NATURE AS THREAT: The Plague of Eco-Anxiety
By Zhiwa Woodbury, M.A., J.D., Linda Buzzell, M.A., LMFT, and Craig Chalquist, Ph.D
“Psychology, so dedicated to awakening the human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: We cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet.” (James Hillman)
In this frightening era of global pandemics, climate trauma and massive pollution, the American Psychology Association (APA) believes that you or your loved ones may be suffering from “eco-anxiety,” which they define as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” As a group of ecopsychologists with decades of experience researching, writing books about, and providing eco-therapy to address humanity’s destructive relationship with the natural world, we are deeply troubled by this kind of APA branding of mental distress.
Imagine that an asteroid were hurtling towards our planet, threatening to destroy Earth. Would it make sense to label people who were terrified by the asteroid’s approach as suffering from “astro-anxiety?”
In effect, that is what the APA is doing in response to biospheric trauma. In 2017, the APA decided that our perfectly healthy, rational fear about climate change and a rapidly degrading planetary life support system should be described as a mental disorder: eco-anxiety.
Commenting on a recently reported ‘global surge’ in eco-anxiety, Dr. Joti Samra asserted that “we are starting increasingly to see how climate change is negatively impacting people’s mental health in a very global way.”
There is a fundamental problem with this “mental illness” narrative, one that infects our response to both the Covid-19 pandemic and the existential threat posed by climate change. In addition to pathologizing humanity’s understandable concern about the state of our life support systems, an “eco-anxiety” diagnosis reinforces the very root of looming eco-catastrophe: the “big lie” that humans are somehow separate from, and superior to, the natural world. It is a grave mistake to assume that external events — climate change, a foreign virus — are threatening us.
It is we humans who are the actual threat, to this living planet and all other species.
The real ‘disorder’ here is biospheric trauma. Eco-anxiety, eco-grief, eco-depression, and eco-despair are all symptoms of this planetary assault.
“Eco” is Greek for “home,” and ‘ecopsychology’ places the planet, our shared home, at the center of a human being’s sense of self. Ecopsychology presents a fundamental critique of mainstream psychology’s enshrinement of “ego” at the center of self. This egocentrism was based upon the scientific-materialist world view that humans are somehow magically separate from the rest of nature — and can thus observe, exploit, and experiment upon it without fear of consequences.
The interdependent world view still emerging from quantum physics replaces objects with relations. We humans are an integral part of the biosphere. Closer to the point, as NYT Science Writer Ferris Jabr wrote last Earth Day, most scientists now agree that “The Earth Is Just as Alive as You Are.”
Up until now, we have been able to externalize the threat of climate change, as it progressed from theory to geophysical events of all kinds, and more recently as psychological symptoms. With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, however, we are feeling the planet’s distress directly, even to the point of exhibiting its symptoms: damaged lungs, elevated temperature, organ failure, and the prospect of our demise.
‘Gaia Theory’ may not fit in the APA’s empirical, egocentric world view. But Mother Earth is clearly capable of suffering grievous, life-threatening physical injury (trauma) as a result of our foolish assault on the biosphere. As viewed through APA’s myopic anthropocentrist lens, however, trauma can only be empirically ‘proven’ to afflict individuals.
A growing number of psychologists have nonetheless come to accept the more Earth-centric view that the feelings of overwhelm, upset and grief we are now all experiencing to varying degrees can be attributed to Gaia’s superordinate trauma. We are integral parts of her biome in much the same way our own biome is comprised of countless non-human organisms that directly affect our well being. The major difference is that we humans have agency. We each have the choice to act as cells in her immune-defense system, or we can choose to be part of the “novel humanavirus.”
Elevating a symptom like eco-anxiety to the status of a mental disorder perpetuates the root cause of our angst by casting the ‘world out there’ as the threat to the ‘me in here.’ Wed to this reactionary, egocentric view of the problem, APA remains on the sidelines when it comes to advocating for the kind of ‘radical sanity’ that would support scientists’ call for radical change. Replacing ego with Earth at the center of ‘self’ would provide a welcome launching pad for this kind of social transformation.
Consider the effect this ‘separation story’ is having on our collective response to the current pandemic. By viewing a virus that arose from the widespread trafficking of wildlife for consumption as an external threat, even a ‘foreign’ virus or, as the NY Times recently put it, a natural terrorist, it reinforces the narrative of ‘man versus nature’ and justifies waging war on a virus, the assumption being this is a one-off event and not the first wave of pandemics predicted by climate science.
From an ecopsychological viewpoint, however, the coronavirus is our mother calling us home. Does she have your attention? It is wholly unrealistic to expect that humans can continue to experience prosperity and good health on a planet that is gravely ill, where even the oceans are choking on plastic. According to the new scientific discipline of ‘planetary health,’ our ongoing destruction of biodiversity is actively creating the conditions for these new diseases and pandemics.
By recognizing Covid-19 as a direct symptom of our exploitation and commodification of the natural world, our life source, one can appreciate the imperative of pursuing more systemic prescriptions, such as the One Earth Proposal to be taken up by the UN Biodiversity Conventions next year. The ‘One Earth’ path of recovery from climate trauma is to work with nature, soils, and keystone species to restore biodiversity on half of the planet, which in turn will reverse climate change by drawing carbon down from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the terrasphere. The APA would be wise to advocate for such healthy, sane initiatives, rather than reinforcing the cognitive dissonance of ‘man vs. nature.’
All My Relations
Since the disruption of trauma arises from unnatural relationships, recovery from trauma must also occur in a relational context. If we are going to do something other than medicating the symptoms of our shared climate trauma, or treating every pandemic in isolation from systemic causes, we will need to begin by acknowledging that Earth, not our ego, is the living organism that is experiencing the greatest trauma on the grandest scale right now.
Then can we begin to come into proper relationship with the natural world. By going to Gaia’s aide, and treating her symptoms rather than dwelling on our own, we can heal our climate holistically and prosper as a species.
This healing and recovery process has a necessary spiritual component as well, as Pope Francis explored in his encyclical Laudato Si: Care for our Common Home, changing the way we think of ourselves and reforming the ways we relate to our world. As Nobel laureate Karen O’Brien, author and editor of the most recent IPCC reports, puts it: “planetary transformation has to be brought to a personal level. [This] is a relationship problem — how do we relate to ourselves as the problems and also to ourselves as the solution?” Addressing climate trauma through this relational lens, according to O’Brien, “can release a lot of the energy that we need to be able to face head-on the challenges that are facing us now and that will face us in the future.”
In the same way the quantum world view is only now beginning to reshape our shared narrative, this re-casting of Earth as living organism, and humans as integral parts of her biosphere, represents a Copernican-level paradigm shift — with a twist. Copernicus effectively demoted the planet’s previously central role in the cosmos. Gaia theory, by contrast, elevates the planet’s central role in our lives and to our health.
Now, with the world slowed down to a crawl, we are presented with a unique opportunity to rethink “all our relations” — including our relationship to the natural world, to our mother. This may be our best chance to serve future generations by solving the climate crisis now, rather than just applying triage to one of its symptoms and hoping for the best.
Let us rise to that task. Let us collectively remember what it means to be human(e) in a brave new world shaped by humanity. And let us be both brave and humble enough to ask for Gaia’s assistance in our continuing struggle, rather than continuing to struggle against her.
Linda Buzzell is a psychotherapist and co-editor, along with Craig Chalquist, of the Sierra Club Books anthology Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. She serves on the Editorial Board of the professional journal Ecopsychology, and teaches ecotherapy at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara.
Craig Chaquist is a core faculty member in the East-West Psychology Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the founding Editor-in-Chief of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale.
Zhiwa Woodbury is an Panpsychologist, eco-advocate, and author of the book Climate Sense: Changing the Way We Think & Feel About Our Climate in Crisis (2016). He blogs at ecopsychologynow.blog