Sarah Jaquette Ray said she wrote her book "A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety," published last month, in part to help her students cope with the psychological challenges of living with climate change.
Ray, an associate professor who teaches environmental studies at Humboldt State University in California, says she realized her students "were really struggling on an existential and emotional level with the growing severity and the growing predictions about climate change, and the levels to which the problems were profoundly structural, and so big."
So she researched a new topic: the role of emotion in people's ability to engage in any kind of social movement, but particularly climate change and climate justice issues.
In this interview, which is edited and condensed, Ray talked about what the "climate generation" faces, what the coronavirus pandemic is revealing and why eco-guilt is not helpful.
Q: I interviewed someone who led a climate anxiety workshop, and she said climate grief and related feelings are "the normal, healthy emotional responses" that come with facing or working with the exponentially growing, existential climate crisis. How do you think about climate anxiety?
A: She's absolutely right. I remember a grief counselor once telling me that to feel really bad, and to have Depression and anxiety in a world that's really screwed up is sort of a normal response to a challenging world, and that the work it takes to be self-regulating and functioning in a screwed-up world, it’s a lot of work, right?
One of the things that characterizes the climate generation — and we're all waking up to it, because of coronavirus, much more quickly — but Generation Z is the generation that is going to be living through the transition between this presumption of the default being that everything is OK and stable and happy, to the default being uncertainty and potential chaos and restructuring of whole systems, and having to rethink everything. That is existentially very destabilizing. They're coming of age in that moment. That's something I find really interesting about the generation that's going through this. Their norm is going to be a sense of instability, a sense of uncertainty and insecurity and anxiety about the present and the future, and a lot of grief about what we're seeing lost. Grappling with a sense of disempowerment around being able to do anything about these things, all that stuff characterizes climate anxiety in this particular generation.
Q: One of your book's topics is letting go of eco-guilt. Can you talk me through that?
A: People who are environmentally minded operate in a state of guilt in this permanent way, like they're comfortable in a guilt state. Somehow the guilt is an assurance to them that they're at least thinking about and doing the right things. I want us to step back and think about why we're comfortable with having that kind of guilt in our lives, and about the research on the role and emotion of guilt in long-term behavioral change, and long-term work. The research shows that guilt is not a useful affect for long-term behavioral change. I'm interested in making all these environmental changes, all these pro-environmental behaviors, and structural change around climate justice, which is a much bigger question. Guilt is not an attractive way to get people on board, and we want as many people to desire that work as possible. Turns out that desire and pleasurable feelings will make people do the work for the long term and the long haul.
I know that I feel that way — I really have struggled with environmental behaviors because they seem to impinge upon my pleasure, and so I have really welcomed all of the research out there on how we can frame environmental changes and changes toward improving climate justice as pleasurable, as things that people want and desire to seek out. What are all the gains to be made from that, not the losses, and what are the ways that we can feel a sense of abundance, not sacrifice, over these kinds of changes that we need to make. That's really compelling. That's a new form of environmentalism that we need to promote, and we see that happening. We're having a new moment of awakening as we watch people respond to coronavirus with all the mutual aid, and all the incredible grassroots organizing around people and communities supporting each other, that is illustrating the kind of worlds people want to live in and desire to be in.
Q: During this pandemic we've seen big changes — in government and in people's everyday lives and behavior — in response to this crisis. We've seen skies clearing and a drop in carbon emissions because we're mostly staying home. What do you take away that can be applied to the even bigger problem of climate change?
A: When I talk to my students right now who are kind of excited about this moment, which is not the majority, but the students who are excited about this moment have been sacrificing for a long time and trying really hard to, in their individual lives, create alternative worlds that seem to just be microcosmic compared to the large, structural problems. And they've been waiting for the structures to be called into question as not useful, and not good, for human and ecological thriving. The moment that we're in is revealing all of that. Revealing, pulling the veil back, pulling the smoke back and saying the structures as they are have been extremely unjust and unfair and ecologically damaging, and so it's a real reckoning. That's the real positive.
Of course, the potential is that people can take this moment of crisis and do regressive things with it. That's the concern I have with arguments about the silver linings that we see about the air being so much cleaner, and animals occupying spaces that usually too many humans are in — it can lead to regressive thinking and policies around immigration, around closing down or isolationist politics, as opposed to the kinds of forward-thinking policies and incentivizing that this moment of crisis is going to prompt all kinds of new policies that had been stuck beforehand, that hadn't been able to make it past the front door. We need to be concerned about policies that just re-support business as usual in all of these ways. When we think about getting back to normal, we want to be thinking about not getting back to the normal that got us in this place in the first place.
Q: I was struck by this quote from your blog post: "In this moment, every act of kindness could quite literally be a matter of life and death. That's what climate change demands of us. That's what coronavirus demands of us." Are you getting at, "think of your impact on others," about your community and big picture?
A: This particular moment is revealing to us how important, and how vital, our human relationships with each other are. And how critical things like a sense of community are to our ability to be resilient, as a society, as a community, as an individual human. In the past, my students have often thought that they simply individually can't make a difference, and so there's a sense of futility of even trying to make a difference. The idea that you would have one act of kindness that could potentially butterfly effect out into something much bigger just never was convincing enough for people. But if you look at the amazing infographics trying to illustrate how disease spread happens with coronavirus, and you see these little individual balls bouncing off each other, and spreading the disease like something out of an old video game, you can see right in front of you how hugely impactful one person's actions could be. That's why you've gotten this cultural buy-in, for the most part, on everybody in the country, to agree to this incredibly egregious affront to our civil liberties of social distancing, and staying inside, and wearing masks.
The notion that an individual's actions could cause this scale of problem has been illustrated very clearly in all of those kinds of infographics, and society has seen it. We know this now.