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Eco-anxiety, defined by Healthline as "persistent worries about the future of Earth and the life it shelters", can be debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right mindset, we can harness our anger and anxious energy to save ourselves and our environment. 

Credit: Jesse Zhang

Eco-anxiety is a misnomer. Healthline defines it as “persistent worries about the future of Earth and the life it shelters,” but those who have eco-anxiety also report anger, depression, existential dread, grief, guilt, obsessive thoughts, and post-traumatic stress. Eco-anxiety? It’s more like eco-anxiety, mixed in with eco-depression, eco-OCD, and eco-PTSD. 

For years, those who suffer from eco-anxiety have visited therapists, asking for help addressing their emotions. Yet therapists often don’t know how to respond. In a 2016 survey, 73.2% of therapists believed that climate change was important to their field, but only 29.4% felt that their training prepared them to help clients struggling with climate change.

This lack of training is proving troublesome as eco-anxiety is on the rise. Though I’ve researched climate change for years now, this summer put the environmental threats that I’ve studied in the classroom on my doorstep. Walking through Penn’s campus under a glowing red sun and repurposing my face masks to block out wildfire smoke from the Pacific Northwest, I felt hopeless. What good were any of my actions when our unsustainability was a systematic crisis, resulting from the actions of millions, if not billions, of people?

Eco-anxiety can be debilitating, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right mindset, we can harness our anger and anxious energy to save ourselves and our environment. 

But first, we must understand eco-anxiety at its worst. Those afflicted with it are hyper-aware of environmental issues in the news, but this awareness does not always translate into action. If anything, eco-anxiety accomplishes the opposite. Climate scientists and researchers at Oxford found that as they engaged more with negative climate news, they lost faith in their ability to effect change, resulting in “anxiety, burnout, and a sort of professional paralysis.” Eco-anxiety at its worst is maladaptive, getting in the way of meaningful action.

Ecological fear, when not paralyzing, can exacerbate existing inequalities. Though I was affected by the poor air quality in Philadelphia last month, I still had a mask and a home to shelter in until air quality improved. Many people don’t even have that. While I had a day of poor air quality and red sunlight, those in Oregon and California have lost millions of acres of land and walk under fiery orange skies. Climate and eco-anxiety, which mostly affect white people and the Western world, may direct conversation and resources away from under-represented minorities and developing countries: climate-vulnerable populations that need aid most. American environmentalism in particular has a history of anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, which could morph into xenophobic and isolationist policy.

It’s easy to think all hope is lost when examining our ecosystems and climate. Nonetheless, we must believe that we can create a sustainable future together. Believing otherwise is condemning humanity to widespread death and destruction by the end of the 21st century. We can reframe eco-anxiety as a mental block that we have to overcome. Researchers in The Lancet argue that eco-anxiety may be “the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and conviction that are needed for the lifesaving changes now required.”

Single-handedly, we cannot affect global energy production the way that an oil executive or government can, but in numbers, public opinion can sway energy policy decisions. One sustainable purchase won’t dismantle unsustainable global markets, but widespread changes in buying patterns could impact the behaviors of companies. We change law and policy when we elect and volunteer for climate-aware politicians or when we contact incumbent political leaders, encouraging them to support legislation on climate change solutions.

Is it fair that climate-conscious citizens of the world have to take action themselves, when much of their carbon footprint is determined by corporations, policy, and legislation outside of their control? That is an open question. But even though we aren’t as powerful individually as governments and companies, we can still make a difference. We are bright, motivated students who can call for political action, whether that means writing our representatives, volunteering for them, or even organizing marches. The wealthiest 10% of the world (defined by an individual net worth of $93,170) emits roughly half of the world’s carbon emissions. The median family income of a student at Penn is $195,500, which implies that many of us and our families can allocate money towards environmentally conscious investments and lifestyle changes that decrease our outsized carbon footprints. 

The problem with eco-anxiety at present is that it is not adaptive. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 63% of Americans are worried about global warming, but only 35% of Americans ever discuss it with others. They also found that majorities of young Americans would be willing to partake in climate activism such as signing petitions and voting for climate-aware candidates. The anxious energy and drive stemming from eco-anxiety is there: it is now up to us to convert it into meaningful action.

CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering sophomore studying Systems Engineering & Environmental Science from New York City. Her email address is magdolen@sas.upenn.edu.

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