walking on a sandy beach

Eco-anxiety likely to reach pandemic proportions

Nature has a kind heart. She will always provide solace if we let her. The challenge for modern humans is to remember that we are still a part of nature and not separate from it. When we forget this we can become quite nervous.

Do you suffer from eco-anxiety? 

In 2017, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) described eco-anxiety as a chronic fear of environmental doom.

“eco-anxiety — a chronic fear of environmental doom” 

American Psychiatric Association

The knot in the stomach, the nervous twitch, the odd nightmare brought on by the fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster. 

This sense of anxiety is largely based on the current and predicted future state of the environment and human-induced climate change. According to a 2018 national survey, almost 70% of people in the United States are worried about climate change, and around 51% feel “helpless.”

That is a lot of people with anxiety, not so much for the loss of endangered species, but for the general health of the environment. 

Certainly, if you live in Beijing or Mumbai or any of the conurbations where vehicle traffic and fossil fuel burning has created terrible air pollution those issues are with you every day. 

In Sydney over the 2019-20 black summer, bush fires blanketed the city with acrid smoke for weeks giving the usually blue sky city a constant reminder of the menace on the doorstep of the city. By the end of the summer, an area of forest and woodland the size of Syria had gone up in smoke.

There was plenty of eco-anxiety in the air too.

As a  solution to eco-anxiety George Monbiot talks about a recharge requirement. The necessity to spend some time with nature in order to, as he says, “recharge the human spirit and that we could all do with some of that”. His personal solution is to jump on his sea kayak and paddle about on the ocean. 

The reality is that this eco-anxiety is deep and more detrimental to our psyche than we would imagine. 

In my profession as an ecological consultant, I spend a lot of time trying to understand the numbers and working out exactly how much stress and strain the environment is under. Eight billion human souls, their livestock and companion animals require a lot of ecosystem services and it always makes for depressing reading when the numbers show how precarious it all is given the shape of the curves and the history of population growth. 

Look away now if you have any anxiety, but here is the hockey stick — well more like vertical take-off — graph of the human population since we invented agriculture 12,000 years ago…

Graph on arithmetic scale of human population since 10,000 BCE showing dramatic rise in last 100 years

Not so scary view

The other way to look at human population growth is it’s amazing.

How on earth are we able to produce food at the volumes that we do, and channel that food for the most part towards the people that need it when there are so many people to feed? 

There are still many malnourished people around the world, perhaps a third of the global population fits into that category so there’s still plenty of work to be done and plenty of opportunities to be had. But the upside is that humanity continues to achieve what seems unachievable. 

The pandemic has put a break on a whole bunch of the activities that are at the root of much eco-anxiety by curbing some of our excesses. Travel has plummeted along with tourism. The use of fossil fuels has declined dramatically and whilst this has enormous economic consequences and will bring other stresses, the environment has taken a bit of a breather from the ongoing onslaught of human activity. 

Indeed the day of the year where we use up all the renewable resources of the earth has pushed back this year after decades of coming forward. 

It is a stretch to call COVID-19 lockdowns an opportunity to commune with nature, yet there are dozens of stories around the social pages of people who have been able to reconnect in even small ways with nature on their doorsteps even out the window of their lockdowns. 

It’s imperative that we all do this, that we all are able to find our version of a sea kayak. To recharge ourselves in relation to how the environment works. To understand more about how nature provides for us. And indeed how much of nature we can bend before it breaks. 

scientists taking water samples in the Okavango delta, Botswana
Dr Jem Perkins and Professor Tally Palmer communing with nature in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Looking for the upside — antidote to eco-anxiety

At sustainably FED we are trying always to be on the upside. To think positively about the opportunities. And in taking a breather, contemplating the world around makes perfectly good sense. 

Just the other day on a walk down the road from my house I was able to spend some time watching a fairy-wren bounce around in the undergrowth. Just for a few moments, I was disconnected from all of the craziness going on in the world. 

Nature is very good at that. It reminds us where we come from and that we are actually part of this extraordinary planet. 

Not separate from it and not to have dominion over it. 

If you need more advice on how to understand the environment and how it works for food production, we have courses available and many posts on this site that point to anxiety prevention. 

In the meantime feel free to take a breath from any eco-anxiety. Get on your kayak and enjoy nature while it’s taking a breather from our actions.

If you need more advice on how to understand the environment and how it works for food production, we have courses available and many posts on this site that point to anxiety prevention.

Hero image modified from a photo by Alloporus


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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