Agonising over the icecap or frantic about floods? You may be suffering from 'eco-anxiety'

Michael Hewitt
Thursday 20 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Many of us worry about the future of the planet. It's both fashionable and cathartic. We can assuage our guilt over the fact that, say, the "carbon footprint" from our holiday to the Maldives has upped the official Dead Polar Bear Index by an additional 2.4, or that, thanks to our purchase of a mahogany nut bowl, the Amazonian Nukak tribe has just been wiped out, by recycling bean cans and paying £10 to adopt a stag beetle.

For some people, however, the terrifying prospects of rising CO2 levels, ice cap shrinkage, and yet another Live Earth concert are beyond any such gesture environmentalism. Indeed, a few become so neurotic as to be unable to function. Others experience symptoms such as bulimia, depression and alcoholism. Not only is there a new term for this new condition – "eco-anxiety" – there's a new kind of practitioner to save us from it, the "ecopsychologist".

So how does this modern malaise manifest itself? The effects can be extreme. There have been a number of cases, for example, of people who have chosen to be sterilised, such is their anxiety about the effect of bringing another rubbish-producing, fossil-fuel depleting, CO2-emitting human being on to the planet.

Thirty-three-year old Jen Cohen (not her real name) isn't so much bothered by the genetic line as the product lines. Specifically, those in supermarket chiller cabinets. A few months ago, she suddenly found herself physically unable to enter her local supermarket. It had nothing to do with a wonky shopping trolley. "I simply found I couldn't go in," she explains. "I haven't been able to go near one of those places since. I was frozen and felt physically sick about the idea of all the pesticides used to produce the food, the massive waste involved in the production and packaging and the suffering of the animals, the cruel way they'd been reared. And all so that we can save a few pence."

Aside from Tescophobia, other recorded cases include that of a 53-year-old landscape gardener who could longer wield his hoe because of worries over the weeds' welfare, a travelling salesman suddenly afraid to travel, lest his car exhaust cause somewhere low-lying, like Bexhill-on-Sea, to turn into Sea-on-Bexhill, and a recent spate of environmentally-conscious 4x4 burnings. (Here, before torching the vehicles and spray-painting "For the environment" on their sides, the activists removed, and, hopefully, thereafter recycled in a sustainable manner, the in-car stereo systems.)

Ten years ago, the orthodox approach to treating such people might have been a course of benzodiazepines. But today's emerging solution to eco-anxiety is ecotherapy. The science originated among the New Agers of the USA, like Santa Fe-based therapist Melissa Pickett, who describes herself as "a student of evolutionary inquiry, a visionary and a change agent". Eco-anxiety, she says, is caused by our disconnection from nature. Her recommended treatment is to reconnect with nature and acknowledge that any harm done to the Earth diminishes us all and provokes adverse psychological reactions.

"People tell me how an article about the polar bears losing their habitat was making them ill," she says. "So I place a photograph of a polar bear into the patients' hands and encourage them to have an imaginary conversation with him as a way to ease their despair." She also advises we carry rocks in our pockets to remind us of our connection with the Earth and buy one of her "sacred matrices" (yours for $10 each).

Many, of course, would argue that people suffer anxiety and stress regardless of the stability of the Arctic ice shelf, and thus was it ever so. So why necessarily look for an eco cause now? Most British ecopsychologists agree there's more to it than mere despondency over clubbed baby seals (and, perhaps significantly, none recommends carrying around rocks). Jungian psychotherapist and ecotherapist Mary-Jayne Rust initially takes a conventional approach.

"I don't like the simplistic term 'eco-anxiety'. Take the 'Tescophobic' woman. If she cited that as her first symptom, I would be listening hard. On the one hand I might say, 'Yes, we find ourselves living in very worrying times and it's a healthy response to be anxious about what we're putting into our bodies and being aware of what we buy into when we shop'. But when the anxiety has become so crippling that you become unable to enter a supermarket, I would want to enquire whether something else is going on."

So how do you determine that the anxiety really is caused by external environmental factors and these people aren't just plain nuts?

"I'm interested, as a therapist, in helping my clients understand the roots of their anxieties," Rust says, "and if part of their anxiety is coming from the bigger picture – from the impact that the wider ecological environment has on our internal world – then I want to explore that. But, initially, at least, I probably wouldn't appear to be working much differently from any other therapist. I would listen to the patient's current anxieties, inquire about their life, and ask what they feel about the world.

"Some people don't want to talk about it at all, and that's fine. We proceed conventionally. Others are thankful for the invitation to share their concerns about the world and how it's impacting their inner psyche. That's how eco-therapy begins."

And dead polar bears and all the rest cause alcoholism and other ailments how exactly?

"I had a client, an alcoholic, who was so depressed by state of the world that she said, 'We're screwed, anyway, so why not binge drink?' Her peer group felt the same, but they never really talked in depth about it. Imagine a whole generation growing up with such fears about the future. We must provide safe spaces for people to start talking about this together in a meaningful way.

"There was another who was a compulsive over-eater. She told me she had a dream of standing in the middle of lush rainforest as the trees were destroyed. It's often through such dreams that the unconscious can remind us of what Jung would describe as the '2-million-year-old self' who's still present in all of us. And if we listen to this ancient part of ourselves, it will remind of us of a gentler age which, inwardly, we still hunger for."

Rust also runs eco-therapy courses to help reconnect people with nature. Some of these consist of trips to the Scottish Highlands, others are simple country walks. "I don't regard them as a cure per se. A walk in the woods won't in itself cure, say, an eating disorder, but it's certainly an aid to therapy. It's rather like the defragging of a computer. People who have suffered great trauma can find solace in making a safe connection with the natural world."

The main problem, apparently, is that our "Gross National Happiness" is in decline. "Living more simply, in a world based on inner wealth rather than material wealth, is not only possible, it would also make us healthier and happier," Rust continues. "The challenge is to inspire people's imaginations to this end. For this we need government legislation, grass-roots movements, and also a re-thinking on every level of society. Above all, there should be a move into sustainability. It's a creative adventure that challenges us to leave behind consumerism in search of inner satisfaction and an inquiry into the purpose and meaning of existence. Since I have faith in humans as a species, I also have faith that we may just find our way through this global challenge."

Which certainly sounds better than simply sponsoring a stag beetle, regardless of how endangered he might feel.

How eco-anxious are you?

You go to the supermarket. What is on your mind?

A. Your shopping list: veal steak, Australian wine and Kenyan beans

B. You're wondering if your budget will run to organic carrots and if there's really any difference

C. You're racked with guilt: are you endorsing the hair-raising ethical policies of this commercial monolith, just because you're hooked on their own-brand garlic pitta bread?

Your next-door neighbour is stealing the contents of your recycling bin and passing them off as his own. Do you:

A. Put your old fridge out front in the hope that he'll nick that, too

B. Paint his black wheelie bin green

C. Offer to sort through the contents of his bin in case he's missed anything

You encounter a "the end is nigh" sandwich-board man. Do you:

A. Laugh and walk on

B. Ask him to specify when, exactly

C. Harangue him for being overly optimistic

Your fuel bill is a little higher than usual. Do you:

A. Think, oh, that must be because of my lovely new 63-inch flat-screen TV

B. Think you really must overcome your prejudices and get low-energy light bulbs

C. Feel delighted. It's fitting punishment for the damage you're doing to the planet

Your think Quorn is:

A. An internet service provider

B. Spongy stuff, mainly for beardies

C. A delicious alternative to meat


Mostly As: You couldn't give a monkey's about the environment. If it were still legal to import ivory, you'd go on an elephant shoot.

Mostly Bs: While you no doubt separate your plastics from your metals, you nevertheless still drive a 4x4 and regard Al Gore as a plonker.

Mostly Cs: You probably worry your low-energy light bulbs are too bright, and exhale into a paper bag to stop CO2 getting into the atmosphere.

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