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Planet Sized Emotions: respecting other people's ecological worries

There is a daily barrage of news on environmental breakdown and global warming. Recently, the tone has moved from ‘general discussion’ to ‘disaster is here’.

 

For me, this shift represents a move from scientific predictions and warnings to explicit global impacts. To these, my mind and body respond in a variety of ways. Resignation that we are ‘here’, fear at what is to come for my family, sorrow at what is happening right now to others, regret that I have a child. Shame that I currently think recycling is pointless, a strange sense that I am flipping between thinking the ‘fight to get sustainability on the agenda is won so go back to growing veg’, to a sense of right, we can finally get to work’.

This is a snapshot of the thoughts, feelings and emotions I have about global warming and ecological collapse. These are a result of my ways of being and processing the world.

I am far from alone in having a bag of ecological - and climate-specific responses that impact on how I live and feel. There are so many of us now voicing our inner responses that my bag can be sorted and elements labelled. Eco anxiety, climate grief, solastalgia, the list goes on.

But how and who do these labels help? Is the current reporting on mental wellbeing repeating the standard tropes about mental health? Or is it a useful discussion about the emotional and behavioural impacts of the crisis?

To check, I always find it helpful to take a step back. To remind myself what emotions and feelings are, and how they relate to our understanding of climate change.

We use the words ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’ interchangeably. But it is helpful to  understand the difference between the two.

Emotions are fleeting, automatic and unconscious responses that are hard-wired into our genetic makeup through evolution.  They are often triggered by a specific event which causes a chain reaction of neurotransmitter and hormone responses. For example, when we are afraid our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract.

For many of us it can be difficult to identify the core emotion, especially as the triggers we respond to can change over time based on our life experiences, and because an emotional response will usually lead to having plenty of feelings

Feelings can be caused by emotions, our senses, memories and situations around us. They are shaped by personal experiences, beliefs, memories, and thoughts linked to a stimulus. Neurologist Damasio says they can be either personal or social. Social norms can give us Social feelings like sympathy, shame or pride. Feelings can last for minutes or days depending on how we respond to them and how much thought we give them.

Global warming and ecological collapse are threatening life, livelihood, culture and societal stability. With such a  range of dangers, there are an even greater number of potential emotional and feeling triggers that an individual or community might experience. Sadly, for many around the globe, the risks are all too clear and their impacts felt. The associated emotional response is easy to understand. The fear about the intensity of the storm overhead or the waters rising around you. The sadness and terror of seeing your home and community destroyed by drought. The anger at no one doing anything to stop the horror unfolding.


Yet in the developed world we have mostly been protected from the physical risks of climate change and the visceral emotions these cause. It is our conscious mind that is processing the dangers and risks. Our thinking depends on our knowledge and experience of ecological collapse, climate change and the human role. This generates a different range of thoughts and feelings. These can combine and interact in as many combinations as there are colours in the world.

Our depth of feeling and awareness is shaped by how we live and think about ourselves within the natural world.  There is no right, wrong or appropriate emotional or feeling response to this crisis. There is simply our response. Being able to identify and name our emotions and feelings helps us to better understand ourselves. It also helps us to control how and when we respond to them. As renowned professor of psychiatry, Daniel Siegel, says, we have to be able to “name it to tame it”.

Yet being able to name our feelings is only the first step. The next is to reflect, or sit with the emotions and feelings we are experiencing. To give ourselves the space to acknowledge them and face the difficult truths that lie behind them. This allows us to see how these truths relate to us, how we live our lives and our futures. However, we need to do this in the spirit of curiosity of new awareness and with a view of how we can move forward, otherwise it can be all too easy to become trapped in introspection or circular thinking.   

Awareness of our emotions and feelings is not just important to us personally, it is also crucial if we wish to collectively move forward.

For example, research by Yale university Climate Communication centre found that the emotional response we have to global warming strongly predicts how we feel about climate policy. Most notably they found that “fear" was not strongly associated with wanting action, crucial information for those of us wanting to share climate science to mobilise action.

With this in mind, the most powerful thing that we can offer ourselves, and others, is not a pathologized rationale for what our minds are doing at this ‘11th hour’ but a space for people to talk openly and honestly.  We can create this safety through listening without judgement, discussing as equals, with compassion, and with acceptance of the other person’s perspective. Through this we find shared ground to enable us, individually and collectively, to think about what we need to do to move forward and work together to transition and adapt to whatever new reality lies ahead and try to build the world we want without leaving anyone behind.

Bex Craske, Sustainability and Inspiration Manager, Earthwatch Europe

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