Eco-Anxiety and Existentialism – Part 2

Eco-Anxiety

Here is part 2 of my essay on Eco-Anxiety. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! For Part 1 click here.

All the references you see in part 1 and 2 will be added in part 3.

Being-in-the-world

As Heidegger explains in his magnum opus Being and Time (2010), Dasein is being-in-the-world. As beings-in-the-world, we are always immersed and part of the physical world: our physical bodies interact and communicate with the environment and with others. Although being-in-the-world is not strictly related to the physical world only, I want to highlight in this section of the paper just how important the being of the world (its health, its continuity and constancy and its nurture) is to us. Van Deurzen (2010, p.146) points out that ‘our natural environment has a profound effect on us’ and that we have a ‘fundamental connection to the earth on which human beings remain dependent for the whole of their lives’ (Van Deurzen, 2010, p.147); we are not apart from the world we live in, we are self-sufficient, we are not masters of it.

What this means is that climate change can have profound implications for our being-in-the-world. If we are destroying the world part of the whole structure called ‘being-in-the-world’, the whole thing disintegrates. There is not being-without-the-world. The way I see it, the problematic lies in the objects at hand in the world. For example, if I get a plane to visit my family, I am contributing to the increase of CO2 emissions. Although the plane is very useful to me and I need it, I find myself having to reconsider its ‘handiness’ (Heidegger, 2010, p.p. 73): the useful object does not ‘work’ anymore, not because it is broken, but because it has become part of a moral structure that I no longer recognise as authentically mine. The world and the worldly beings, as Heidegger (2010) says, have to be reappraised if we are to change the apocalyptic trajectory we currently find ourselves on. 

To conclude this section, I hope to have shown just how interlinked climate change and our being-in-the-world are and I believe that this must be kept in mind when our clients reach out to us because of anxiety related to environmental changes. If we are to approach Eco-Anxiety phenomenologically, as psychotherapists, we must explore the being-in-the-world of the client, by asking questions such as: ‘what does climate change mean to you?’, ‘what comes up when you think of yourself in the current climate?’ and many more.

Being-towards-death

The second characteristic of Dasein is his/her being-towards-death, our life being a stretching out between birth and death (Heidegger, 2010).

As beings-towards death, death is our only certainty. Thus, whether it happens because of a car accident or because of a climate change related natural disaster, it should not matter. Or should it? What is it about climate change that makes it different? First of all, it is caused directly by us, beings-towards-death. We have full responsibility, but seldom acknowledge and accept it. Myers (2014, p.54) emphasises that ‘climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue’ and that therefore ‘truly ethical responses to climate change require shifts in identity that are significantly distinct from the industrial order responsible for climate change’ (Myers, 2014, p. 56). We have the power and ability to change things, but rarely do we choose to do so.

Climate change is not only our “personal death” (as an individual I may be directly affected by climate change), but also our “common death” (climate change might result in the death of my species at large). Climate change is ‘a threat to the structure of meaning that constitute community or intersubjective identity’ (Myers, 2014, p. 55). This puts under scrutiny ‘the way of doing things’: like Heidegger’s (2010) hammer, it is only when something breaks that we notice it (see above example of the plane). In Myers (2014, p. 61) words, ‘it is the lifeworld practices we share with others that are questionable’ and this calls for a response (denial is a response).

This realisation brings about change. It can lead to a shift in our most sedimented and implicit ways of being, such us: driving to work every day, using single-use plastic every time we shop or flying abroad for leisure or business. Sedimented ways of being can be described as ‘strong, fundamental beliefs’ (Spinelli, 1994, p. 347) which help individual to maintain a coherent self-construct. It is no wonder then that ‘the more radical the shift, the more vociferously antagonistic is the social (and often personal) resistance to it’ (Spinelli, 2005, p.58).

We are “being-toward”, always “ahead of ourselves” (Heidegger, 2010) into the future projects; but what if our future projects are obliterated by climate change? What does it mean to live authentically as beings-towards-death (Heidegger, 2010)? An awareness of climate change and the anxiety it provokes might well be the most authentic way of being – as Guignon (2006, p. 229) rightly writes: ‘confronted with our being-towards-death, the roles we have been playing suddenly seem anonymous, and we are faced with the demand to own up to our lives’.

I have said that this realisation calls for a response. In the next section, I will explain which one, in my opinion, is the most favourable response and what role existential psychotherapy can play.

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