How spirituality helped my eco-anxiety

In our next blog in a series on mental health and climate change for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, we hear from Esther Duncan who has just finished her undergraduate degree in Sustainable Development with Social Anthropology.

Esther recently took part in the course in “Eco-Spirituality” at the University’s Chaplaincy and discusses how a community of like-minded people can help remedy eco-anxiety.

It has been exactly one week and six days since I finished the final term of my degree in Sustainable Development at the University of Edinburgh. And yet, after four intense years of attending classes on, writing essays about, and generally being immersed in this subject – and loving (nearly) every minute of it – I still dread people asking me what I study. Not because I don’t love talking about it, but because nine times out of ten my answer is met with puzzlement, followed by my meandering attempts to define and explain the complexity and sheer scope of ‘Sustainable Development’, and, inevitably, the awkward moment where I give up and trail off with ‘you know, trees and stuff…’. How do you begin to explain a subject whose branches reach into nearly every aspect of society: the economy, fashion, food, transport, work, leisure, justice, politics, education, housing, and consumption, to name but a few?

Fear, guilt, and love

Arguably then, in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world in which the sheer magnitude of the problem looms overwhelmingly large, the real question we now face is ‘where do we even begin?’ The scale of the problem, combined with worrying forecasts about the potential impacts of climate change, has given rise to a wave of ‘eco-anxiety’, as more and more of us begin to wrestle with feelings of fear, guilt, anger, and loss over, not only the environmental crisis, but the roles that we play in perpetuating it. Whilst these emotional responses can be helpful guides and incentives to act in the world, literature from within behavioural psychology suggests that their power to do so rests on our own reflexive sense of power, control, or ‘self-efficacy’.

Tapping into fear or guilt complexes is likely to backfire, therefore, if we do not also feel empowered (either personally, or institutionally through society) and able to actually bring about change. Within the context of a global environmental crisis, the scale of which seems to throw our individual capacity to make a difference into shadow, it is therefore very easy to feel disempowered, helpless, and hopeless, and to let fear and guilt propel us into a maladaptive state of denial. Climate denial, whilst certainly not helpful at an institutional level when woven into political agendas is, I would suggest, at an individual level an understandable and ultimately self-compassionate response to a very distressing reality. As the poet David Whyte so eloquently puts it:

‘Denial is underestimated as a state of being…Faced with the depth of loss and disappearance in the average life, a measure of denial is creative, necessary and self-compassionate…denial can be a prison if inhabited in too concrete and unmoving a way, but denial is also a necessary stepping-stone and a compassionate foundation for viewing those unable to take the next courageous step.’

But how to move from the prison of denial and into action? How do we take this ‘next courageous step’? Fear and guilt may be strong motivators, but they are not guides; they do not tell us where to place our feet, and this lack of direction short circuits their motivational force. I would like to suggest an alternative. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I would like to suggest that we allow ourselves to be motivated by love. After four years immersed in the culture of academia, I do not write that word lightly; in fact, I had to resist the urge to put it in quotation marks.

Of course, we still need to be guided by solid, empirical information that tells us in which direction we ought to be going, but when I look back over these last four years of education, I realise that perhaps my most important lesson was learning to act always in love. It arrived quietly and unexpectedly, drip-fed to me through the continual support, care, devotion, and encouragement of staff and student peers. It was these small acts of love, borne out a sense of solidarity over why we in the Sustainable Development degree programme had chosen to be there, that gave me the strength and the motivation to keep scrolling through all those articles about increasing carbon emission rates, unethical global supply chains, and melting polar ice caps.

Small is beautiful

Whilst love is the strongest and most sustainable motivating force I’ve yet to experience, I am also coming to terms with the fact that whilst idealised notions of love, on an abstract level, may reach around the world, love in action requires us to accept limits. Acting in love grounds us in time and place; our actions became smaller, but at the same time larger, condensed into a small corner of the world in which we may, as best we can, love those around us. One quiet evening last November, I found myself sitting amongst a small group of people, fellow participants on a ten-week introductory course on eco-spirituality at the university chaplaincy. This small, non-denominational community created a weekly safe space where we could explore, and be supported in, our various emotional responses to what is now happening in the world.

Drawing on the work of Ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, who believes that first allowing ourselves to be ‘cracked open by grief’ is fundamental to moving forward into action, we used art and creative expression, poetry, conversation, and silent reflection to witness to, and hold space for, each other’s sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. We drew strength and inspiration from each other and from our small community which allowed us to begin to channel our emotions into action, what Macy refers to as ‘Active Hope’. I say this to suggest that rather than debilitating us, acknowledging and exploring our anxieties about the environmental crisis whilst in the presence of others who feel the same way can act as a foundation for solidarity and community. This, I believe, not only encourages and inspires us, but also sustains us in the actions we may subsequently take because we are engaging in them, not out of fear or guilt, but out of love for these communities, for the people in our lives.

As historian Howard Zinn eloquently phrases it:

‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember the times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.’

Want to learn more?

Esther recommends the Sustenance Radio Show which discusses the issues she mentions in more detail.

If you’d be interested in setting up a group based around ‘active hope’, get in contact with Esther on esther_duncan@hotmail.co.uk.