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Eco-anxiety: still in the tunnel, but a light ahead

by
22 October 2021

How do we cope with eco-anxiety? Frances Ward learned how on a narrowboat

istock 

SOMETIMES, stress and anxiety become overwhelming. We all need enough adrenalin to stir us through our days and responsibilities, of course, but many are experiencing, or witnessing in others, levels that topple over into a downward spiral towards depression and a sense of inundation: wave after wave of exhaustion, debilitating helplessness, despair.

Covid-19, the global pandemic that reaches into every home, has compounded a sense of fragility as, increasingly, we begin to realise just how vulnerable planet Earth is in the face of the threats of climate change.

Now, the word “change” seems too tame: more often, the challenges are named climate “crises” or “catastrophe”. Every day, foreground stresses that, before, were manageable in the rhythms of work and rest are now intensified by background shifts that are seismic — and unprecedented in their irreversibility: enough to poleaxe us.

It hit home, for me, a few years back, when I was already stressed through work and family worries. Then, “eco-anxiety” didn’t have a name; and denial was easier than now.

In 2018, I took a narrowboat, The Lark Ascending, from the south-east to the north-west of England. It was early summer, and the nation around was in cultural and political turmoil over leaving the European Union.

Travelling from March, Cambridgeshire, to Skipton, North Yorkshire, at three miles an hour, with time to engage on the towpath and in the locks, it was hard to ignore the profound divisions, as if a cloud had descended on the country, tasting acrid and sour in the mouth and throat. Increasingly, though, it seemed that the bitterness disguised a deeper distress. At walking pace, in a slow, long boat, the cloud condensed into lament for the future, as if everything now was hashtagged #likethere’snotomorrow.

The psalms distilled the unease, stirring questions into voice: “Who gives thanks in the grave?” Psalm 6 asks.

 

A HOST of issues face Christians today as they stare at the climate crisis. Is it God’s will that the earth becomes uninhabitable? Some say so; but the responsibility is clearly anthropogenic, which takes us to bleak places in our naked thinking hearts. Where is God, if there is no one to praise God? Does God begin again, infinitely patient in eternity? But what good it that to us, our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren?

Christian theology says, rightly, that God is still God, even if there is no world. But the destruction of creation threatens the narrative structure of covenant; for what happens to faith, hope, and love if there is no longer a human response to God’s grace?

Recent global research on the attitudes of young people to climate anxiety records that 50 per cent believe that humanity is doomed; more than 75 per cent say people have failed the planet. What can be said to the young people in our lives? Are we utterly cast out, poor banished children of Eve?

Sending up our sighs, like Job, we can find ourselves clinging on with fragile faith, hoping against hope in the divine covenant of love that God established in the beginning, and renews in every living moment. Unlike Job, though, we are not innocent. God is also a God of terrifying wrath.

 

AS COP26 draws near, we can but hope that it really will mark the beginning of the end of the climate crisis, as nations come together to pledge concerted action. But the terrain ahead is dark with difficulty, engendering a sense of helplessness and hopelessness which can stop us acting, protesting, and engaging politically — individually, as a nation, and as a world.

How is it possible to process anxiety and fear, so that we also can offer support to others, as Christians?

The agenda “Deep Adaptation” by Professor Jem Bendell, the founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria, takes seriously the possibility of inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate catastrophe.

A global network of counsellors and thinkers continues to gather around him to respond to the psychological and political challenges of having so little time left.

He is right to argue that the West has failed, with its dominant neoliberal economics that burden the individual consumer with the responsibility to drive the market forces that will save us all. He is right that what is required is concerted political action to establish sustainable economic systems, not the current incremental and atomistic approach that celebrates when we change a lightbulb.

Dr Bendell doesn’t know if human ingenuity can save us from uncontrollable climate change. He predicts starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war. But we must do what we can, and he offers four “Rs”: resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation, to promote change that is individual and political — and spiritual, but not rooted in Christian theological and biblical resources.

 

LITTLE, practical things make a real difference; large things, too — as far as we can afford. Solar panels; switching to green electric; making our homes carbon-fuel free. . . Individuals also need to put pressure on politicians to respond with far more urgency to the warnings.

But action — individual and political — also requires a journey into any sense of denial that we have about the future, born of fear.

That summer of 2018, when I was cloaked in despair, the Psalms revealed to me that God was in the dark cloud of desolation. Instead of running away into frenetic busyness, paralysis, or angry displacement, all that was required was to know again my dependence on the God of grace.

Words often fail to articulate the depth of pain, but the heart can pray with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit helps us in our weakness to turn again to God in repentance. We can change the instrumental mind-set that we have inherited, and learn again to love this earth for its own sake.

As I voyaged in The Lark Ascending, God was there, in the cloud itself. The song of the grace of God could be heard, pouring out to the ends of the world. God’s grace breaking through, always, already there, in water, cloud, and tree, in stars, and in the wildness yet — and with sacramental jouissance, with rapturous vibrancy, notwithstanding anthropogenic degradations.

 

THE Christian faith has wisdom to offer, holding together hope and fear in a tension that inspires change. We can start where we are, with a circumstantial sagacity that trusts in the grace of God to convert our fear to hope, so that anxiety motivates change.

Living in God’s grace allows thankfulness to transform God-forsakenness. Action born of hope begins with the cherishing of God’s creation as sacramental, infused with a grace behind, beneath, beyond the materiality of things, actions, senses. Participating in the song of God’s glory in creation is to hold together hope and fear in grace, empowered to change the habits of an age, celebrating a God-given rather than a God-forsaken world.

I listen now, wherever I am, for the wild patience of God, creating and sustaining the universe, despite the desecrations of human sin. For the sound of God’s moral purpose that goes out into all creation as the best guide to necessary action.

The cloud that obscures God is a cloud of darkness — of fear and wrath entangled. It is also a cloak of light, of glory and joy. There, instead of sterile fear and despair, we find the goodness and loving mercy that leads us, as cloud and fire, all the days of our life.

 

The Revd Frances Ward is a parish priest in West Cumbria, the former Dean of St Edmundsbury, and the author of Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate crisis, eco-anxiety and God, published by Sacristy Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69).

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