The age of eco-anxiety

Apr 28, 2024
Garden park big plant face tree look world environment

Back in 1947 the W.H. Auden poem, The Age of Anxiety, was published a year after he renounced his British citizenship for US citizenship.

Today the title could encompass an omnibus of community concerns and has also now led to awareness of what is being called eco-anxiety. That condition is the subject of significant research much of it summarised by Helen Pearson in a Nature article The Rise of Eco-Anxiety (11/4).

The problem was first identified in a 2021 global survey that found that more than half of people aged 16-25 “felt sad, anxious or powerless or had other negative emotions about climate change”.

Pearson cited 2018 research into suicide rates in the US and Mexico which rose by 0.7% in the US for each one degree increase in temperature and 2.1% in Mexico. The researchers forecast that there would be an extra 9,000 to 40,000 extra suicides by 2050 if no action was taken.

Another 2018 study found that 72% of people aged 18-34 said negative environmental news stories affected their emotional well-being by causing anxiety, racing thoughts or sleep problems. A 2020 UK study found that young people aged 16-25 were more distressed by climate change than from COVID-19.

A 2021 survey of 10,000 children and young people from 10 countries found that 45% of respondents worry about climate change and that it has a negative impact on work, sleeping or other aspects of daily life. Significantly, Pearson writes, that the highest reports of anxiety were in the Philippines, India and Nigeria and the lowest in the US and UK “contradicting the idea that eco-anxiety is just a rich country problem.”

75% of respondents said that climate change made them think the future is frightening and 56% said it made them think “humanity is doomed.”

The researchers developed tables of climate anxiety in various countries. When asked how worried the young people were about climate change the ranking of country worry levels was (in order) Philippines, India, Brazil, Portugal, France, Australia, Nigeria, UK, US and Finland. Overall, 60% of respondents were very or extremely worried about climate change. Adding and the moderately or a little worried to the worst worries leaves only a sliver on the graph who are not worried.

More than 40% of respondents in all countries said that “climate change negatively affects my daily life and functioning.” The ranking of this group was India tops followed by the Philippines, Nigeria, Brazil, Portugal, France, Australia, Finland, UK and US.

The Nature article also drew on work about the impact of social media on eco-anxiety from Columbia University and the Laureate Institute for Brain Research Brain research in Tulsa Oklahoma. The research examined eight billion posts on Twitter (X) between 2015 and 2022.

It was part of wider research on health and climate change and found that negative reactions to heat and rainfall levels became worse over the years between 2015 and 2022.

Pearson also reports on eco-distress among Australian First Nations people including the Torres Strait Islander communities. Michelle Dickson of Sydney University, who studies the mental health of Indigenous communities, says rising sea levels, droughts and bushfires practices threaten – cultural values that underpin Indigenous mental health.

These developments are also reflected in the wider population survey of wellbeing – The World Happiness Report for 2024 – which has just been published. The happiness rankings are based on individuals’ own assessment of their lives though a single item life-evaluation question.

Overall, the survey finds that happiness life evaluation rises with those born before 1965 and fall with younger generations. Happiness ratings fell significantly in the country group including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand twice as much for the young as for the old.

In contrast, negative emotions are more prevalent for females than males almost everywhere – with a wider gender gap among older ages.

The World Happiness Report has published a 2024 table of country rankings. Much was made in the few Australian media which reported the 2024 results that we were in 10th place in the happiness ratings. This media coverage overlooked the fact that our rating had actually fallen.

Countries in front of us – from happiest down – were Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxemburg and Switzerland. New Zealand was just behind us.

The US rated 23rd and the UK 20th. Nepal, once a place where hippies went for enlightenment, was ranked 93rd. Earthquakes, palace coups, plane crashes and all those awful mountain climbers leaving rubbish and excreta behind would probably spoil the attractiveness of any country – particularly for the locals. Afghanistan was dead last.

Another significant measure, along with happiness, is trust in national institutions. The Economist recently did a comparison of trends in G7 country populations’ confidence in their institutions. Britain’s didn’t move much although it was above 60% – lower than Canada. Germany, France, Japan and Italy all saw big increases in trust while trust in the US fell to below 50%.

The US was last in faith in honest elections and tied with Italians for the lowest trust in the judicial system. Trust in the army in the US is still high at 81% but it is lower than French trust in their army.

The outlier in all this is Finland. Cold, more saunas than people, reindeers having right of way on northern roads, two wars with Russia, the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and enter parliament, second least corrupt nation in the world (after Denmark), great education systems, universal health care and perhaps the only country to have more saunas than people – all after hundreds of years of wars including two with Russia in the 20th century.

Perhaps most importantly – to Australians mourning the Voice campaign – the Finnish Sami Parliament provides rights and significant independence to the Sami peoples. They can even negotiate international issues with their respective groups in Norway and Sweden.

Australia could probably happily skip the cold, even with saunas, but would love the rest.

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