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Your Climate Anxiety Is Another Person’s Existential Crisis

It’s natural for even fortunate Americans to worry about the planet’s future. But for some people, disaster has already struck.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
A woman in Kenya's Turkana county

I don’t experience climate grief—and I’ve always worried that means there’s something wrong with me.

Studies show that I’m in the minority: More than two-thirds of American adults say they experience “eco-anxiety.” Just last month, a poll showed that climate change has negatively affected the mental health of 71 percent of American millennials and that a staggering 78 percent of Gen Zers say that climate change means they aren’t planning or don’t want to have children.

As awareness of the problem grows, so too have our feelings about it. Articles have proliferated over the past year with headlines like, “How We Mourn a Changing Planet,” “The 4 Stages of Climate Grief,” and “Is Climate Change Causing Us to Experience Ecological Grief?” Attempts to assuage these anxieties have ranged from a “funerary rave” aimed at creating a “collective space for experiencing ecological grief” at the MIT School of Architecture & Planning (the same year it hosted a guided meditation for sea-level rise) to climate-anxiety support groups cropping up across the country. 

It’s a reasonable response to the magnitude of what we’re facing: “biological annihilation” in the form of the sixth major extinction, our rapid waste of the 12 years scientists say we have left to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the sinking realization that much of the damage already inflicted can never be undone.

So why am I not furiously scanning Twitter for the next eco-rave? It’s not that I’m not worried. I write about climate change for a living—believe me, I’m worried. But this sudden proliferation of collective mourning, magnified by the current pandemic, often feels like it’s missing both historical and contemporary context.

I began reporting on climate change in 2015, when I flew to Turkana, Kenya’s parched northwestern corner. When you hear about “the front lines” of climate change, Turkana is it. Life there revolves around Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world. At least 300,000 people depend on it for survival. The lake is drying up.

I had been living in East Africa for a few years at that point, reporting on childbirth injuries, terrorist attacks, even a failed coup, but I had never been anywhere like Turkana. I had never seen so many people living on the knife’s edge of existence, where it would take so little to push them over. In some places, lines in the sand show the lake a full half-mile in retreat from where it used to lie.

Signs of a coming apocalypse were everywhere: In one town, a graveyard of decaying fishing boats littered the ground with no water in sight, looking like they were about to set sail through the cracked earth. Animal carcasses weren’t uncommon—ribs escaping overstretched skin, with vultures circling overhead. There is something that feels extraterrestrial about a landscape so devoid of life. And it was still more jarring given that, with one of the richest fossil records of early humans, Turkana has been called “the cradle of mankind,” with human traces dating back four million years.

“I don’t know about changes in the atmosphere, but the science of climate change is something we actually experience,” Philip Tioko, a 46-year-old fisherman, told me. Tioko moved his family to be closer to the lake after his livestock was wiped out by Turkana’s increasingly common droughts. At first, fishing filled the gaps, but as the lake has contracted, so too have fish stocks. When I visited, the family hadn’t eaten in two days. His children’s hair was copper-colored, a sign of acute protein deficiency. His seven-year-old limped because of a bone deformity likely caused by drinking Turkana’s highly fluorinated water. A nurse at a local clinic suspected that fluoride concentrations were rising as the lake water reduced. In one small village I visited, 11 people couldn’t walk at all due to these deformities.

“How did this become my life?” one man asked me from the hut he hadn’t left since he lost his ability to walk years ago. “The thing I request is for God to take my heart and for me to rest.”

As with many communities on the front line of global warming, it’s difficult to extricate the effects of climate change from decades of poverty, colonialism, and extractive geopolitics. The same year I visited, Ethiopia began to generate electricity from a dam choking the Omo River, Lake Turkana’s main source of water, causing lake levels to drop precipitously. In Turkana, climate change is a new name for an old suffering.

It’s also no coincidence that Turkana remains the poorest county in Kenya. British colonizers spent the first half of the twentieth century looting Turkana’s livestock and stealing land they described  as “the most worthless district in Kenya.” When Turkana mounted a formidable resistance, the British doubled down on the dispossession, confining movement to smaller and smaller parcels of land. It was a death sentence for untold numbers of pastoralists who needed to be able to roam long distances to keep their cattle, and themselves, alive. Today, just over 2 percent of the county has electricity, and somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of children have acute malnutrition. In recent decades, growing numbers of lapsed pastoralists like Tioko have gathered around the lake in an attempt to survive, stretching its resources to breaking point. When the effects of climate change started to unfold, Turkana didn’t stand a chance. 

“Since the 1970s, we’ve felt it, this thing coming into Turkana. As time goes by, it only gets worse,” Ebunu Louin told me after he flagged me down from the chair where he sold loose cigarettes from a plastic tub near the lake’s shores. Louin worries not about psychic suffering but about literal survival. And he worries most for his children: “It’s better to die than to see your children suffering.”

The catastrophes of global warming will occur where the people most vulnerable to it have already been suffering for a long time. It’s not that the climate anxiety Americans are experiencing isn’t real or important. But overemphasizing it can obscure the stakes—not the stakes as they have suddenly become, but the stakes as they always were.

In a letter to the climate movement last year, environmental writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, who has written powerfully about climate grief herself, described what she calls “existential exceptionalism”: the environmental movement’s claim to be the first in history to stare down an existential threat. Citing Jim Crow and America’s staggering racial violence, she wrote that such myopia “serves only to divorce the environmental movement from a much bigger arc of history.”

There’s a similar risk, I would add, in some of us overemphasizing our personal experiences of climate change, when our experiences are so different from those in places like Turkana. 

Solastalgia, a word for climate grief or eco-anxiety coined by environmental scientist Glenn Albrecht in the early 2000s, describes the feeling produced by environmental change on people directly connected to their home environment. Albrecht first observed it in people affected by persistent drought and large-scale open-cut mining in New South Wales, Australia. “It was as though they were experiencing something akin to homesickness,” Albrecht recently told National Geographic, “but none of them had left home.”                                                                                                

As a child of the American suburbs who now calls Washington, D.C., home, I can’t claim to have lost something like the Australian mining communities have, let alone something like Turkana’s fishermen have. Today, the direct impacts of climate change on my daily existence are mostly limited to oddities like that weirdly sunny day we had in February—various shifts that, while unsettling, hardly threaten everyday life. 

The loss I have experienced, and that I imagine many others like myself have experienced, is a fundamentally different kind of loss. 

Finnish ecotheologian Panu Pihkala recently wrote of the existential challenge facing middle-class global Northerners right now: “The world is revealed to be much more tragic and fragile than people thought it was. For many young people, the climate crisis is the first enormous existential crisis that they face.”

It’s the same panic I imagine set in for many Americans in the first weeks of the pandemic, a dramatic and sinking realization that maybe grocery stores were not inherently stocked; that maybe we wouldn’t all always be OK. I suspect that many of us are homesick less for the loss of a physical place than for an idea. We’re nostalgic for a world that for most people never existed—one where there was a guarantee that basic needs would be met and where our children would have a better life than we did. We’re nostalgic for an illusion—an illusion fueling decades of short-sighted policies, simply because we found it difficult to imagine ourselves living in even a fraction of the precarity others have faced for generations. While it’s not easy, that illusion might not be the worst thing to lose.