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FeatureLiving Well

Human nature.

In East Gippsland, they're not looking to solve climate change, but seeing if they can listen to each other’s experience, connect and share openly. Seeking to convey how a changing climate can impact our mental health.

Apr 26, 2023


Words: Jarrod White

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Over the last nine months, teamed with Far East Victoria Landcare, I have met with groups across East Gippsland to discuss feelings about the natural world, climate and community. I have listened to stories of loss, witnessed collective frustration and been humbled by efforts to connect and move on.

Do you spend time thinking about the future of our planet? And if you do, or even if you’re doing so for the first time now, what comes to mind for you? What do you feel?

Take a moment here. Pause. Notice. Breathe.

I’m not an expert on ecology or a climate activist, nor am I looking to convince anyone about the reality of climate change or ecosystem collapse. Today, it seems that we’re all too easily a society divided.

What I am is a clinical psychologist, and what I look for are patterns.

The first pattern is that more people are feeling validated by, and align their experience with, the term ‘eco-anxiety’. Eco-anxiety is not a diagnosable condition and there is uncertainty about whether it should be. Many health professionals refer to eco-anxiety as a very human and compassionate response to the scientific literature and shifts in the natural world we see today. There is tension around whether it’s important to diagnose normal human responses. It is human to feel, and like all feelings, it exists on a spectrum.

"...I try to look back on it a fair bit – how far away and how different it really is from where I started. It’s a different world to the old dairy farm out there.”

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In 2015, the American Psychological Association defined eco-anxiety as the “chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations”.

In 2019, the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was ‘climate emergency’. This term had a 4290% increase in online searches from the previous year. A survey conducted by Ekas in 2020 found that half of Australians reported being affected by eco-anxiety, and 88% of people reported the 2019/20 bushfires to have triggered their eco-anxiety. Those in rural areas are likely to have experienced eco-anxiety for longer.

Given our world is so quick to polarise. An us vs. them mentality emerges. The conversation is about either how to solve the climate crisis, or debating whether it exists at all. This is a fight or flight response. We either aim to fight the climate crisis or flee from having a conversation about it. Interestingly, these are flipsides of the same anxiety coin.

So, how do we have a genuine, fruitful conversation about these patterns highlighted above? How do we talk about the anger we might feel? The fear? The love? The joy? The grief? The emotional experience of natural disasters?

How do we express the way a changing climate can impact our mental health?

We are having these conversations in East Gippsland. We’re not looking to solve climate change, but seeing if we can listen to each other’s experience, connect and share openly.

What if I am experiencing eco-anxiety now?

It is important to know that you are not alone. Eco-anxiety emerged as a term in the 70s and has been growing in popularity over the last few years. A great book to read is Britt Wray’s Generation Dread.

I’ll also refer to Joanna Macy, who discusses eco-anxiety as 'flourishing in uncertainty'.

In uncertainty, we can:
1. Let go of needing to be hopeful or hopeless. These are feelings, just like hunger, and fluctuate all the time.

2. Be present. In every present moment, there is some uncertainty about the future. When things are uncertain, we always have the present moment and the power to choose in that moment. We can hold on to this for some grounding.

3. Share. Learning about one another happens when things are uncertain. We do not learn what we already know. When we share with others in the uncertainty, we develop solidarity as a group.

Upcoming events:

We will be running further events throughout the far east Victoria region. Follow-up face-to-face group meetings will be held in both the Gungerrah and Mallacoota in May.

We will also be running afternoons focused on psychological skills and strategies to aid with eco-anxiety, distress and having difficult conversations about our planet towards the middle of the year.

To get involved in any way, or to register interest, please contact Shirali at Far East Victoria Landcare at br.projectofficer@fevl.org.au or 0423912746 or Dr Jarrod White at drjarrodwhite@gmail.com or 0409392019.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 26

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