Anouchka Grose’s A Guide to Eco Anxiety is the first popular book on eco anxiety. It is unlikely to be the last, but it may be a while before anyone does it better. It’s sharp, wise and compassionate, and I expect it will be helpful to many readers.
Eco-anxiety is a term I only heard in the last couple of years, but it’s a growing concern. As the impacts of climate change become more visible and more people are directly affected by the climate emergency, there is inevitably an effect on mental health. Climate scientists were the first to experience it, but it is increasingly common. Some lie awake at night worrying about the climate. Some wonder whether it is fair to have children in a time of ecological collapse, or find their joy in nature sapped by the evidence of disruption. Others struggle with the loss of familiar landscapes and traditional ways of life as the climate changes everything they know.
This problem isn’t going anywhere, and that makes this an important book.
What I liked about it is how down to earth, honest and forgiving it is. Grose, who is a psycholanalyst and author, makes it clear that anxiety about the climate is an entirely rational response to a real crisis. You should be worried. What matters is that the anxiety doesn’t become crippling, that it doesn’t rob us of our joy in life. Instead, we can make use of it. “The point won’t necessarily be to stop being anxious altogether,” writes Grose in the introduction, “but to learn to be on better terms with our worries so we can use them to orient us, energize us and maybe even bring other people on board.”
The book covers grief, ‘pre-traumatic stress’ and burnout. There’s a great chapter on children and how much to tell them, another on living generously which put some useful words to a some of my own personal philosophy. A chapter on denial helpfully explains how climate denial can also be a form of eco-anxiety. And I liked how Grose refuses to give into the popular idea that a successful life is one of constant happiness. Anxiety is sometimes right, and “your anxiety can be a brilliant resource.”
As she points out, the dictionary has more than one definition of ‘anxiety’. It refers to worries and fears, but also to “eagerness to do something”. Anxiety can be a resource for activism, and the book makes specific mention of Extinction Rebellion, school strikes and many other forms of positive action as helpful in making change, and to our mental health too: “If you want to feel better about the planet, and your place in the global system, a certain level of activism and change is arguably the only way forward.”
Despite the seriousness of the topic, A Guide to Eco-Anxiety is actually very funny. It’s not afraid of getting sweary when the topic deserves it. It includes quotes from ordinary people alongside the pscychology and the theory, gently communicating the vital message that if you experience eco-anxiety, you are not alone. Kudos too for being the first book I’ve read that mentions the coronavirus, and that must have meant some last-minute revising for the author.
The only mis-step, in my opinion, are the chapters that deal with lifestyle tips and felt like they had sneaked in from another book. They resist black and white thinking, and they might help some readers to keep some perspective around their own efforts. But if you’re reading a book called A Guide to Eco-Anxiety, you’re well beyond things like “switch off the tap while you brush your teeth” and “don’t overfill your kettle”.
Finally, there are some harsh perspectives on humanity that circulate among those most prone to eco-anxiety, in my experience. Comments that compare us to a virus or plague. ‘We don’t deserve to survive’. ‘Perhaps nature needs to burn us away’. Grose is having none of that. “Never feel guilty about your own existence” she says. “While it may be true that human beings have done a great deal of damage, we’re also a truly incredible phenomenon. We deserve to be saved from extinction every bit as much as snow leopards.”