Eco-anxiety and how Indigenous psychology can help you



Backburns mix with bushfires on Kangaroo Island in early January. Large parts of the island were devastated.

Gaby’s childhood photos were packed up by September. The “emergency box” stood next to the front door, ready to grab and go. Gaby is 25, a digital artist. She calls herself “one of the mountain goats”, having grown up in the Blue Mountains in the heart of the bush.

The brutal fires of 2013 taught the locals some valuable lessons. Like, what do you pack when your house catches fire? It’s not your iPhone charger or laptop. Your passport would be handy. But most importantly, anything you won’t be able to buy at JB Hifi. Like photos from your first day at kindy.

“I’m fearful,” Gaby said when I met up with her at a climate demo in Sydney in September. That was six months ago, before smoke covered the city. Before Scott Morrison went on vacation to Hawaii. Before the world seemed to tremble with Australia as it watched houses burn to the ground and people evacuated from beaches. None of this had happened in September. Still, the public was alerted – it was going to be an intense summer.

Anxiety is a “hungry beast”

It’s March now. Gaby and I are drinking tea in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner-west. Gaby’s house did not burn down. However, the last couple of months have sucked up her energy. Gaby has always been a sensitive character; you can tell by the way she speaks. She chooses her words very slowly and carefully. Every sentence is thought through as if for someone transcribing her words on a typewriter. She tends to lose herself in an overthinking spiral, she says. This summer her anxiety has shown a new face.

Kiralee Cantel
Gaby knows the existential fear of the fires

“I see it as a hungry beast. For example, every day it craves the consumption of the media. I read something, it doesn’t feel good, but I want to feed that bad feeling more. I was reading and thinking about climate change all of the time. The anxiety was more emotional than physical, I guess. So much frustration, anger and tears,” Gaby says.

New issue for Western psychology

The fancy word for feeling this way is eco-anxiety. You might have heard about it, but there is not much research out there. Psychologists are noticing an alarming increase in this kind of climate “grief”. And how could you not despair, particularly in Australia?

It’s tricky. While other forms of anxiety happen mostly in our own heads, the weather is changing right in front of us. This summer, we could smell climate change, we could feel it, we could see it.

Associate Professor Paul Rhodes, a psychologist at Sydney University, says Western psychology doesn’t know how to cope with this new anxiety yet.

“It calls for a new paradigm, a new practice. Because the old paradigm is psychological problems are our responsibility, they come from within us, they come from Mummy and Daddy, our minds and our rationality. Eco-anxiety does not. It is about our relationship with the Earth,” A/Prof Rhodes explains.

But possible answers can be found within Australia’s history.

“There is a strong movement in Indigenous psychology,” A/Prof Rhodes adds. “Indigenous people always knew this. They know that our relationship with the earth is fundamental for our well-being. Western psychology has never acknowledged that.”

Indigenous lessons

The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht has written about this for over 50 years. But until recent times he felt the issue received little attention.

“I am arguing for a new relationship between humans and the world,” he says.

Albrecht and I speak over Skype. He is about to travel to Paris on a promotional tour for his book Earth Emotions.

“It is a mistake, kind of a European mistake, to think – there is nature and there is us,” he says. We don’t live in nature, but we should, he believes. “Because there is no distinction between the human and the natural. We have to understand that nature doesn’t exclude humans.”

It is exactly what Indigenous people have always claimed, he continues.

“It is time humans wake up to the fact that we are sharing life with other beings.”

So, it may sound glib but if you want to minimise your fear, this mindset might help. Accept yourself as part of nature and treat it with appropriate respect. Maybe you can’t heal nature, and maybe you can’t change politics. But you can be the change you want to see, Albrecht says.

How to live with this new anxiety

Protesting didn’t seem to change much either. At least not this summer. Yet Gaby seems more optimistic these days.

“Two things have worked for me – firstly, to tune out, though that’s not a healthy thing to do as a collective, because we still need to raise our voices. But I had to consume less media and focus on positive rather than negative news,” she says.

“Also, finding other ways to have a positive impact on the environment, like eating less meat or avoiding plastic. Eventually, though it will take time, the government will start listening.”