Illustration by Katie Taylor
Climate of Fear: How Inaction is Taking a Toll
In 2022 alone, so many rain records have been broken up and down the east coast, that each new precedent barely gets its time in the sun — or the shade.
“There is a lot of anxiety about climate change, but then there’s a lot of anxiety when you see something happening and you don’t feel you have any control over it — and I think that has been what has been driving a great deal of anxiety because people want to take action on the things they care about.”
The sound of rain, once regarded as a calming and comforting pitter patter to wind down and fall asleep to, is — anecdotally at least — causing more of us to panic and tense up under the covers.
Perhaps you remember “Bailey’s Barometer — business of the brolly, predicted precipitation, drips and drops across rooftops and crops”. Those iconic words were burned into the memories of many TV-viewing kids of the Nineties and early Noughties and gave us a giggle at the thought of water falling from the sky in such a rhythmic and melodic way. We’d shout it in schoolyards. Say it along with Channel 10’s weather presenter Tim Bailey as, for reasons far less serious than now, we pretended we needed to know how much rain there would be tomorrow.
Another cultural reference point for rain in the Nineties — or lack thereof — was randomly screaming “Marge, the rains are ‘ere” at any given opportunity, whether it was as someone was eating corn, when it was raining, or if you sighted a packet of frozen food from McCain.
If none of that made sense to you, the simplest explanation (without delving into a study of outdated Australian cultural weather references), is to say that for many of us, rain and weather patterns were nothing but a quizzical, sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, phenomenon which affected our day in minimal and minuscule ways.
It didn’t really happen to us, just around us.
Fast forward a couple of decades to 2022 and the size, scale and severity of the rain is anything but quizzical, amusing, minimal or minuscule.
In 2022 alone, so many rain records have been broken up and down the east coast, that each new precedent barely gets its time in the sun — or the shade.
Now as the rain drops across rooftops, it’s hard to switch your brain off from thinking about your friends in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales potentially going underwater once more, devastating beach erosion up and down the east coast, the farmers who will have more crops wiped out and the associated supply chain and cost of living issues, or even your own mundane mould issues. The windows are rattling and the water falling from the sky almost feels like an invading force, determined to destroy, destruct and devastate.
Sure, in the Nineties there were catastrophic weather events — drought, cyclone, fires, floods and everything in between. In 2022, however, every pattern of weather feels more dramatic, more significant. We are weighed down by the implication that this is as bad as it has ever been — the worst fires, the worst floods, unprecedented rainfall, record-breaking heat waves, a weather pattern or phenomenon that used to barely happen, now occurring so often it’s redundant to say “once in a lifetime”.
And yet, as bad as it is, we’re also conscious this could well be as good as it gets.
The general consensus is: it’s only going to get worse.
And so we have created, and are now stuck in, a climate of fear.
Fear and Loathing
When the fires raged across the country in the summer of 2019 and 2020, Australian musician Sheona Urquhart Smångs was living in Sweden with her Swedish husband.
The images of death and destruction here — headline news in a country over fifteen-thousand kilometres from her native Melbourne — caused her panic and pain.
She sat at her piano in despair, her heart aching for her rugged home which was burning as politicians and power brokers kept their head in the sand (or their feet on the crisp white sands of Hawaii).
Well-meaning Swedes who were seeing the images on the nightly news and knew Sheona’s family lived in regional Victoria simply assumed her family had lost everything. And while this wasn’t the case for Sheona’s family, it was for many others.
She was also exposed to wild fires in Sweden on a scale the country — usually on the colder side of the climate — wasn’t quite ready for back in 2018.
“A lot of forest was wiped out and, you know, Sweden doesn’t have water bombers or [the necessary] aircraft. So Sweden was ringing up Italy, ringing up Poland: Can we have your helicopters?”
She says locals also despair that a white Christmas has gone from being a lifetime guarantee in frosty Sweden to a spectacle that comes around every now and then.
It was Australia’s struggles that prompted her to sit down and write.
“You sing when simply speaking is not enough. You write a song when simply talking about it is not enough. You’re levelling up your thoughts in a way, in a message that hopefully can be conveyed. I think that’s why artists [lend their voice to these causes]. I think we’re compelled to,” she says.
“I think that’s what music does — what the arts does — is it helps articulate how we feel.”
So, she articulated how she felt.
“Escape the crying and the falling eucalyptus trees.
“We’ve made our nature mad and she’s bringing us to our knees.
“Our horizon stolen, swallowed by a poison cloud.
“But it’s hard to hear our pleas, if heads are planted in the ground.”
These lyrics form part of Sheona’s emotional song “My Rugged Home” which she created with Jade Ell as part of their Ell and Hart music project.
“People were freaking out over here, so it felt like I couldn’t really escape it from here either,” she tells Rolling Stone.
“Fire is a really humbling element because you’re very powerless to it, even when you’re fighting it. You don’t really fight fire, you just contain it and try to let it do its thing. So it makes you feel very powerless.
“I started getting this feeling of extraordinary powerlessness from here… I was just feeling incredibly sad, but then I felt incredibly disappointed in how our government was handling it. I felt incredibly disappointed. Really pissed off. And so it was a combination of feeling incredibly sad and feeling incredibly angry. [So the song became] just like a mantra of: What are we going to do? What are we doing? It doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything.”
A Fantastic Fear of Everything
This anger and frustration can be hard to escape, as can the fear.
Fear can be weaponised against people, with accusations frequently levied at politicians and the media that they’re doing just that. But fear can be a weapon in your own mind — invasive, destructive, unavoidable and hard to contain. It feels like a war we’re losing.
And this internalised fear, largely from inaction and a sense of hopelessness, is taking a toll on more than just Sheona.
Dr. Beth Hill, an anthropologist, facilitator and writer, has researched the psychological and cultural dimensions of climate change and now designs and facilitates workshops for those “coming to terms with the complex alchemy of hope and despair in these times of climate crisis” with the organisation Psychology For A Safe Climate.
She regularly works with those working in, and campaigning for, the climate space and sees everything from burnout to grief, guilt and despair — the full gamut of complex climate emotions.
“It’s a complicated one because obviously there is a lot of urgency about taking action and it’s easy to drive ourselves into the ground thinking that unless we all do everything we can right now [then] the climate crisis won’t be averted,” she tells Rolling Stone.
“Usually what we recommend people do is become aware of their own red flags about when they are burning out, and that tends to be when you’re not talking to any of your friends on the phone or catching up with anyone socially. You’re sleeping badly or you can’t get out of bed. You’re spending a lot of time in constant distraction, so if you’re not working you’re on Netflix or on social media [constantly]. Everyone has different signs…
“And then usually what we advise is taking a break from the news. […] We don’t necessarily need to read every single bad article, every brief, to stay across what’s happening. There’s a place for being informed, but doing it intentionally and exposing yourself to media in an intentional way, if that’s possible.”
Dr. Hill says mindful self-compassion is also important — that is recognising the difficulties and struggles you’re facing and being present, aware and caring of the complex toll that can take, including when it comes to planning for the future.
Beyond the fear and anxiety, climate distress — as Dr. Hill calls it — can cause people to reassess everything from where they work to whether or not to have children.
Cassie Jenkins recently switched from a career in hospitality to one more closely linked to the outdoors, describing herself as an “almost horticulturist”.
She now works for InvertiGro, a vertical farming start-up that aims to create sustainable and reliable production of fresh and healthy produce.
Her first foray into the world of plants, however, was less sustainable.
“I guess when you think about gardening and gardening companies and things like that, you think about nature and improving the environment — and a lot of companies do that.
“But I just thought it was a big joke that we go and landscape someone’s garden or clean it up, and then we just get a skip bin and all the soil, leaf litter, all the pots that have come with all the plants all get chucked in there, all the rubbish — nothing gets sorted properly. And then it all just goes to the tip.
“We’ve made our nature mad and she’s bringing us to our knees.”
“And it’s just like, we’re out here improving people’s immediate environments in their gardens, but we’re not actually helping the greater environment at all. Towards the end of my time there, I was like, I really don’t like how we’re not sorting this out properly. We’re not recycling, we’re just creating more waste and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
On the hunt for her next employment opportunity, she sought out a company with greener credentials and higher levels of innovation and integration with the environment it relies on.
She accepted the job with InvertiGro because she wanted her life, overall, to be greener and cleaner.
Rommel Hérnandez, a paramedic living in Melbourne, tries to make similarly conscious decisions, although with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he became even more aware of just how much single-use plastic and chemicals were being called upon to keep people as safe and healthy as possible.
In a choice between health and waste, health ultimately won, but these things do play on his mind.
He’s also conscious that his relatively privileged individual economic situation enables him to make informed decisions about cutting down waste and his carbon footprint.
He is acutely aware that not everyone has that luxury.
“It’s just really odd for me, because I am a migrant and my background is Filipino. I grew up there for fifteen years, and [sustainability] was not really the main focus. I grew up in such a poor country and then coming here with my family, and how they were raised, they’re just much more focussed on [financial security].
“So it’s a really hard balance for me.”
He also acknowledges that, for many people, purchasing more sustainable products is beyond their budget, and many cheaper alternatives are wrapped in excess plastic and other things that ultimately end up in landfill.
With all this in mind, his wish is that the government, and those with the power and resources to do something about it, actually do it — so that economically disadvantaged people don’t bear the brunt of both the responsibility and the consequences.
He used the recent Federal Election to send his message, believing that’s one of the most effective ways for privileged people to act.
Will politicians actually do anything though?
In the poignant and pained words of Sheona in “My Rugged Home”: “Who fell asleep at the wheel?”
Turning Fear into Hope
Allegra Spender, the recently elected independent member for the federal seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs, believes those behind the wheel might just be waking up.
She says the ‘teal’ independents have a mandate to not only wake them up, but also course correct and drive them forward because it’s what the community wants.
“I think there is a lot of anxiety, but actually, particularly after the election, I’ve seen a great deal of hopefulness,” she says. “There is a lot of anxiety about climate change, but then there’s a lot of anxiety when you see something happening and you don’t feel you have any control over it — and I think that has been what has been driving a great deal of anxiety because people want to take action on the things they care about.
“If you don’t have some measure of fear and grief about the state of the world, you’re probably not really paying attention.”
“And when they can take action, anxiety actually lessens and your connection to community increases.”
This community connection is something else Dr. Hill recommends for people feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the problem facing us.
“If you don’t have some measure of fear and grief about the state of the world, you’re probably not really paying attention,” she acknowledges, but stresses there is also room for hope.
“We really try to support people to connect with each other and with other people when they are feeling that way. That’s one of the key aspects that both helps with climate grief, but also with burnout because rediscovering that sense of belonging and connection [is really important].”
Despite the dire predictions, reports, and the sense that we’re languishing in a constant state of inaction from leaders, Dr. Hill says community will be key, as will all of these strong emotions we’re grappling with.
Indeed, even the scale of the grief, despair, confusion, loss, frustration and anger on display should give you hope. All of those emotions stem from people’s passion — their love of the planet and their sheer fight or flight desire to save it.
“I find my hope in the work I do because I’m engaging with people every day who love and care so much about this planet and their community and the people living on this planet, and the animals — that they’re feeling these big emotions,” Dr. Hill says.
“The depth of sadness is really a reflection of the depth of love, and the depth of anger is usually a reflection of people’s passion for justice.
“So I feel a lot of hope when I actually talk to people who are engaging with this issue and are concerned about it, because I feel like that’s where the solution is going to lie, is coming alive with each other and being able to really connect with what matters most.”
This article features in the September 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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