An article in the British Medical Journal this week warns that levels of eco-anxiety are on the rise, particularly among children and young people, and “are likely to be significant and potentially damaging to individuals and society”. Meanwhile, another recent report warns of the intergenerational injustice at the heart of climate change — the fact that, over their lifetime, a child today will suffer its adverse consequences far more than their parents or grandparents will have done. Children and young people need to be learning about the environmental challenges we face, but at the same time they also need to be encouraged and empowered to take practical action to make a difference and bring about change. It is a crucial step to making things better, an acknowledgement that solutions cannot just be left to distant and abstract actors on the world stage like sovereign governments and the United Nations. It is also a way to tackle mental health conditions like eco-anxiety that thrive on feelings of helplessness and disempowerment.
The term ‘eco-anxiety’ was probably coined in 2017 and refers to “the chronic fear of environmental doom”. An exacerbating factor with the condition, it seems, is a feeling of utter exasperation at what eco-anxious people see as the failure of others, especially those in positions of power, to treat the threat to the planet with due seriousness. The BMJ article —The climate crisis and the rise of eco-anxiety — also refers to a 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England which highlighted that more than half (57%) are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment.
The report follows on from a study highlighting the intergenerational injustice of climate change. In short, today’s children “will suffer many times more extreme heatwaves and other climate disasters over their lifetimes than their grandparents” — an average of 30 extreme heatwaves (seven times more heatwaves than someone born in 1960), twice as many droughts and wildfires, and three times more river floods and crop failures.
As we highlighted recently, the children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, has published the results of the ‘Big Ask’, the biggest ever survey of children anywhere in the world, with over half a million responses. According to the survey, 39% of children (aged 9–17) said that the environment was one of their main worries about the future, making it the second most common answer.
The authors of the BMJ article say that fearfulness about the future cannot be fully tackled until there is a united global strategy. However, they also suggest more practical ways to alleviate the rising levels of climate anxiety.
The best chance of increasing optimism and hope in the eco-anxious young and old is to ensure they have access to the best and most reliable information on climate mitigation and adaptation. Especially important is information on how they could connect more strongly with nature, contribute to greener choices at an individual level, and join forces with like-minded communities and groups. Spending time in nature as a family is one of many actions suggested by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to manage eco-distress in children and young people. Helping individuals to build their emotional resilience and optimism is also of benefit.from the BMJ article The climate crisis and the rise of eco-anxiety
This chimes with the thinking that underpins Life-Based Learning. In our blog Agency and empowerment will help counter fatalism and climate anxiety, we wrote about the positive impact on mental wellbeing of getting involved in helping to bring about change for the better. Our blogs regularly highlight activities, schemes and campaigns that individuals, families, schools and communities can take part in to help improve the environment and build a sustainable future. For example, we blogged recently about the campaign for people to plant a tree for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations in 2022.
Also increasingly popular is what is sometimes described as ‘green social prescribing’ — where individuals and, increasingly, health and community services use nature to boost mental wellbeing. In blogs like Immersing children in nature from a young age is a massive win-win we refer to the twin benefits — educational and health — of putting nature at the very heart of children’s lives, regardless of whether they live in the middle of the countryside or the middle of a city.
Also central to Life-Based Learning, as we argue here, is the idea that children need to be learning about the challenges that we face, but not to frighten them or to spread a fatalist mindset: “On the contrary, LBL is about agency and empowerment — giving young people the knowledge, knowhow and skills to lead healthy, sustainable and happy lives, able as individuals and collectively to tackle the many challenges that blight our world.”
Image at the head of this article by Free-Photos from Pixabay.