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Climate Crisis of Feelings

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The climate crisis affects the psyche. Shifts in the economy and ecology are increasing psychological and social stress. One possible remedy is to encourage regular cooperation and community involvement to build up psychological and social resilience, writes the Canadian journalist and climate commentator Sanjay Khanna.

"One of the first signs of ecological damage is that people don't feel good," says David Rapport, one of the originators of the concept of ecological health. Rapport co-founded the pioneering ecosystem health program in the faculty of medicine at the University of Western Ontario located in London, Ontario, Canada. He thinks that the widespread exploitation and destruction of the planet's material resources attacks both mental health and physical wellbeing.

Rapport explains. "Unlike those living in urban bubbles, people who rely on local resources -- the fish, the forests, the wildlife, trees and agricultural process -- are seeing this play out on the land.

"They associate vitality in their lives with the vitality of the life they see around them, and see that plants and animals aren't as healthy. Being close to the land, they attach their health and well being to those of life forms around them because they are living with nature. They see deterioration that they don't fully understand, and they feel the withering of life."

Incontrovertible evidence from ecological health indicators to climate science reveals that life support systems are disintegrating around the world -- and that the harmful long-term impacts of global scale industrial activity far outweigh its short-term benefits. The culprit, however, isn't just industrial pollutants and climate change, which stem from unsustainable business thinking. Just as tellingly, accelerated change in economic, social, cultural, and agricultural arenas is going to test the mental health -- and community resilience -- of a majority of the world's people.

Erick Arango Marcano art
Illustration: Erick Arango Marcano

The volatile 21st century global economy is rapidly using up natural capital, fomenting economic and ecological crises. With rising unemployment and decreasing capacity in food and water systems, a growing legion of citizens are finding it more difficult to meet basic needs, which explains why stress levels are also trending upwards worldwide.

Quite understandably, people are going to become unhappier as summers grow longer and hotter, seasons more unpredictable, and plant, animal, and cultural life less diverse. Adding to these woes, social bonds are likely to weaken under outside pressures, increasing loneliness. Health gains that the post-war boom has provided, such as improved human life spans, may be reversed for reasons including decreased agricultural output, reduced food security, and scarcer fresh water supplies.

Glenn Albrecht, environmental philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, has, with colleagues, documented how climate change induced drought in Eastern Australia is creating mental distress among families in a once-fertile agricultural region. He coined a term solastalgia, which describes "the pain or sickness caused by the inability to derive solace from the present state of one's home environment." Additionally, the term describes the direct experience of unwelcome change when an environment transforms around someone, creating a feeling of dispossession when, in fact, the affected individual has remained in one place.

Says Albrecht, "Solastalgia was initially created in respect of addressing the cumulative impacts of [strip] mining, but it is equally applicable to the chronic effects of climate change such as drought."

In 2007, Albrecht and colleagues, such as Gina Sartore of the University of Newcastle's Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health in the city of Orange, Australia, published an academic paper in 2007, "Solastalgia: The distress caused by environmental change," in the Australasian Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 15.

Through haunting interviews with male and female farmers, the paper documents the mental health burdens of persistent drought in Eastern Australia. The farmers describe how drought-related disruptions to rural and agricultural life affect them and their communities.

"We're coming into our fifth year of the drought and our gardens have had to die because our house dam has been dry," a female farmer explained. "So it's very depressing for a woman because a garden is an oasis out here... but with this dust, that's all gone... you've got dust at your back door."

A male farmer said he was losing contact with past patterns and the regularity to which he was accustomed. "In living history, there hasn't been a drought that's lasted like this one has," he said. "It's just phenomenal... almost so that we're used to it. You know, you sort of almost forgotten what to do in a good year."

Sadness and a desire for life to return to a state that provides solace and happiness pervade the lives of farmers who recall once-fertile times. And yet, with climate change, it appears there's no turning back, which evokes feelings of unfairness and injustice.

Inupiat human rights advocate Victoria Hykes Steere, based in Alaska, turns the question of fairness and justice on its head.

"My people do not believe life is fair," she reports.

Hykes Steere has worked with Indigenous Alaskan communities affected by ill health, suicide, loss of permafrost, food sources, and stable villages. Among the people with whom she works climate change is not an event that will happen tomorrow, but a complex phenomenon which is already changing lives, seemingly forever.

"I was raised with stories that taught me that if we must die, we die so others live. To others, our world is harsh, but [to us] it sings with incredible beauty," she says.

Maybe, as Hykes Steere suggests, one of the tough challenges may be accepting aspects of climate change that we won't be able to control -- including how people think, feel, and behave under emotionally distressing and unfamiliar daily circumstances.

As human characteristics and qualities contributing to health and well-being come under assault by rapid interconnected change, and the societal storehouse of goodwill diminishes in turn, there's at least one psychological and social remedy: To prepare now to be kinder as the world becomes crueler, to be more loving as fear becomes more commonplace, to share as people hoard, to develop trust as people become more suspicious and risk-averse, to be practical and straightforward as more people find their professional skills to have left them ill-equipped for hard and simple living, and to become more forgiving of the ignorance and avarice that have led us here.

Each of us should value friendship, community, and resource sharing over other competing priorities, and plan to come to one another's practical aid as the economy and environment lose their ability to support us in ways we're used to. In practical terms, converging economic and environmental shocks should motivate us to take firm steps to create personal, social, and community resilience, as part of a strategy for building reserves of psychological and social capacity for when times get even more tough.

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Sanjay Khanna is founder of Resilient People and Climate Change, which helps organizations recognize and address the psychological and socio-cultural impacts of climate change.

The above article was published a few weeks ago in Issue 1/2010 of Effekt, the first Swedish lifestyle magazine to focus solely on climate change and related environmental concerns. Effekt was co-founded by Sara Jeswani (editor), David Jonstad (editor) and Jesper Weithz (art director).

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