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Climate and psyche: inextricably connected

What is the connection between climate and psyche? Quite significant and crucial. First of all, climate change and other ecological threats for life on Earth are consequences of human activity and industrial pollution. There is one-in-a-million chance that this is not true. Humanity has indeed conquered the world, driven by curiosity and audacity, by the urge for survival and expansion, as well as gregariousness and status anxiety. The situation has further deteriorated due to human recklessness.

It is difficult to accept that we are destroying the Earth, and this is only human: we are very experienced at estimating and manipulating small scale emerging phenomena in the short term, but we fail to comprehend “macro-structures” like climate and overpopulation. In other words we are not able to see “the wood for the trees”. Yet, driven by our herd instincts, following our habits, we get entangled and trapped in an irreversible ecological disaster. Climate advocate Gus Speth states that the decrease in biodiversity, the collapse of ecosystems and climate change are not the most urgent ecological problems, rather, the worst effects are triggered off by selfishness, greed and apathy. This may sound moralistic, but at least we can state that the human psyche plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of the ecological emergency which we currently face.

On the other hand, the unbridled expansion of industrial activity is responsible for many mental health issues. In the industrial world, the focus on consumption and economic growth leads to stress, anxiety, burn-out, loneliness, depression and addiction. Psychosis, bipolar disorder and eating disorders are also on the rise. Physical health problems are soon to follow and pick up: obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, breathing problems due to pollution. In highly industrialised countries, deregulated industry fosters increasing inequality, which leads to frustration and unhappiness. The fashionable craze for “wellness” probably reflects the increasing sense of ill-being, which we cannot afford to accept anymore. After all, being happy is not only determined by our own human condition, but also by the living conditions of our loved ones, since we are competitive by nature. Thus, economic and social inequality sooner or later lead to unhappiness.

On a world scale, market thinking and industrial overproduction are responsible for the increasing disparity between rich and poor which, in turn, plays an important role in international tensions and migration waves.

Therefore, the discomfort of modern man and the ecological downfall stem from the same roots, and interact with each other. The apocalyptic threat of an irreversible climate change and all its consequences are denied or underestimated by some, but are becoming a concern for more and more people. This growing awareness makes some people rebellious, others – resigned and fatalistic, still others – depressed. Yet, being intrinsically human, this fact is barely sufficient to fundamentally alter our thinking: imagine everything we continue to do against our better judgment. In this way, the impending disruption of nature responds to the mental malaise of modern man in a downwards spiral. Hence, climate change and modern discomfort are both diagnoses of human condition.

How do we prevent this condition to become terminal? We can try to control it, but control is not enough; besides, it causes frustration. External control, which is superimposed, more and more replaces trust, which is our inherent motivation. Trust is more natural and pleasant, but requires human interaction, which is an endangered good and cannot be replaced by social media. In this respect, it appears that ecological awareness and the ecology of mind go hand in hand. An ecological way of life does not only avert climate threat, but also provides a healthier lifestyle for body and mind: eating less meat, walking and bicycling instead of driving or flying, spending time with family and friends instead of focusing on material consumption. These are only but a few examples of how taking care of the mind and body coincides with taking care of the environment.

Luckily, humanity evolves with every new generation, so today’s youth take climate to heart with unprecedented commitment. The climate threat is no fake news, but rather – old news. Yet, the surprising and uplifting news is the determination and willingness to take action on behalf of the new generation of “climate youth”. Their message should be taken particularly seriously by all segments of society. Their message echoes and reinforces what we have already known for so long: we need to start living in tune with nature, not only because it is good for the climate and the environment, but also for our human psyche. Smaller scale, more direct, fairer, humbler. More equal, more human, clearer, calmer, more content.

Ecology and mental health, one battle.

Climate psychiatrists Prof. Dr. Erik Thys, Dr. Caroline Van Damme, Dr. Dirk Monsieur, Dr. Sam Deltour, Dr. Kristien Berwaerts, Dr. Geraldine Einfinger