Headlines about wildfires, tropical storms, and melting ice shelves have raised global awareness of the looming global warming emergency. According to the 2021 People’s Climate Survey by the United Nations, 64% of people think climate change is a global emergency. The same study also found that 54% of respondents supported calls for greater conservation of natural resources, and 50% of people now believe that more funding must be channeled toward green energy. Improving climate awareness is a step in the right direction. However, many people find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle of bad news, fatalism, and inaction. While breaking this cycle can be tricky, with the right support, efforts to improve sustainability can actually improve people’s mental health and overall well-being.
Sustainability and Mental Health
Climate change is at the forefront of people’s minds across the globe. Natural disasters, wildfires, and extreme weather events are already disrupting our ability to live healthy, happy lives, and increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels threaten to deepen the global warming crisis. Unfortunately, the rise of climate awareness coincides with an uptick in climate anxiety.
Climate anxiety – which is broadly defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” – is particularly common among young people who are concerned about governments’ inaction. Climate-related fears can quickly spiral into declining mental health, as concerns about the natural world can undermine people’s ability to deal with other issues in their lives.
The good news is that living a more sustainable, eco-conscious lifestyle can alleviate some symptoms of common conditions like depression and anxiety. Spending time in green spaces improves health and well-being and can re-energise folks who are fighting for environmental protection and the end of planet-warming fossil fuels.
We are already experiencing the early signs of global warming. Data collected by NASA shows that hurricanes are becoming stronger and more intense, droughts and heatwaves are more common, and wildfire seasons last longer. This is a serious cause for concern for the whole global community, as billions of people worldwide will be affected by rising sea levels and worsening extreme weather events.
It is easy to feel helpless in the face of the environmental degradation and ecological harm that accompanies climate change. This state of heightened anxiety and fear can harm one’s mental health and well-being.
However, recently published research in Ecological Economies suggests that understanding climate anxiety can help folks build a more resilient mindset. Researchers Christine Wamsler and Ebba Brink suggest that, when paired with mindfulness activities, climate awareness can “steer people away from fatalist behaviour.”
Surprisingly, the mindfulness activities described in the research paper are not intended to distract participants from the threat that climate change poses. Instead, sustainability-oriented mindful practices improve “acknowledgment of climate change” and the risks associated with a warming globe. Folks who adopt a resilient mindset may be more likely to work on important issues like ecological protection, the advancement of renewable energy, and the protection of vulnerable populations.
Climate change threatens to weaken our social bonds and break up traditional institutions. Natural disasters, like wildfires, put extreme strain on global infrastructure and social services. Folks who live in underserved areas – like food deserts – are particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of a climate catastrophe, as essential services and goods may not be able to reach remote, rural areas.
However, increased climate awareness can be the catalyst for change, too.
For instance, business leaders who lead by example can improve work culture, reduce staff turnover, and increase employee productivity. Leading by example can also help climate-conscious staff regain a sense of control, as workplaces that fund climate offsets and engage in community clean-ups help workers feel like they are proactively protecting their local ecosystem.
Social well-being can be protected by funding access to more green spaces. Studies suggest that spending time in green spaces can lower the risk of psychiatric disorders and mitigate the impact of conditions related to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Fortunately, countries like the US are taking steps to improve access in traditionally marginalised and disadvantaged communities. The Biden-Harris administration recently announced a US$1 billion grant to increase equitable access to trees, parks, and nature reserves. These renovations will be carried out by the Department of Agriculture and will improve the well-being of communities who face barriers to accessing green spaces.
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Combating climate change is, predominantly, about ending fossil fuels and replacing them with sustainable alternatives. However, we will all have to make some tough lifestyle changes to ensure that the natural world is safe and productive for generations to come.
The shift towards more sustainable living will require innovation and invention at every level of society. Even our waste management systems will have to change, as waste sites will be replaced with improved anaerobic digestion methods, recycling plants, and innovative storage solutions. As consumers, we will likely need to adapt our own behaviours to ensure that emerging sustainability tech has a fair chance to thrive.
Adapting to a sustainable lifestyle does not have to be a chore. Instead, taking proactive steps to protect the local environment and reduce personal waste can be profoundly empowering and rewarding.
Improving Mental Health through Empowerment
It is easy to feel fatalistic in the face of climate change. International agreements between governments are necessary to curb global warming, but many of us do not believe we can have a direct impact on policymakers.
In reality, a single, empowered voice can make a meaningful difference within a sea of climate skepticism and ecological damage. Rather than doom-scrolling, sustainability-oriented people can sign up to work for reputable climate-activism groups like The Sunrise Group, Greenpeace, 350.org, and Fridays for Future.
These groups are dedicated to combating global warming and can help amplify the impact of engaged, climate-conscious citizens. Some focus on ecological protection, while others stage protests and events designed to reduce the use of unsustainable fossil fuels. Joining these groups can be empowering and help folks advocate for greater sustainability in their communities while also improving mental health.
It Is Time for a Change
Climate awareness is on the rise around the world, as folks become increasingly aware about the link between sustainability ad mental health. However, as more people join the fight to end global warming, steps must be taken to protect the mental health and well-being of climate advocates. Group mindfulness sessions can boost resilience, and regularly visiting green spaces is proven to improve health and well-being. This is particularly important today, as more people are being exposed to climate catastrophes that threaten their mental health and well-being.
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