Aug 18 • 9M

Climate Doom, Mental Health, and the Social-Political Breakdown of Society

Yeah, it's kind of a shit world

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Anthony Signorelli
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Whether it is media-induced or not, people have a general sense that the world is going to hell. All the old things are there—hunger, poverty, war, pestilence, crime, inequality and unfairness throughout society. We’ve seen all that before, and whether it is worse or not is always a matter of debate. One thing cannot be debated—the climate is changing. It is changing more quickly and abruptly than anyone thought. And  no one knows what to do about it.

This climate doom is settling on people. Major droughts and heat waves are surging around the world—Europe, China, the US, Africa… no continent is spared the impacts. There is a growing sense of crisis, even though it is not a sudden emergency. Huge population areas are or will be without water. Everyone says that the problem will be really serious decades down the road, but the problems we are seeing today were supposed to be decades down the road too. They are not. They are here.

When the world is going to hell and there is nothing you can do about it, desperation sets in, but so does depression. And anxiety. Many people lash out in outrage at the world, looking for enemies. Is it any wonder that nationalism and populism have risen around the world? Human nature seems to want a scapegoat. We want to blame someone; someone unlike ourselves. Hate fills the air. Racism. Civil War. Reaching for a strong man who says he can fix it. All this is part of climate doom.

We are being pushed into a forced simplicity. Survival is on the minds of many. How do you survive a heat wave? If you think you are okay because you have air conditioning, what will you do when the power goes out because the grid can’t handle it? If you think you are safe on a remote homestead and if the power goes out for the same reason, how do you pump your water in the heat? Or, how will you defend yourself from wildfire? What will you do as the quarter-mile-wide tornado approaches? Many are not thinking of these things, but they are in the backs of the mind, part of the collective unconscious, as it were. Our societal zeitgeist, the cultural milieu.

Scarcity and fear may be the most dangerous results of the looming climate disaster. It is palpable in the culture, and there seems to be no way to address it. A spiritual practice such as Buddhism can help one find a center, and perhaps there is no time like now for that. But these practices have a weird inner conflict—they involve radical acceptance at the very time it seems we should accept nothing. Climate change is not acceptable! The status quo is not okay! We need to take action… NOW!

I think, however, that this is a mirage. Acceptance is critical to enabling action, especially meaningful action. One of the biggest blocks to this action is the refusal to accept that the climate is actually changing. People also refuse to accept the needed changes. Outwardly, they are bold and outspoken in their denial. But inwardly, they know. We all know. Things are changing, and they are going to get worse.

Some people do find the equanimity to accept and act. Those who don’t turn the crisis inward on themselves. Depression and anxiety manifest, and in so doing, their inner life suffers. Men lose touch with their femininity and allow moods to overtake them—deep, dark, broody moods. Women lose touch with the masculine in themselves and become angry gnats. Many men and women enter the public scene and carry this lost self into the public eye. Congresspeople Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, and Marjorie Taylor Greene are good examples. And Trump, of course. As public figures, these folks then become the psychological projection screens for millions of people. Their depression and their anxiety manifest as anger and bullying. They brood through their social media followings and infusing their minds with hate-filled radio. The inner landscape becomes a reflection of the drought out there in the world. It is dry, the soil cracked, nothing growing, and the river has disappeared.

How are people to live such dried-up lives? Human beings cannot do that. It is obvious from our actual physical well being—three days without water, and you are dead. It is the same in our inner lives—without water, we dry up. We crack. We die. Or, more accurately, our humanity dies. We lose connection to source. We become angry brooding bullies and we lash out at others. We lash out at people who had nothing to do with it, and who can do nothing about it. We lash out because we are lashing out at ourselves.

Let us beware, however, that we do not project all of this onto opponents. The right-wing does not have a monopoly on this particular unconsciousness. Climate activists often condemn the deniers in their own brand of hate-filled rhetoric, and it comes from the same source—unprocessed depression and anxiety that has morphed into outrage and anger. They aim it at people… those people. The right-wing, low information voters, as they are called. Or at the rich, the wealthy, those at the top… the one percent, as they are called. The blame is palpable, the anger unbridled. If you want to see one of these people boil inside, bring them to a Trump flag display. The inner turmoil is extreme.

The third side of climate doom is fueled by denial of a different sort. “There’s still plenty of time to address this,” you hear over and over again. But there isn’t. Not for Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Not for the Rhine River. Not for the Yangtze River. Not for the several thousand people who have died in the heat waves. Not for the millions facing migration to find water in Somalia. Not for Nelson Mandela Bay and the surrounding townships. There isn’t plenty of time. There is only plenty of time if you are not in a place directly affected. If you are one of those, count your fortunes, but don’t tell those suffering there is plenty of time. Their time has run out. As a global community, we are already in it, and much faster than most people predicted.

The climate crisis has created a deep inner crisis in our consciousness. Nothing in our DNA is ready to handle this, and nothing in our psyches is ready for it either. We cannot do anything about our brothers and sisters lost in their depression and anxiety other than coach them out of it, but we can help ourselves. It needs to be less political, however, and more introspective. We need to look at the crisis in ourselves and each other. We need to soothe one another rather than shout. We need to comfort one another rather than hit or scream. And most importantly, we need to understand each other’s suffering in this extremely unique time in history. Healing on the inside is critical to healing the world.

As this climate crisis unfolds, the suffering of humanity is going to be enormous. Grief will fill the world as if it is generated out of atmospheric carbon. We will live and breathe grief as a way of nourishing ourselves because there won’t be any choice in the matter. Each of us has a duty to live our lives fully anyway, but to do so requires that same deep insight and healing we need to bring to climate action. We need our full selves. That will make us more effective, and it will also heal our own inner humanity. God knows, we need that now.

—Anthony Signorelli