NOTE: This is part 2 of a four-part series. (Read Part 1.) The publication of parts 3 and 4 will be postponed until an unspecified later date, as Firebird Journal’s content focuses on the COVID 19 pandemic.

Ecoanxiety, defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a “chronic fear of environmental doom,” can cause feelings of grief, helplessness and despair. In this four-part series, we examine the causes and symptoms of ecoanxiety, and how we can acknowledge its reality and negative effects while turning to one another and environmental activism to fight its symptoms.

Doctor Cecil Fox, NIH, Photographer – CC license

Breast Cancer Cells

Part 2 of 4. Read Part 1. (publication of Part 3 and Part 4 is postponed due to the COVID 19 Pandemic. See note above.)

We watch the patient anxiously, hoping for signs of remission. But as the disease progresses and metastasizes the bright, vibrant person we’ve known and loved fades. They become emaciated. They lose their energy and spark as they try to hang on.

There are times of stability — lasting days or even weeks— when it seems that everyone will wake up from the bad dream. All will be as it once was.

But then comes the relapse, the turning point when it is understood that there will be no recovery. That this is the end. We put on a brave face and smile, however weakly. 

Today the earth, as we’ve known it, is like a cancer patient with a poor prognosis. The failure of its various systems, roughly analogous to organs, is underway and getting steadily worse.  

The beautiful blue and green planet we grew up on is beginning to turn gray, brown and desolate. Forests everywhere are on fire, or being clear-cut for profit and land. Disappearing with them is the wonderful diversity of species they are home to — their numbers representing much of the sixth extinction’s tally of losses.

The birds that delighted us and bugs that bugged us are already becoming rare. According to the Wikipedia article Bird Extinction, “Out of the approximately 10,400 known bird species, about 1,300 (13%) are classified as threatened with extinction, 9% as near threatened and of the remaining 78% many populations are declining.” Amphibians are in even worse shape: their populations are undergoing a global mass extinction. Also, it is estimated that half the world’s insect population — the harvesters of surplus vegetation and the food for a million species — is, or soon will be gone.

The blue-white ice masses that cool the planet and water vast regions are melting, likely irreversibly. The oceans upon which all life depends are being sterilized by heat, acidification and anoxia. 

Witnessing this devastation is depressing. Our own lives are short, but most of us grew up believing that the earth itself would persevere; that fighting to preserve it, or at least giving a nod to those who do, would be our legacy to future generations: “I’ll leave you my house.” But what if there is suddenly no house to leave? What if everything we cared about disintegrates?

Of course, it’s possible that things could turn around — humans suddenly will wake up and stop tearing the house down. But even if that happens, will what’s left of the dwelling be habitable? Or, have we waited too long to salvage much of anything? 

Typically, as the cancer patient’s condition deteriorates, we try to set aside our own emotions so we can stay focused on helping him or her. If we “fall apart,” the conventional wisdom goes, we won’t be able to give them the assistance they need. Displaying sadness or anger about their impending death will only upset and weaken them. The time for grieving comes after the person has died.

But there might be quiet moments during the patient’s decline when we feel our coming depression. Moments when we feel overwhelmed not just by the stress of coping with their illness but also that of fending off our own grief, helplessness, incapacitation. 

When we can, we push these feelings aside. But we do so at our peril, because the more we allow water to build up, the greater the flood when the dam breaks. Might we be wiser to take some time to address our feelings during the dying process? Could we, in fact, be better able to help a sick person if we tended to our own mental health along the way?  

If we soldier on, doing our part for the planet while ignoring the severe emotional toll the environmental crisis is taking on us, we risk an abrupt plunge into depression and dysfunctionality. Better we should recognize our plight and seek each other’s help, a topic we’ll explore in the coming articles in this series.

Part 2 of 4. Read Part 1. (publication of Part 3 and Part 4 is postponed due to the COVID 19 Pandemic. See note above.)

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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