Eco-Anxiety and Existentialism – Part 1

“[W]e are only reasonably entitled to hope when we believe that we and our equals have more strength in heart and head than the representatives of the existing state of things.” (Nietzsche, 1910, p. 321)

‘I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.’ (Greta Thunberg: Our House Is On Fire! | World Economic Forum 2019, 2019, 00:05:24)


Climate Change has become one of the most talked about topics on media, politics, economy and, also, mental health. It is such a disturbing part of our modern existence that a new term had to be coined (Fawbert, 2019) to describe the kind of distress it causes. The term is Eco-Anxiety which is describes as ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’ (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman & Speiser, 2017, p.68). With all the many problems caused by climate change, why consider its effects on mental health? Bouque and Cunsolo Wilcox (2014, p. 415) observe that ‘understanding the importance of considering climate change not only as a public health hazard, but also a mental health determinant is…a priority’ and Ojala (2016) stresses the importance of helping people deal with Eco-anxiety in order to generate change.

In this essay, I will first of all cover some evidence regarding the link between (eco-) anxiety and climate change, and why existential therapy is the best model to explore such anxiety. This will be demonstrated by looking at the meaning of ‘being-in-the-world’ and ‘being-towards-death’ first of all, and then also by looking at the concepts of Hope and Anxiety. I will conclude this essay with a section on the relevance of existential therapy in exploring and harnessing the power of Eco-Anxiety.

Evidence and why Existential Psychotherapy?

According to this sobering 2018 report (Bendell, p. 6), it is ‘too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today’ and according to the IPCC (2018, p. 11) ‘climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase’. All our attempts to salvage the situation seems to be futile. Would it be better to hide such terrible news from the general public? Bendell (2018, p.18) argues that ‘the idea we “experts” need to be careful about what to tell “them” the “unsupported public” may be a narcissistic delusion in need of immediate remedy’.

It is not hard to image how such bleak life prospects might have initiated a wave of protests (especially amongst the so-called ‘Millennials’) and anxiety-ridden discourse. Now more than ever, the impact of ‘gradual, long-term changes in climate can also surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion…and ecoanxiety’ (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman & Speiser, 2017, p. 27).

So why existential therapy? Van Deurzen (2010, p. 170) writes: ‘the existential view is one that allows us to explore and investigate, and it is therefore eminently attractive to post-scientific humankind in search of new meaning’. In the following parts, I will expound further on some key existential concepts that I believe to be relevant when looking at eco-anxiety. Existential psychotherapy is first and foremost about the ‘big questions’ in life: ‘the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life’ (Yalom, 2013, p. 4-5). I believe that climate change reveals the inevitability of death. Climate change deeply challenges the belief that we are immortal and that we can ‘avoid’ death with technology, medicine and intellect. In fact, it is the complete opposite: our technological advances lead us to the point now where drastic changes in our lifestyle are needed to avoid annihilation. Let’s explore two specific areas of Dasein (Heidegger, 2010) which are affected by climate change.

Part 2 coming tomorrow 😊 in the meantime, check out this article too.

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