Review | A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety

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 This is not a book about climate change.  That’s a given.  This is a self-help book about how each of us, both personally and together, can deal with the angst of confronting this seemingly intractable problem – or, more accurately, this looming catastrophe.  

The author is a professor of environmental studies and her book is addressed, in the first instance, to her students, frustrated ‘that their courses are full of information about how bad things are, without giving them ways to tackle those issues.’  

This is the ‘climate generation’ – the current generation which exists ‘at a time of improved global health, longer lifespans, fewer wars, and greater access to education’ but which faces ‘a bleaker forecast about the viability of life on this planet’ than any previous generation.  

In truth, this is a survival handbook for all of us who are all-too-aware that ‘the effects of climate change are not abstract or predicted in some distant future, but are already being felt.’

Book cover for 'A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety:  How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet'.
Sarah Jaquette Ray A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety:  How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), pp. 207  
ISBN: 9780520343306  Ppk: $16.95

     Each of the eight chapters addresses, most helpfully, a different aspect of how to survive this crisis.  We are schooled on how environmental change affects our emotional lives, by exploring the feelings ‘shaped by class, race, gender, sexuality, power, and identity;’ and we see that, here, obsessive concern can lead – indeed, has led – to self-loathing and, even, self-destruction.  Such existential ills – dread and a feeling of powerlessness – have given rise to an online resource, the Climate Psychology Alliance, to ‘help people face difficult truths.’  Becoming knowledgeable about our feelings is the first step towards maintaining our mental health and contributing positively. 

     We explore the scholarship on ‘mindfulness, affect theory, grief and trauma, eco-psychology, and emotional intelligence’ in order to understand more precisely the role our emotions play in this issue: ‘Emotional skills are as crucial for advancing climate justice as technical or political skills.’   Our ‘emotional intelligence’ is our ability to enhance reasoning and decision-making.   Discovering how to avoid being manipulated enables us to behave more rationally.

      We learn to disregard myths, especially the myth that only ‘spectacular and measurable’ results count and the myth that ‘a single individual cannot make much of a difference.’  As small an effort as one man growing organic vegetables in his front yard can effect a social movement, by establishing the legal right of all to do so.  There are many spheres of influence, with voting activism one that is readily available to all.  We explore ‘how we can use our imagination to replace stories of urgency and doom with stories of…societal transformation,’ thus easing us towards the long haul of effective change.  As Ursula Le Guin observed, ‘Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.’  The current ‘climate generation’ is a media-savvy generation, whose options are virtually limitless.

     We confront our need to convert people, our human drive to be acknowledged as being ‘right’ about the issue, and substitute for this compulsion to win the debate the goal of cooperation.  Instead of polemics, we reach for practical ways to ‘make social justice and people’s material lives more central to climate justice efforts.’  Letting go of our own biased expectations are be surprisingly revelatory:  the Pentagon has actually developed ‘some of the most comprehensive climate change policies’ in the country.

     We ‘ditch guilt.’  History tells us that ‘pleasure, humor, desire, and a critical view of hope are better motivators of long-term commitment.’  When people get stuck in guilt, they can feel excused from the work of justice.  This was recognized, long ago, as a common reaction by white Americans when accused, implicitly, of collective guilt over racism – the same phenomenon plays out with environmental responsibilities.

     We harness our emotions to avoid ‘burnout’ and stay the course.  We recognize the in-built negativity of the press – bad news is news – and that ‘thoughtful, reasoned analysis of climate change’ rarely makes the news.  We recognize that the progress we need does not conform to the news cycle.  We recognize that ‘environmentalists are particularly prone to…martyrdom,’ within the consequential belief ‘that self-imposed suffering’ demonstrates ‘solidarity with…those who are suffering.’  Eco-guilt.  And, if we recognize all this, we learn to accept that each of us is but an individual and, as such, needs to take care of ourself in order to stay with the work.

     All the self-help strategies in this guidebook are directed to fueling our resilience for the long haul.  Reacting ‘in fear and panic to today’s news’ and to ‘forecasts of apocalypse’ is not just self-defeating; it’s not just counter-productive; it is – in short – the fastest way to failure, for all of us.  Not surprisingly – I would hope – this small book reads like the distillation of simple folk wisdom.

Sarah Jaquette Ray A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety:  How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), pp. 207  
ISBN: 9780520343306  Ppk: $16.95

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