A few years ago, Sarah Jaquette Ray began noticing a change among her students. She has taught environmental studies throughout her career, but increasingly, students were coming to class anxious and hopeless about the climate crisis. They were asking questions like, “What’s the point of studying this if the planet won’t be livable in a few decades?”
Ray began talking through this stress and anxiety with her students, and she found that many of them felt that trying to respond to climate change was pointless. They couldn’t imagine a hopeful, beautiful future, and it was stifling their ability to work toward one.
So she spent the last several years researching and writing her most recent book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet.
Earlier this month, Ray spoke about climate emotions at Against All Odds, our annual benefit to save the planet. She also sat down with us to discuss her work, the roots of negative climate emotions, and what we need — not just politically and scientifically, but emotionally — to come together and fight for a better future.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mia DiFelice: Your work explores climate anxiety, but it also extends more broadly to “climate emotions” like grief and guilt. What role do all these emotions play in climate action?
Sarah Jaquette Ray: There’s research that could back you up for any emotion being useful for climate action. It’s not so much which emotion is most useful, but which context, which population, and under what conditions.
For example, there’s some really cool research that’s come out around how anger is a great emotion to motivate climate action. This went kind of viral, and there was a lot of excitement.
But of course, there are certain people, like people of color, for whom expression of anger can make them unsafe. Or for women — their anger often doesn’t register as righteous. It registers as shrill or annoying. It’s dismissed.
And as we know, in general, anger for the long-term is bad for your body, soul, heart, and mind. It’s not an emotion I like to cultivate in my students because I’m thinking about their long-term ability to stay engaged in their lives, much less climate action.
Anger might be a great emotion for quick, immediate mobilization, but it is not great for long-term action. That’s one of the distinctions I often think of: Do you want to get people to show up to a protest tomorrow? Or do you want people to stay involved for the long haul of their lives?
Rebecca Solnit describes this beautifully, with the example of despair: an emotion like despair or anger can be a healthy response, but it isn’t always a great strategy.
And in general — not always, anger sure does get people up in the morning, for sure — but the emotions that actually keep us sustained are more what we might call “positive” emotions, like pleasure or desire.
There are all kinds of really cool, compelling studies around how desire and pleasure keep people doing the work, keep people engaged in community and the collective, much more than emotions that are uncomfortable.
It’s also a healthy counterweight to our inherent negativity bias, which amplifies how bad things are and can easily trigger our nervous systems into survival mode.
The point of my book is that we ought to be thinking about this more clearly and not just say, “Oh, anger is always bad,” or “Guilt is always bad,” or “Pleasure is the only right emotion in all contexts.”
Any kind of sweeping generalization doesn’t take into account all these other really important factors — like our nervous systems, our backgrounds, and the politics of different emotions in different communities.
You’ve spoken about the harms of ignoring our negative emotions. Can you expand on this? What do we lose when we don’t pay attention to our emotions, and what do we gain when we do?
We’re mistaken to think that the harm that we do to the planet is limited to consumption. It has to do with where our eyeballs are going, too; our attention.
One could argue that your attention is the number one frontline for where you can engage in climate action. Every single place that we put our attention in a given minute is a microcosm of what we’re going to do with our whole lives.
For one, the impact compounds over time, but that’s the least of it; attention habits create worlds, and they become “truths” in our value frameworks and in our brain’s neural pathways. They are reflections of our values, and they are the channels through which we consent to allowing extractive values to work through us, or not.
We have to look at what’s going on inside of us. What makes us desire to pay attention to things that are so destructive, like shopping or consumerism or social media outrage? What are we distracting ourselves from? What if we actually sat here and felt what’s happening with the world? How do our attempts at avoidance make matters worse?
What I find so liberating about this is that we often think of climate action as something that has to be really big. There’s this sense of, “I can’t participate in climate action because the problem is so big, and I’m so small.”
Whereas, when we think about climate action as being at the level of where we put our eyeballs every day — that’s stuff we can do right now. I can put my attention on things that the media landscape obscures: all the good news, community resilience, and solutions.
If we’re grieving or anxious about something, and we’d like to distract ourselves from that by diving into some kind of destructive behavior, a lot of people would argue that the grief is actually because of a human disconnection from the more-than-human [natural] world. The grief has to do with a loss or threat to something that we love.
We talk about love and grief as being two sides of the same coin. And so rather than trying to avoid grief, we can lean into it to figure out what it’s signaling — what you love, what you’re worried about — and then figure out how you can nurture that thing.
One way to make bad stuff go away is not just to attack it, but to make good stuff bigger. Where in my life, right now, can I nurture that which I love, not just fight that which I fear?
That means channeling frustrated grief into nurturing the garden of your life; doing what you can to enhance that thing and build its resilience. Otherwise, we all are participating in some sort of passive surrendering to the inevitable doom narrative we hear from dominant media.
I feel like a lot of activists, and concerned people in general, split these issues into two options: personal behavioral change vs. systemic political change. How do you think of those, and how are emotions wrapped up in them?
I don’t think I have a resolution to it. I’ve heard Mary Annaïse Heglar describe the time right after Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth came out. Everyone decided that they were empowered to fix this big problem by changing their light bulbs and getting solar panels.
And that’s awesome, and everyone was really excited about all the opportunities to green their lifestyles. Of course, then the backlash against that was, “Oh, that’s just greenwashing. Structural change is the only thing that matters.”
For example, in California, 40% of water goes to agriculture. I think about how my individual shorter shower to deal with the drought is truly not effective. That’s not a systemic change. And I do agree with that critique.
But I agree with Heglar, who says we’ve swung too far to the other direction, toward the idea that individuals have no power; that they can’t do anything to fix systemic problems. So they give up.
I think that’s a false way of representing the problem, and it participates in this binary between the systemic vs. the individual. It just serves existing systems to have us believe we don’t have any power as individuals.
This kind of “learned helplessness,” as some people call it, comes from the notion that we operate as individuals and our only power is as consumers. This is what we’ve been taught. That’s the binary we live in. And I just reject it on several principles.
First, we are not just individuals. We are part of these vast collectives. The more we see them, celebrate them, and nurture them, the more power they have, and the more effective we feel. And the more effective we feel, the more we engage. It’s a feedback loop toward improvement.
I think of despair and burnout as only possible if you completely buy into the myth of the individual. But once you reject that myth, those two get cured, along with many other things. You’re always greater than the sum of your parts when you work in a collective.
Rebecca Solnit and so many others write beautifully about how social change really happens. It is not a one-to-one equation where you put some force into this system over here, and it comes out as this output in the system over there.
There’s never any way to measure whether what we do is “worth it”; focusing too much on how certain strategies “should” create outcomes is the kiss of death to social movements.
And adrienne marie brown uses the idea of the fractal to understand how something on a small scale has immeasurable ripple effects on many, many different scales in an unpredictable way. These kinds of ideas completely throw out the individualism vs. structural change binary.
People who study things like systems theory bring together emotional intelligence, too. Paul Hawken says that the most radical climate technology at our disposal is our hearts and minds, not a solar panel.
So, how do we deal with the fact that the news is really terrible, and we still get up every morning and try to do the work? If we have a setback, or something we’ve been working on for years never comes to pass, what do we do with the despair after that?
All kinds of social movements where people have been oppressed for a long time — for example, civil rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti-apartheid movement, land sovereignty movements — have had to figure this out.
They have many more tools relating to emotions and hearts and minds than the climate movement as a whole, which has been predominantly white (and therefore more individualistic) and science-based for so long. The climate movement doesn’t stand on the shoulders of that other kind of wisdom and legacy.
There’s a lot to be learned here from combining social movements, from turning that attention toward the collective; towards asking what is the hearts and minds part of the story that we need to leverage? How might we think about that, instead of solar panels, as our energy for this work?
You’ve written about the risk of climate anxiety being co-opted by dangerous forces, like xenophobia and racism. How do you think we combat that possibility and make sure these feelings are actually leveraged toward justice?
The main thing here is that the discourse around environmentalism historically has been around leveraging action through fear and urgency, and sometimes guilt.
That’s all very fine and well, but justice-oriented pushback would say that urgency makes people not consider all the voices in the room. And oftentimes, fear and urgency drive people in power to do scary and violent things to people who don’t have a lot of power.
There’s a long history of this. We’ve seen in the history of eugenics, the anti-immigration movement in the U.S., and even in eco-fascism and Nazi Germany. There’s a real potential streak of violence in using environmental fear to leverage political power.
People are saying “I want more anxiety, more climate fear in people.” And I get that. I feel like we’re sorely under-concerned as a country.
But this sort of, “Let’s get people really fired up and anxious about this. It doesn’t matter what they do once they’re feeling those things” — the first thing that happens is that people find scapegoats.
We saw this come to a head in the 2019 mass shootings of El Paso, Texas and Christchurch, New Zealand. Climate anxiety laced the xenophobia in those letters from the shooters.
One of the things that happened right when my book came out was the George Floyd murder, and then the Black Lives Matter protests really had their second major burst of energy. We had Trump in the presidency. It was this poignant apex of stress and anxiety for people who cared about racial and climate justice.
Meanwhile, the climate emotion space was exploding with attention, and that was great. But there was no racial justice correction.
There was no thinking on why climate anxiety might be a function of a new kind of risk perception — one that’s very much rooted in whether or not you’ve been protected from risk your whole life or for generations.
I’m teaching an intersectional environmental course right now, and I’m getting some pushback that’s very much aligned with the pushback that happens in a lot in environmental spaces.
Some people think identity politics and racial justice water down the climate movement and shouldn’t be brought into the environmental space. People feel like, “Okay, let’s work on the one thing first, and we’ll deal with all those other things later.”
But that’s flawed for two reasons: one, it fails to see how these issues are interconnected, and that we’ll never make headway on one if we don’t align with each other’s liberation movements. And two, sometimes the climate zeal becomes an excuse to ignore those interconnections, or worse, becomes a basis for green hate.
So there’s a huge education that’s still ahead of us. There’s a long way to go.
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How are the stories we consume and read and live by so important when it comes to climate action?
I don’t think I ever fully realized the role stories play in how I perceive the world, what I perceive as right or wrong. Whether I perceive myself to be a victim or a person of privilege, whether I think the future is inevitably good or inevitably bad. Whether or not I go around the world thinking the people I walk or drive by are good people or bad people.
All of these things shape what we do, what policies we vote for, all these things. They shape our collective participation in the world.
I never realized how much those things are built out of story. And how much I’ve been trained in a particular set of stories, and how everybody’s walking around carrying their own stories.
Some of them have scientific evidence to back them up, and some don’t. And I’m not even interested in which are the most true, because that’s not the right question.
I think that’s one of the places where the climate movement trips over itself. It spends so much time on, “But our story is the most true! The science backs us up, so what’s wrong with everybody?” It doesn’t matter how true the science is; if people are invested in their story, they’re not going to give up on it.
But we can choose the stories we live in, more than maybe we might have thought we could. It takes learning to see the story that you’re living in. It’s like becoming the fish that’s become aware of the water it’s swimming in.
I think the story of climate change causing irreparable doom and humanity falling off the cliff could be a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the way doom-and-gloom storytelling tends to work.
Not all the time, but in general, it has the effect of making people psychically numbed out. It makes people go into fight-flight-or-freeze, which does not tend to lead towards the kinds of actions we need.
That kind of chronic or acute stress over the long term can make us even more ineffective at the kind of work that’s needed. And if we can’t even get up in the morning to do the work because we don’t think it’s going to matter, then we certainly are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you live in a story where we’re on the cusp of a great turning, and we’ll stave off the worst of climate change, it has an effect on whether you engage with other people. Whether or not you think tomorrow’s worth fighting for.
I like to say, “Which story does the planet need you to live in?” If you really care about the planet, which story does it want you to live in?
What advice would you give to young people struggling with climate anxiety, or what advice would you give to older folks who are helping young people through it?
I’d hand them my book, because that’s where I put it all!
I’d say the number one thing that makes us feel healed and less anxious is not the typical things you think of to avoid anxiety, because climate anxiety is its own beast.
I think the origins of the climate crisis are oftentimes portrayed as just too much fossil fuel consumption over the last 150 years. Or sometimes it’s colonization and the violence that came with that.
I don’t think they’re wrong or one is less true than the other. But what they get at is this deeper problem that both of those things cause, which is this idea that we can be machines and operate separately from each other.
That kind of separation — not knowing all the species of animals and plants that are around us, not knowing what the quality of the air is on a particular day — all this further and further disconnection of humans from the natural world is potentially, arguably, at the root of all this.
And so the medicine is reconnection. Once you start to reframe your climate anxiety in terms of connection, you kind of — I don’t want to say feed two birds with one crumb, because that makes it sound like they’re two separate things, but there’s this synergistic healing that happens, both for ourselves and for the more-than-human world.
And there’s research to suggest this. When people are engaged in collective climate action, their climate anxiety is often reduced. There’s a direct correlation between reduction in climate anxiety and action.
But when you disaggregate it and really peel this research apart, what you find is that the thing that made the anxiety go down is not the success of the climate action, but the collectivity.
That’s the thing that is healing. While you’re at it, you’re doing a good climate action, but a lot of that connection is climate action. That’s my number one thing that trumps all the others. It all cascades from there.