So, Robin Williams committed suicide this week. I can’t quite make myself believe it’s true. My social media feeds are filling up with tributes, sympathies, and pleas for greater awareness of depression, the condition that took Mr. Williams’ life. It’s heartbreaking. It’s also not what I want to write about–it’s rather off-topic, for one thing.
But I am mildly depressed myself, at present. The spell began before the recent bad news, so it appears unrelated, and I hasten to emphasize that it’s mild and probably transient. It’s the emotional equivalent of a cold; I’ll feel better in a few days or a week, but right now I just feel like crud for no apparent reason. So, between one thing and another, depression is very much on my mind.
But you know what else is depressing? Climate change.
It’s like that old joke–just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get ya. I mean, here we are, writing and reading all these touching posts on Facebook about how depression is a serious but treatable illness, and at this very moment scientists are not altogether sure the world isn’t ending. In the worst of the worst-case scenarios, the last generation of humans is already alive. In the slightly less frightening scenarios, millions of people could die in the coming decades of gradually increasing chaos. We may still be able to avert anything truly catastrophic, but billionaires are busy spending obscene amounts of money trying to preserve business as usual. Hopelessness and anxiety would seem to be the sane responses about now.
Not that falling apart is especially helpful, only that it’s understandable and perhaps not crazy. The thing is that alongside the floods, fires, and famines and other topics we usually cover here on this blog climate change is also causing a psychological emergency–and that crisis, too, deserves witness.
In 2009, a task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a report on the psychological dimensions of climate change. In the report, the task force made policy recommendations to the APA, both for how members can respond to climate change as psychologists and for how the organization as a whole can reduce its carbon footprint. The report also collects what was known at the time about everything from how people understand the risks associated with global warming to how they adapt and cope to the changes as they happen. How climate change impacts the way people think and feel, but the task force admits they don’t know much that’s definite. They guess that climate change might cause stress and anxiety and worsen both interpersonal and intergroup interactions. If that sound dry, it’s because it was written by a task force. The APA is clearly quite worried about climate change as a serious mental health threat.
Psychology, as a discipline, has fertile and useful ground in climate change. Why some people deny the problem and why so many of those who accept it still do almost nothing about it are both important avenues of study. Today, though, I’m mostly concerned with how it makes us feel.
Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) addresses the issue in a clear and accessible way on their website, but discusses the impact of climate change entirely in terms of how humans respond psychologically to extreme weather, cancers caused by pollution, and other assaults by the environment upon the human organism. These concerns are undoubtedly right as far as they go–Superstorm Sandy probably gave a lot of people Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That is a climate change-related mental health problem. But we’re really looking at something bigger and deeper as well.
Other writers raise more nuanced concerns, such as the intolerable conflict between the fossil-fuel dependent lifestyle we love and the planet we also love, or the difficulty of expressing anxiety that might not be socially accepted. But these, too, mostly involve actual or perceived threats to ourselves, and there is more than that.
If there were not more than that, Robin Williams would not be being grieved by strangers.
For many years, most psychologists treated the human mind as an essentially isolated system, perturbable by family dysfunction or personal trauma, but otherwise of itself, by itself. Most psychologists may yet have this bent, I do not know. Some surely do. But there is also a branch of the discipline that sees more than that. The ecopsychology movement holds that the human heart and spirit has an innate connection to its surroundings, that part of who we are is to care about the world outside ourselves, including the world outside humanity. We can, in other words, fear wounds that our not to ourselves, grieve deaths that are not our own.
See, the thing is, we are part of a really beautiful planet. We have coral reefs and butterflies, polar bears and purple martins, crisp autumn days, fresh peaches, and snow falling through the light of a back porch at night. At it is all at risk. We’re looking at losses we won’t live to see regained, guilt we cannot rightly evade, fear we are not stupid to feel.
I’m not saying we should feel bad. Feeling bad seldom impels many people to action, and action is what we need. I’m saying that many of us do feel bad.
I don’t mean that global warming caused Mr. Williams’ death; I have no idea what the specifics of his case were. His death simply got me thinking about what depression in general means, where it comes from and what it does. There are lots of reasons why people get depressed (or anxious, or any other psychological state), and there have probably always been some people who vulnerable to an exhausting melancholy no matter what fortune hands them. I don’t know that depression is on the increase, although it might be.
What I am saying is that we live in a situation that is genuinely sad and frightening. We should, of course, offer whatever aid we can to those people with mood disorders, but maybe we should not regard depression only as a problem of individuals, something that requires only treatment and support for specific sufferers.
Maybe depression will be easier to bear if we acknowledge that even the luckiest of us do have legitimate reason to feel bad. Maybe we all need to get together and build a less depressing world.
Stop causing climate change now.