RICHARD ECKERSLEY.-Bushfires, coronavirus and economic turmoil provoke existential fears for humanity’s future

Mar 18, 2020

Greta Thunberg said ‘Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder’ ..‘All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people’.

People can react quite differently to apocalyptic suspicions about the 21st Century, and this will shape how effectively humanity deals with the dangers.

Back in the 1980s, I wrote a report on people’s views of the future for the Commission for the Future. Surveys showed people were mainly pessimistic about the world’s prospects. Children and youth expressed their concerns in particularly graphic ways.

As the father of three young children at the time, the bleakness of the images left a deep impression on me. So I investigated in a second Commission report what effect, if any, these expectations might have on young people’s health and wellbeing.

Most of the health experts I spoke to discounted their importance. They emphasised more personal circumstances and experiences, such as family conflict, abuse and breakdown, homelessness, poverty and unemployment. The exceptions were the small group of researchers, mainly psychologists, who had investigated the topic.

These researchers warned that the pessimism of many young people could produce cynicism, mistrust, anger, apathy and an approach to life based on instant gratification rather than long-term goals or lasting commitment. American environmental and peace writer and activist Joanna Macy suggested that people’s response to concerns of global catastrophes ‘is not to cry out or ring alarms’ but ‘to go silent, go numb’. She suggests this ‘numbing of the psyche’ takes a heavy toll, including an impoverishment of emotional and sensory life. Energy expended in suppressing despair ‘is diverted from more creative uses, depleting resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies’.

How people see humanity’s future may not simply reflect what they expect the future might hold. Their views involve complex and subtle relationships between expected future conditions, contemporary social realities and personal states of mind. Future visions can both reflect and reinforce social conditions and personal attributes. They can act on personal wellbeing directly, and indirectly through their social impacts.

For example, apart from being legitimate concerns about the future, young people’s fears for the future may also be a means of expressing their anxieties about the present. These anxieties may be ill-defined – especially when according to conventional measures of progress most people are better off than ever before – but are nonetheless personal and deeply felt.

By projecting these concerns into the future, they can be described in fictional, and more concrete, terms. A vague sense of unease about the direction the world is going and people’s impotence to change that course become, for many, visions of a world in which a growing gap between rich and poor has produced deeply divided and hostile communities; the arms race has resulted in nuclear warfare; ever-expanding industrialisation and populations have plundered the environment; or the development of technologies with powers beyond our comprehension has culminated in human obsolescence.

In the 1980s, the main focus of research was on the threat of nuclear war, heightened by the growing tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. For example, American psychologist Michael Newcomb found in a 1986 study of young adults (aged 19-24) a significant association between anxiety about nuclear threats and less purpose in life, less life satisfaction, more powerlessness, more depression and more drug use.

Today, it is climate change that is attracting most attention, a future threat that has been transformed in the space of a decade or so into a clear and present danger, as underscored by last summer’s bushfires.

My interest is not in the direct impacts on health of climate-related events such as the fires, droughts, floods or storms, on which most research has focused, but rather the more intangible and existential fear of a world and way of life that are confronting problems that are beyond conventional policy remedies and may be reaching their limits.

In a report issued last November, the Australian Psychological Society said that most children and young people know, care and are worried about the climate crisis, even those who have not yet felt the direct effects of climate change. ‘They experience anger, frustration, depression, sadness, grief, anxiety and feelings of powerlessness.’ These risks were expected to escalate as climate change intensified.

I wrote in a 2008 essay in The Futurist, the magazine of the World Future Society, that the images we held of the world affected how we think, feel, and act, and were increasingly shaped by global or distant threat and disaster: earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, bushfires, disease pandemics, war, terrorist attacks, and famine. While these hazards were, for the most part, not new, previous fears were never so sustained and varied, nor so powerfully reinforced by the frequency, immediacy, and vividness of today’s media images. ‘This effect seems certain to intensify as climate change and other threats begin to impact more deeply on our lives’, I said. ‘The boundaries between the personal and the global are breaking down.’

I think we have yet to grasp the extent to which the world has changed, and how much globalisation and the media have expanded our spheres of awareness and so the range of influences on our wellbeing. As psychologist Amanda Allan has remarked, our relationships with time and space have changed markedly. ‘People are referencing themselves more and more in relation to global events, and social cultures beyond their immediate context.’ In Western societies, she said, there had been ‘a disembodying of what we consider to be our intimate frame of reference’, resulting in a reorientation of who we are in relation to others.

In a 2017 article in Psychology Today, psychologist Emily Green describes her reaction to listening to a podcast series about climate change: ‘I began to realize just how deeply and utterly the reality of climate change and the consequences that it will have on our planet disturbs me to my core. I found that this topic brought up feelings that were unique in their ability to create a sense of intense, globalized anxiety on an existential, rather than personal level.’

She says her interpretation of her discomfort is that thinking and learning about the reality of climate change activate what existential psychology would call our ‘ultimate concerns’ or ‘existential facts of life’, including finitude, responsibility, suffering, meaninglessness, and death.

‘These concerns are of course part of the human condition, and it is not entirely surprising that the prospect of the deterioration of our natural resources and rapid erosion of the conditions that make it possible for the earth to sustain human life would create a sense of despair about the meaning of, and ultimate end of human life.’

People can react quite differently to apocalyptic suspicions about our times, and this will shape how effectively humanity deals with the dangers. In the 2008 essay I suggested the responses included: nihilism (the loss of belief in a social or moral order; decadence rules), fundamentalism (the retreat to certain belief; dogma rules), and activism (the transformation of belief; hope rules). (The categories make sharp distinctions between responses that are, in reality, fuzzy, with subtle to extreme expressions. They are not mutually exclusive responses, but can overlap, co-exist and change over time in individuals and groups.)

All three responses offer benefits to our personal wellbeing and resilience: nihilism through a disengagement and distraction from frightening possibilities and prospects; fundamentalism through the conviction of righteousness and the promise of salvation; and activism through a unity of purpose and a belief in a cause.

I wrote in the 2008 essay that the three responses were growing in social intensity, a head-to-head contest that, sooner or later, would shatter the status quo. We are seeing this today, especially over climate change. Some powerful global corporations and national governments are ruthlessly pursuing short-term self-interest over a broader social good (I think ‘nihilism’ captures this better than ‘denialism’), and championing a dogmatic belief in market supremacy (a secular ‘fundamentalism’). Pitted against them is a stronger and more determined protest movement.

Existential despair is clear in comments by climate-change activist Greta Thunberg: ‘Before I started school striking I had no energy, no friends and I didn’t speak to anyone. I just sat alone at home, with an eating disorder’. But so also is its antidote: ‘All of that is gone now, since I have found a meaning, in a world that sometimes seems shallow and meaningless to so many people’.

Richard Eckersley researches the future, progress, sustainability and population health and wellbeing. .


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