Ice floes and ‘climate despair’

Dear President Trump,

Every day when I finish writing my letter to you and I’ve posted it on my blog, I open a new tab to pull up your contact page. It’s usually the first time in the day when I “get” links to whatever Google (I guess) thinks I might want to see. The reason I’m bothering to tell you this is that yesterday when I opened a new tab, the second of the three links I could click was to an article in Vice entitled ‘Climate Despair’ is Making People Give Up on Life. It was accompanied by a sketch in saturated reds, blues, blacks, and whites showing a person all hunched up, hugging their knees sitting on an ice floe among a bunch of ice floes.

I have no idea whether it’s a coincidence that I’d just added a blog post saying the world would be better off if you and yours were to float out to sea on a melting ice floe, but it was pretty weird to have this image turn up on my screen unbidden. Whatever the reason for its appearance, I’m taking it as a sign to go ahead and write to you about ‘climate despair.’

The Vice article does a pretty good of delineating when people’s concern about climate change tip over and become significant mental health concerns. This is sort of an aside, but the male author only included struggling people who are women and mostly, though not entirely, scientists who are male. Although this is annoying, women are more prone to depressive disorders than men so maybe he couldn’t find any men with these issues or any men who were willing to go on record about them. I bet if he’d included anything about over-using substances, gaming, gambling, or pornography as climate-avoidance tactics, he could have found some men to profile.

Ok, so what sorts of climate-related mental health concerns were covered? Well, here’s a partial list: 1) depression and/or anxiety over climate change that interferes with taking care of one’s responsibilities; 2) unable to stop thinking about global warming and filtering absolutely every choice through that lens, and 3) thoughts about killing oneself because one is unable to effect meaningful change in global warming, believe one has no future because of it, or believe the world would be at least a little better off minus one person. It’s a pretty grim list, isn’t it?

One of the main points of the article is that most people who indicate they are very or extremely anxious about climate change say that what really gets to them is the lack of response to global warming on the part of government (e.g., rampant roll-backs of environmental protections at the federal level, disdain and denial of climate change by the Executive Branch, suppression of relevant science, etc.) and most people (e.g., lots of us continue eating lots of meat, we drive big gas-hog polluting cars, our consumption continues unabated, etc.). We are collectively faced with a problem, a very big problem, and rather than an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ and a ‘we must all make sacrifices for the common good’ sort of response, there’s no over-arching, coherent response. In fact, we are instead encouraged to do things that will only make the problem worse, like continue spending money on throw-away products to keep the economy expanding (to line somebody’s pockets). That really is crazy making.

Most of us seem able to kind of set it aside, while others of us do things on our own we hope will make at least some difference. Most of us are not checking ourselves into psychiatric hospitals over climate change concerns. I contend, though, that the folks who are undone by these worries are our canaries in our coalmines. One of the scientists quoted said it’s irresponsible to forecast climate doom because humankind is going to figure out how to be carbon neutral within the century; it’s a matter of how soon we do it that will dictate what sort of environment we’ll need to adapt to. He’s almost certainly correct that there will be lots of human around at the turn of the next century no matter what happens to the planet, but where his argument doesn’t work for me is that the longer we wait to pull our heads out, the more likely it is that the world’s most vulnerable people will not make it, let alone the world’s most vulnerable species. So, I think the people who are deeply troubled to the point that they need professional help to cope with their climate despair are carrying a disproportionate chunk of the burden.

May we be safe from ourselves.
May we be willing to get real about what needs to change and how soon.
May we find ways to reckon with climate change that don’t incapacitate us.
May we listen to our canaries and accept our collective reality.

Tracy Simpson

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