The high-pitched emergency alarm blares endlessly in the background. I’m with my whole family, and we are all in a panic, gathering our things and heading to our van, parked just outside the door. While my family members gather pictures, clothes, and sentimental items, I stuff my bag with canned goods and all the weapons and tools I had stored in the back of our house for this exact moment. Deep down, I’d always known this was coming. I gather my family into the van, and tell them to protect all of the supplies that we have while I go with my brother to see what supplies we can get for our journey. By the time we return from a ransacked grocery story, we find everyone sitting bereft on the porch, van-less and weapon-less. Slowly the ground begins to rumble, shake, and separate. I drop to my knees in desperation and let out a scream. That’s when I woke up from this nightmare, the scream still stuck in my throat.
This apocalyptic dream is nothing new for me. Every month or so, I have a dream like this, in which I’m fleeing in a van with a few treasured items and my smartest relatives. Oftentimes, we’re trying to outrun an astronomically sized ocean wave while escaping a sinking New York City. It’s happened so much that I’ve created a label for this particular nightmare genre: post-apocalyptic environmental disaster.
I know I’m not alone in feeling environmental anxiety. Every day brings more stories about our nearly apocalyptic reality, from the ocean being lit on fire to the moon wobbling due to rising sea levels, the latter news leading me to practically hyperventilate when telling all of my friends that I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to happily exist if we keep messing up like this. Their responses ranged from laughs of disbelief to expressions of slight distress, but no one was as infuriated as I wanted them to be. So, I turned to a community guaranteed to join in on my frustration: Twitter. It was on the app that people helped me to identify the proper term for the constant stress that I felt — eco-anxiety.
Eco-anxiety is exactly what it sounds like — intense nervousness incited by the current climate disaster. The American Psychological Association officially defines it as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” It was a relief to finally put a name on the persistent concern for the future wellbeing of Earth and her communities that I’ve long felt, but I was still left wondering: How do I cope within this anxious state while trying to make a difference?
One thing that kept tripping me up is something that’s important to acknowledge: Singular action cannot resolve the climate crisis. There are systemic changes that need to take place to support widespread efforts to heal our planet. But, even if it won’t solve the climate crisis, it does help soothe my anxiety to know that I’m working to lead a life where I contribute the least amount of harm to the planet and its people — particularly those in vulnerable communities.
I can divide the different ways I allay my anxiety into a few categories. First, is community.
From tending to the earth to collaborating with my neighbors to becoming acquainted with the birds that greeted me so loudly all throughout the pandemic, it is important for me to show gratitude and contribute to the health of my communities. One way I’ve done that is by researching the cultures that are indigeneous to the lands where I currently live, and learning how they took care of the land and its plants and produce. (This map has been really helpful in this process.) These cultures were often built on honoring and sustaining their land. Showing love to Mother Nature by incorporating some native practices into my everyday life — as a form of appreciation rather than appropriation — has helped me feel as though I’m participating in the health of my communities. I offer gratitude to the grass, trees, soil, birds, squirrels, and the ecosystem that sustains my home.
Separately from its connection to community, nature — spending time in it, learning more about it, practicing gratitude for it — also helps me self-soothe my eco-anxiety. Learning about the diversity of plants that are natural to the area where I live makes me feel a deeper appreciation for the land, and on a practical note, I hope to one day create a self-sustaining garden with fruits, vegetables, and other plant life. One of my first steps has been learning gardening skills from my grandma and aunts; I currently have a two-and-a-half-year-old avocado tree that brings me so much pride. The natural world helps me to ground myself. And although at times eco-anxiety can manifest as fears of being at the mercy of nature’s retaliation, I’ve been reclaiming my relationship with nature by learning basic survival skills, including how to make a fire, understanding practical uses for herbs, practicing my swimming, and going on hikes. Building my relationship with nature feels like the most effective way to reject unhealthy and harmful practices in favor of my eventual return to the natural and earth-friendly way of life that was inherent to my ancestral traditions.
Confronting my nightmares and anxieties head-on — by doing things like creating a survival kit containing some canned foods, flashlights, and other necessities in case the power ever goes out or any other emergencies occur — has also brought me a sense of comfort and control. So too has discussing an Emergency Game Plan with my loved ones. My family and I are big movie people, and I’ve found that after watching some intense disaster film, it’s easy enough to segue into a discussion about where to meet if catastrophe hits or how we could communicate with each other if we didn’t have access to a phone or WiFi.
Frankly, this kind of planning is helpful for my daily life, regardless of eco-anxiety. It’s not a bad thing to practice getting around without GPS. I’ve been trying to increase my spatial and directional awareness because I would be LOST in the apocalypse — but it could also come in handy the next time my phone runs out of battery. I’ve always gotten so frustrated when the GPS says “head southwest” because it forces me to ask myself: Do I even understand a compass? I can’t even imagine trying to read a map and navigating, so I’ve been playing around with the compass app on my phone and trying to drive without GPS.
Honestly, practicing navigating life with less technology is rewarding. Ask yourself: Do I know how to do this the manual way? Could I survive without electricity? Sometimes just researching and trying out the process of doing something by hand makes me feel like things will be just fine — like the time I made cheese at home, and realized that my cheese would likely be a delicacy post-apocalypse!
I also do things like practice seeing without my glasses. My astigmatism is pretty bad, so sometimes I go a few days without my glasses to train myself to function, because there are no eye doctor appointments in the environmental apocalypse. In all fairness, my doctor initially recommended that I try not to wear my glasses for all activities, so I try to wear them only when I need them anyway. But I’m also heavily considering Lasik, in part to feel more confident about my ability to get around should I lose my access to my vision care.
And while I’m completely aware that individual action alone isn’t enough to move the needle on climate change, focusing on the environment still does help me gain a sense of control over all the chaos. Living in America (a country that produces 268 million tons of waste per year, according to the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure), most of the products I consume already have a huge carbon footprint and likely unethical production processing. So I ask myself what does it mean to be less wasteful? How can I limit waste? How can I limit purchases? I acknowledge the ways that I produce waste and try to limit as much as I can.
it must have been fun to be in your 20s in the early 2000s. You’re all “I’m gonna go see the strokes later” & “ya I dunno I could see myself having kids” & then you just do & the ocean isn’t on fire yet.— melissa lozada-oliva (@ellomelissa) July 3, 2021
I’ve cut back on my meat intake and consider where all of my produce is coming from. I’m inspired by my friends who have joined their local farms' food co-ops. Studies have shown that on average, food accounts for 10% to 30% of a person’s carbon footprint and meat is the food group with the largest carbon footprint. Implementing minimalist practices into my daily routines has also been effective — specifically, limiting my fashion intake, since research shows that the fashion industry contributes to about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. I try to be strategic and thoughtful about new purchases. I’ve found myself buying less clothing by not following trends and instead only investing in pieces that I actually like; pieces that will be timeless for me. I also look for items made of good, long-lasting materials.
These personal steps might not make a huge dent in the problem we’re facing, but they have made a big impact in handling my own anxiety. It also helps me to share what it is that I do to feel better, and send love to everyone who is concerned about the state and wellbeing of our planet. While our little actions may not be able to resolve this messy web of ecological destruction, sharing our practices of harm reduction can be a step toward creating a shift — in the world, and within ourselves.