Climate change and mental well-being
A dynamic circuit exists between the inner world and outer worlds; identity and modern political consciousness; human activity and Earth systems. Here are some thoughts that I hope encourage reflection on your place in the circuitry–specifically, how climate change is messing with our heads. Literally.
There is a strong relationship between mental well-being and the instability of the world’s weather patterns. Climate change, which is at the root of severe weather (such as the hurricane superstorms), undermines our fundamental stability in our place- or location-based lifestyles. When people are displaced by environmental catastrophes, they are done so in an often haphazard manner. They seek initial shelter in temporary structures as they consider the permanent structures that they must return to/rebuild, or vacate. And the place to which they return, is changed. The people’s association with the place is changed. Climate change doesn’t let our minds rest.
In India, monsoons appear in ancient Sanskrit poetry and Bollywood films. In other words, the monsoon season is part of life and culture in India. Monsoon season governs what people eat because it is part of the cycle of crop cultivation. Infrastructure has been built to handle predictable amounts of rain. But in the past few years, the climate is changing; significant downpours happen during monsoon season and droughts happen outside of the season. The unpredictability of the rain affects food supplies, economies, and the way and quality of life.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina wiped out entire neighborhoods in 2005. The city then changed rapidly through climate gentrification, which happens when people with more monetary means leave areas of climate risk and catalyze a demographic shift through rising property value in areas less at risk of extreme weather. Individuals (often Black people) who grew up in recently gentrified neighborhoods are being treated as outsiders by the new arrivals—often white people.
Glenn Albrecht, an Australian environmental activist, acknowledges the psychological experience of pain when “the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.” Albrecht calls it “solastalgia.” The term applies to situations of climate change, environmental destruction, and ecological imbalance. It is a reflection that our human psyche is touched by a relationship with Earth, that we yearn for a healthy balance with habitat, that part of our human condition is driven by an “ecological unconscious.”
Consider India, New Orleans, and many places where people live while forces greater than them alter their community landscape.
It is devastating to see that the effects of governments across the globe respond with splintered actions (some mitigating climate science, prioritizing industry and resource consumption, and establishing short-term policies that don’t have long-term goals and live-ability in mind; others acknowledging the enmeshment of human civilization and Earth’s systems). The resulting destabilization of a place-based lifestyle, if that place falls in a high risk zone for the effects of climate change, leaves people hypervigilant. Having an emergency plan, that is, evacuation procedures and resource contingencies, as a fact of life puts us in the mental space in which we are always on edge.
And, consider the place might not be there to return to at all.