with. Although this year’s unusual weather patterns cannot yet be attributed to climate change, we know the weather in Uganda will become more uncertain in the future.

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Figure 1. Heavy unexpected rainfall left crops rotting in their fields.

That same day someone forwarded me an article about eco-anxiety; wealthy Europeans worrying about the future of their children. I couldn’t help but contrast the immediate, severe, and tangible distress experienced by that farmer with the anxiety felt by those insulated from the worst impacts of environmental change. This is not to diminish the suffering caused by eco-anxiety in a wealthy western context – European farmers will also be hurt by climate change, for instance. Instead, it is to put that suffering in relative perspective to the distress which is, right now, being experienced by those most exposed to the effects of environmental change.

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Figure 2. Speaking with farmers in western Uganda.

This contrast also highlights another truth that is sometimes missing from conversations around eco-anxiety; developed countries contributed most to the environmental crisis while developing countries suffer most from its consequences. Likewise, within countries, the distress caused by environmental change is often disproportionally felt by marginalised groups. Again, while this does not lessen the suffering associated with eco-anxiety in the wealthy West, it does remind us that this distress is unjustly felt by some more than others.

This reminder is important – fear and anxiety for one’s own welfare may drive drastic action that excludes or harms others. For example, calls to set aside 'half Earth' for nature would potentially impact the lives of over a billion people. Similarly, Extinction Rebellion’s promotion of tactics, like getting yourself arrested, alienates many communities. Conversely, awareness of the (often hidden) distress experienced by others in the face of environmental change may be a source of more empathetic environmentalism.