CLIMATE CHANGE

“End of the World” stress: Can it motivate us or will it push us to destroy the planet even faster?

As the onset of climate change increasingly becomes a real, current event, rather than a future one, more and more of us are waking up to the fact that the fear is real, and it is coming closer and closer. Closer than we thought it would be by now. We had thought that maybe we would be the lucky generation that could escape most of the impacts. But now we’re not so sure.

And as we begin to accept this, we are proceeding down the various stages of this realisation, in no particular order: shock, fear, denial, acceptance or other emotional responses.

A new type of anxiety with the potential to change us for the better

What is new about this anxiety is that it is not about an imagined fear. It is about a real danger which is actually on the way. So while the terms eco-anxiety and climate change stress are appropriate, so are “end of the world stress” and “existential stress”.

Judging from how I have personally dealt with this stress, it has been deeply transformative, I would dare to say life-changing for me. While it pushed me into activism, it has also made me re-consider almost everything I valued before in my life, and begin to establish a completely new set of values and ideas about what it means to be human. It is true that mental stress can be destructive, but it also has the power to change us deeply and profoundly.

But not everyone is reacting in the same way

People respond in different ways to stress. We could be coming upon a pivotal moment in human history where our entire population is about to be put under this existential stress. What would the result be?

I believe there is a real risk of a “fight or flight” response, which is deeply wired into us. All animals choose between fight or flight when they are in danger, when their survival is threatened. Humans are no exception: these are hormonal responses that we cannot control easily. They are part of our internal biology and they can alter our very cognition, and override our reason.

“Fight”

Examples of the “fight” response would be large-scale, international military conflicts over food, water and agricultural land disputes, as well as disagreements over the use of geo-engineering or other ways of combating climate change.

It may mean people would now be voting for more extreme far right governments that promised to keep them safe from the influx of millions of hungry, overheating refugees from equatorial countries that have become uninhabitable. It would be these same far right movements that would perpetrate even more climate catastrophe.

It may also mean increasing disagreement between nations on how to tackle climate change as well as its impacts, as every nation fights for its own turf and its own interests, rather than thinking about the planet as a whole.

But we do not need to use our imagination. We see these events happen quite predictably every time there is a natural catastrophe. We have seen armed looting and crime emerge spontaneously, almost out of nowhere every time there is a severe hurricane that results in hunger and total devastation. Our society can descend into this state quite easily. In fact, it is almost guaranteed it will, every time.

“Flight”

It may sound more benign, but Flight is equally damaging.

First of all, real and concrete Flight is not an option for humans. Unlike previous ecological disasters like the Dust Bowl or the drying up of the Aral Sea, this is not one where humans can run for their lives. This crisis is affecting the entire planet. There is nowhere to run.

Except if you are rich, or at least this is what the rich would like to think. We could be looking at an era of social collapse, where those who have the means and the money secure themselves in bunkers where they have stockpiled food, where they can wait until billions of people die of hunger before they step out.

But flight can take mental incarnations as well. A new age of climate change complacency, hypernormalisation, acceptance and at the same time denial could usher through, as much as it seems catastrophic. Many people will not be able to process the fact that the world is changing so profoundly. They will choose to continue to lie to themselves, and lie to their children. This is a “mental flight”, a flight from the truth, and a homeostatic response to reach a new equilibrium and adjust to the new situation. It would likely also be perpetrated by the UN, the IPCC, and all major politicians who will want to minimise panic and a run on the banks. Climate Change will become normalised, right at the time when it actually becomes real.

But every day life can be a Flight response too. As the world crumbles, some of us will continue to go out for “shopping therapy”. We will continue to spend our money in ways that keep Capitalism alive, the economic system that is responsible for Earth’s collapse. It will be another day in Paradise, for many of us. Ironically, many people with families will fall into this category, as they strive to “keep the fairy tale going” for their children.

End of the World stress could either decrease or boost our intelligence

It is not easy to find an antidote to our in-built dangerous survival strategies. This is why climate change is an existential question for us. What can be the antidote to what seems to be an unavoidable pull towards the most grim scenarios?

Developing mental strategies to block fight or flight responses is key. At times of stress and panic, humans have repeatedly through history turned to God, to their communities, to their sense of connection with the world and with nature in order to find strength, courage and positivity — but most importantly to re-discover their humility and compassion. I’m not religious, but spirituality has served a purpose throughout our evolution. Almost all religions preach non-violence, gratitude, altruism, love. These are essential qualities of a mentally healthy human being, which are at an all-time low in our societies today. They are being further obliterated by technology. We need to resurrect these values as a matter of urgency.

Our final chance. Really, it is.

We have all shunned love, gratitude and simple everyday pleasures in order to pursue fulfilment in things that make us even more unsatisfied with our life: our salary, our car, the size of our house. The victims of this competition are us, other humans as well as all the other species we share this planet with. We need completely new values about what makes us happy. This is why climate change is an existential crisis not only about our survival, but about our very reason for existence.

Nature has no space for ungrateful beings. With climate change, Nature is trying to teach us what love and gratitude are. Love for both ourselves and others. These are values we have forgotten.

Only if we can be happy with who we are can we save the planet. We are a species increasingly questioning our purpose. Confused, restless, always looking into the future and looking down on the present as an inferior version of the reality we want to live. We are contemplating a future where automation, algorithms, and even tech implants will bring us more happiness. Yet it is this same future where our ecosystems will have been decimated unless we curb our greed.

Learning to live with less, to manage our resources, to cherish, appreciate the food on our plate, the sunlight on our face, the clean water coming out of the tap, is a sixth sense we need to develop immediately. Gratitude. A humble prayer to the planet that feeds us.

It is possible that Humans were the biggest mistake of nature. It created a species unable to be content with its present reality, always searching, always in doubt. A species that could not find a balance with the rest of the planet. A species that became stressed. And the more stressed it became, the more it grew blind to its own destructive path.

“End of the World” stress is Humanity’s moment of truth. Succumbing to it would mean further destruction. Harnessing it could mean our salvation.

You can follow me on Twitter @99blackbaloons

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Author, podcaster, scientist, documenting our system failure. Photographic Heart, Disposable Earth, Age of Separateness, Becoming Imperfect. tsakraklides.com