What Dreams May Come: The Rise of Anxiety About the Future

You and your family board a plane.

As the plane takes off, something strange starts to happen. The passengers get out of their seats and start removing or damaging ever-increasing portions of the plane itself: engine, wings, fuel pumps, navigation, electrical, windows, steering, etc.

Understandably, you start to panic. You rush over to the passengers and confront them one by one, trying to talk to them, shake some sense into them. Their response?

“What? The plane isn’t being destroyed.”

“Ok, the plane is being destroyed, but it’s not being destroyed by human action.”

“Fine, the plane is being destroyed by human action but saving it would be bad for the economy.”

“Look, to be honest, I don’t really care about the plane.”

There’s no prizes for guessing what this is about.

ANXIETY ABOUT THE FUTURE

It’s the blessing and the curse of the human race: our ability to imagine the future.

We live in the best time to be alive in all of history, yet research shows that anxiety about the future is on the rise.1 The reason for this is no great mystery: climate change, pollution, ocean plastic, etc. etc. etc.- we’re all so familiar with this list of human stupidity that I’m sure I don’t need to give you a full run-down.

Yet frankly, our responses to the planetary crisis have been those of children. I’m not just talking about politicians and corporations who refuse to take action because they stand to lose out on short-term profits. To call these people “children” is an insult to children.

No, I’m talking about us. Some of us also find it easier to bury our head in the sand and ignore the problem. Some of us even do so in the name of “mindfulness” and “being present,” as though mindfulness can be equated with its opposite: wilful ignorance and distraction.

Still others resort to the infamous defence mechanisms of denialism and minimisation, somehow convincing themselves that they, their favourite media pundits and their social media memes know better than 97-98% of the world’s scientists. Who knows, maybe they find refuge in the other 2-3%, whose results either can’t be replicated or contain errors.2

And even our intelligent, trained and experienced therapists seem to have difficulty coming to terms with reality-based anxiety. It’s one thing to coach someone through their delusional or distorted thinking about the future, but what do you do when the person’s anxiety is a completely natural, normal, human response to the existential threat of living on the cusp of the earth’s “sixth mass extinction”?3

There appears to have been an almost reflexive tendency to pathologise such people, to treat them as though it’s all just in their head. One story tells about a woman who spoke up about her anxiety over the increasing severity of droughts in her area, only to have her therapist respond with: “Ok, but what is this really about?”4 The notion that climate change might actually be the sole cause of the woman’s anxiety seems to have been outside the therapist’s idea of legitimate options.

Then we have people who acknowledge reality, yet who shut down under the weight of it all, losing all hope and motivation to do, well, anything at all. And – full disclosure – I’m really talking about myself here. But then I decided that this kind of curling-up-in-a-ball-in-the-corner response is not much more useful than denialism.

I refuse to believe that the only answer is to ignore the problem, deny the problem, pathologise the problem or shut down. I refuse to believe that there is no mature, responsible way of managing our entirely natural anxiety about the future.

What follows is my attempt at sketching out a road map for navigating this problem. It’s actually a road map for navigating any crisis that might be causing us anxiety about the future, whether on the personal level or the global; but here, I’m applying to the environmental crisis as it affects us all.

GROUND YOURSELF IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I know, I know, I can see your eyes rolling. What good is meditation in a climate emergency? Don’t we have more important things to do? Isn’t meditation a luxury that should wait for later?

I say no. In fact, I contend that some degree of meditation is essential in an emergency. If you want to do your best thinking about any problem, you need to calm yourself first. Just think about the last time you were stressed out or anxious. Did you see things clearly and rationally? Did you make the best decisions? Were you your best self? I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is no. So yes, I will start with meditation.

I’m not talking about a sitting-down, eyes-closed, legs-folded formal meditation, necessarily. I’m just talking about dropping into the present moment, taking a deep breath, relaxing your jaw, face, arms, body, taking a look at the people and objects around you; I’m talking about grounding yourself in the here-and-now.

You’re not trying to repress or ignore your anxiety about the future. You’re allowing it to be there, you’re just observing it from this place of calm in the present moment, this healthy distance where it has no power to overwhelm you. Because as long as you are grounded in the present moment, it doesn’t matter where your thoughts come and go, you always remain still. You become the rock in the storm.

And now you’re ready to “see things as they really are.”

KNOW YOUR DICHOTOMY OF CONTROL

Put everything into perspective by knowing your “Dichotomy of Control.” Write it down if you need to. Take all the things causing your anxiety about the future and sort them into two lists: the things you can control and the things you can’t. And recognise that if you control it, then there is no need to worry, and that if you don’t control it then there’s no point to worry.

You only really control yourself and what you do. You control whether you behave like an environmentalist or like a sociopath. You control whether you are a voice for reason or for madness, for sane environmental policy or for more of the same. You control what steps you take to organise with other like-minded non-sociopaths to put pressure on politicians and corporations.

Most of what you worry about are probably the things you don’t control: the fires, the droughts, the floods, the sea level rise, etc. But if you don’t control them then you must recognise the utter pointlessness of your worry. As long as you’re doing whatever is in your power to control, then you’re doing enough.

Relax. You can only do what you can do.

CHECK YOUR FRAMING

Part of what’s in your control is checking that you’re framing the situation correctly. After all, the human brain’s tendency for cognitive lies, biases and distortions has a way of mutating problems into something they’re not.

Don’t let your negative bias get the better of you, focusing disproportionately on the torrent of bad news and filtering out any good news. Certainly don’t do catastrophic thinking, blowing things out of proportion until you conclude that all is lost and there’s nothing for us to do but give up and shut down.

Stay clear of unfalsifiable thinking, insisting on your catastrophic framing against all reason. Avoid fortune telling, coming up with endless “what ifs” conjured up by fear. You are not a psychic and your knowledge of what will happen is limited.

Even if such biases are not distorting your thinking, chances are that you’re still framing the environmental crisis as a terrible problem for you to have. Sure it is; but do spare a thought for those who would consider all their prayers answered if only climate change was their problem.

There are people who have died in childhood, or who have endured harrowing lives in the shadow of war or poverty or oppression. There are people who have lived in hunter/gatherer times when life expectancy was 25, or in times when devastating plagues and invading armies could materialise on the horizon and destroy everything they know and love without warning.

In all likelihood, these people – these thousands, these millions, of people in human history – wouldn’t hesitate to trade places with you, just to have had the life that you’ve had so far, whatever the future holds.

HOPE

Part of taking control of your framing, of not just focusing on the negative and the catastrophic, is to see the whole picture; and that includes the positive side.

I do get it; we do need people to grasp the truth of what’s going on, to not get complacent, and appeals to fear through scary statistics and wall-to-wall disaster coverage do make for potent calls to action. But doing this exclusively can just make people feel overwhelmed and burnt out. Worse, it seems that doom and gloom only makes the deniers and minimisers dig in their heels even more. Which does make a kind of sense- how can appeals to fear break through their defence mechanisms when fear is the cause of those mechanisms?

We also need appeals to hope. If you can’t find it in politicians and corporations, find it in ordinary people; after all, those who benefit from things staying the same have never granted change willingly, they’ve always had to be pushed from below.

And the thing is – despite the loudness of deniers and minimisers online distorting our sense of their numbers – most ordinary people do live in the real world and do accept that climate change is real. This is especially true of the younger generation, and they will be the ones taking the reins in the future.

This is a good sign. As more people become aware and concerned, more pressure will be put on politicians and corporations. The more pressure is put on them, the more likely it is that politicians will pay a political price for their inaction, and that corporations will be wasting their money if they invest in environmentally harmful practices.

In fact, this is already happening; renewable energy overtook fossil fuels in 2020, in Europe.5 Even the United States, under a climate-change denying, coal-loving President, saw renewables on the upswing against fossil fuels: “Solar and wind farms dominated new power plant builds… while fossil fuel plants continue to be retired at record pace.”6

As the people change, the market changes. So even if you hold politicians and corporations to be greedy as all sin, just following the money wherever it leads like pigs to a trough regardless of damage to the planet, they may just end up following that money into an environmentally sane world anyway; because we will have made that happen.

Hope is more than just wishful thinking; it is a strategy. Research shows that hope allows us to see opportunities that pessimism might well make us miss.7 Hope motivates us to act on those opportunities, to persevere in the face of failure, setbacks and improbable odds. Hope gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

As Noam Chomsky says: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”8

take courage from THE PAST

One of the most powerful ways to feel hope for the future is to look to the past.

Look at what we’ve achieved before. We fought slavery, feudalism, the divine right of kings. We took on draconian labour laws, misogyny and patriarchy, racism and white supremacy. The list goes on and on. Yes, of course we still have plenty of work to do on most of these things, but anyone who says we haven’t made significant progress in the past 200 years is just not paying attention.

They said slavery was necessary for the economy. They said democracy would lead to chaos and mob rule. They said workers’ rights would lead to all businesses shutting down. They said if we gave the vote to women then we’d have to give it to children and animals.

In short, they always said that we are naive radicals, that our demands are impossible, that a morally sane society is unworkable. They always said “That’s just life” and “It’s just the way things are.” They always said it with a straight face.

And each time, those of us on the right side of history won.

So chin up; we’ve done this before.

BECOME AN ACTIVIST

So you’ve calmed down, narrowed down what you control, corrected your framing, embraced hope and taken courage from the past; the only thing left for you to do now is take action.

Activism is, of course, the truest source of hope, since without it all of this is just academic anyway. The action you take could be anything from putting pressure on politicians and corporations directly, to raising awareness amongst the public to transform the political and economic landscape at large.

Organise; join with other like-minded “naive radicals” with “impossible” demands. Don’t believe the movies, whose protagonist-centred plots reinforce the myth that change is wrought by powerful individuals who rise above the huddled masses to become heroes. In the real world, the power of the people has always been the power of numbers; those huddled masses are the heroes.

What have you got to lose?

imagine what story you want to tell

Suppose all is lost. Suppose nothing is done and all the most horrific climate predictions come true. Suppose we land in some dystopian, Mad Max style climate apocalypse- you can fill in the picture.

Imagine your elderly, future self, huddled around the campfire with other survivors, watching the sun go down on the ashes of civilisation. There’s no TV, no Netflix, no internet. Your old dead phone is currently being used as a doorstop. All that you and your fellow survivors have to do to kill the time is swap stories of your lives in the “before times.”

So what kind of story do you want to tell? Do you want it to be a story of how you wasted your life in the “before times” in a state of worry about the future; a story of despair, of giving up early, leaving you now wondering if you contributed to the end of the world because of it?

Or do you want it to be a story of how you enjoyed the “before times” that you had by remaining present, calm, and rational; a story of courage, of fighting the good fight regardless of how it turned out, leaving you with absolutely no regrets?

It’s worth thinking about.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME

Yes, our ability to imagine the future may seem like a curse.

But don’t forget that it is also our blessing. It means that we’re not only able to see what’s coming but also that we’re able to prepare for it; that we’re able to say no, we will not “go gently into that good night,” we will fight the good fight.

Our ability to imagine the future is, in fact, our only hope; whatever “dreams may come.”

Footnotes

  1. Taylor, M.; Murray, J. (2020, February 10). Overwhelming and Terrifying: The Rise of Climate Anxiety. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/10/overwhelming-and-terrifying-impact-of-climate-crisis-on-mental-health
  2. Benestad, R. E.; Nuccitelli, D.; Lewandowsky, S.; Hayhoe, K.; Hygen, H.; van Dorland, R.; Cook, J. (2016, November 1). Learning from mistakes in climate research. Theoretical and Applied Climatology. 126 (3): 699–703. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00704-015-1597-5
  3. Leakey, R.; Lewin, R. (1996). The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. New York: Anchor Books.
  4. Whitcomb, I. (2021, April 16). Therapists are Reckoning With Eco-Anxiety. Stuff. https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/300279032/therapists-are-reckoning-with-ecoanxiety
  5. Vetter, D. (2020, July 23). European Renewables Just Crushed Fossil Fuels. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2020/07/23/european-renewables-just-crushed-fossil-fuels-heres-how-it-happened/?sh=615176b915df
  6. Tierney, S., and Bird, L. (2020, May 12). Setting the Record Straight About Renewable Energy. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/insights/setting-record-straight-about-renewable-energy
  7. Campbell, P. (2019, February 5). Why Hope Matters. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/imperfect-spirituality/201902/why-hope-matters
  8. Chomsky, N. (1997, January). Wired Magazine.

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