Archived from Old Blog (Pre-2020): The Emotional Toll of Climate Change

Trigger warning: suicide, mental illness.

I have been writing and rewriting this entry for months, but in light of David S. Buckel’s self-immolation in protest of fossil fuels on Saturday, I thought I’d better post it now (New York Daily News“Prominent Lawyer in Fight for Gay Rights Dies” and “He Called Out Sick, Then Apologized for Leaving This World”, The New York Times). Buckel had unfortunately not crossed my radar until this crushing news but reading about his legal work and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community, and his grassroots environmentalism has been heart-warming, and I wish I had come across him sooner. Buckel’s death/protest struck a chord with me because the seemingly endless despair brought about by the threat of climate change to our civilization and humanity is something I am intimately familiar with. I will quote from Buckel’s email sent to the The New York Times the morning of his death:

“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather … Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

In his note, … [he] discussed the difficulty of improving the world even for those who make vigorous efforts to do so.

Noting that he was privileged with “good health to the final moment,” Mr. Buckel said he wanted his death to lead to increased action (“Prominent Lawyer in Fight for Gay Rights Dies”).

The original version of the post was all about how climate change makes me feel, and it was largely inspired by a blog dedicated to scientists sharing their feelings and stories called Is This How You Feel?. I am not a scientist of course, but I empathize with their position. I don’t want to glorify Buckel’s suicide or piggyback on the virality of his death, but he wanted people talking about climate change so here we are. I also want to acknowledge that all situations and suicides are different, and that I think you are more valuable to life as we know it, your fellow animals, humans, and me, alive. I want you around.

With this piece, I hope that people who feel the same can potentially find comfort in company and to try to explain to others the emotional toll of the environmental crisis. For both groups and more passive readers: please remember that I am in a privileged position, I am a white, male, who lives in an area less likely to be drastically affected by climate change on a short timescale. But still, this is how I feel, and I hope that it provides perspective, and if nothing else, it feels better to write this down.

Climate change often keeps me up at night. I follow climate change news and activism across the globe, I follow scientists and journalists who work with climate change and science communication, and I try to be an activist but because of the scale of the environmental crisis, it’s hard to believe that my insignificant contributions are worth anything at all even though they are all I can do. I think that I have felt very close to where Buckel was at the end a number of times, and I think I am going to get guidance to cope with these feelings when I return home.

There is a lot of research and discussion about how to think about, and how to deal with climate change, but it’s hard to keep up with the discourse. I  grieve for the myriad species we are driving to extinction, for the largely comfortable climate most of our recent history has taken place in, and maybe even for the continuity of modern human life. I am horribly angry and upset at politicians, lobbyists, corporations and their leaders for misleading the public and governments and, frankly, being responsible for the problem. I think that it is important to feel these things but not let them destroy your life, and also to, if possible, channel them into action.

I have spent too much time utterly terrified thinking and reading about climate change and global warming, too much time feeling sick to my stomach. I feel disgustingly guilty about my individual failures to be endlessly more sustainable. I am not even a vegetarian, and I have never participated in a protest or demonstration of any kind even though I ought to be out on the streets every day. There is always more I could do, more I should do. I am scared, I am angry, and I am depressed. All of these feelings are real, but I am not alone, and if you feel like this, you’re not alone either. And just because I (we, you) have a very specific, very real reason to feel these things doesn’t mean we have to or should feel like this. I can be an activist and feel happy. I can and should, guilt-free, live a fulfilling life and ask for help when I need it. And I think so should you. Mental health needs no justification and having one doesn’t mean we ought to suffer.

I can see the terrible emotional spiral of guilt and fear that would lead Buckel to set himself on fire in a public park in hopes that finally this will get the message to the right group of politicians or people in power, or empower masses to demand change. The fact is, however, I think, that this dramatic act probably made less of a contribution to environmentalism and social justice than staying alive for 10, 20, 30, or 40 more years of much needed legal work and activism or otherwise. Thank you for all that you have done David S. Buckel. And thank you for giving life on Earth everything you had, including the very end. I hope that this brought you the peace you were looking for and I hope that it makes the kind of impact you wanted it to while steering others who have the same or similar inclinations into the arms of those who can help them.

This is a call, I suppose, for environmental and other social justice advocates to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, before or at least while, attempting to help others, and to think of this as a valuable act of social justice.

If you feel that you are depressed or are taking on too much emotional labour, please ask for help from friends, family, and professionals. It gets better.

All of the topics brushed upon here will be topics that I return to over and over again. But for now, thanks for reading. I love you.


EDIT: Almost two hours later: Gabrielle Brigid commented on the Facebook post for this entry and pointed me to Parents for the Planet which is a spectacular group dedicated to discussing all aspects of climate change, especially acknowledging the emotional implications. Their Facebook Group is especially brilliant. The organization also brought me to this article by Think Progress which is discussing this exact topic. You should check this out.

EDIT 2: 15/05/2018 – 17:42: Added the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP)  to the Resources section.


2 responses to “Archived from Old Blog (Pre-2020): The Emotional Toll of Climate Change”

  1. Thanks Buddy! You never cease to amaze me. Thanks for being vulnerable and open. Love mom

    1. Thanks mom! <3

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