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The Growing Emotion of Eco Anxiety

Life in each of the five zones of the world’s oceans is governed entirely by a careful flow of nutrients from one depth to another. As leftovers of a meal or debris falls downward (marine snow), it becomes the source of food for the ones living in waters a couple levels deeper. Nothing is ever wasted, nothing is ever stagnant. In this way, there is a clear pecking order and life even at the abyssal zones of pitch-black darkness.

A whale fall occurs when the carcass of the mammal slowly plunges through the different zones, sustaining countless marine lives, and landing softly onto the ocean floor. The phenomenon triggers the existence of a wholesome, complex ecosystem and can supply sustenance for over 2000 years. Life in the freezing cold depths is suddenly blissful with this giant gift and the marine community goes about making even the whale bones a strong foundation for their future. Nothing is ever wasted, nothing is ever stagnant.

When I stumble upon things like this, I am filled with awe and humbleness. Then a sharp bitterness. How can the same world that allows for such an intricate, unexplained order of life, also make room for so-called intellectual beings who are swallowed by their endless consumption? Climate change is as real as ever and yet when news reaches of Asia's biggest mall / brewery I feel we've lost the plot. Many times, I am convinced that the worst thing to have happened to Earth is us. While there are a lot of people doing good work out there, the scales never balance out to fill this gaping hole where gratitude should be.

Emotional responses to imbalances, injustices, and crises in the environment - have been collectively labeled as ‘Eco anxiety’. I know that now but in the beginning it was probably the worst cocktail I never ordered. Fear, confusion, guilt, anger, indifference, alertness -- all in equal quantities stirred with a generous amount of helplessness. I could pay for it, but I could never digest it let alone sip it. What is one to do in my place? For starters, I busied myself with understanding my emotional intruder a little bit more.


First came fear; I felt it when I was keenly aware of all that there is to lose. I don’t mean the loss of a loved one, of your job, of your savings. I felt the fear as if I was going to witness the atomic structure of everything I see, shuffled without warning and beyond meaning. Clusters of trees, for example, suddenly brought out a particular sadness without any physical event threatening said life. I was appreciative of abundance, but I felt myself quickly slip into an overthinking, what-if mode. It was an all-consuming thought, a battle within while the world spun, people drank coffees, and cribbed about their jobs. I couldn’t think straight with abundance being threatened.


On the heels of this came the next emotion - raw, pulsing, and erratic. I fiercely wanted to protect and be responsible for the little that I can. Daily life was a terrible web to navigate and now I had this creeping need to add more to my plate. I remember the tree that stood next to my old studio apartment - covered in cement, cement bags, ropes and gunny sacks. It stood on a vacant plot of land next to the newly constructed building. How convenient to just discard. It stirred in me a strength that for the next two weeks, my efforts outside work were to free the tree. I guided the ropes through branches, pushed and shook the leaves till it looked like a tree should. Then a great rain came down on us both, cleansed the tree, and my thankfulness was so immense.


I had to point the finger at myself. I knew I was not 100% removed from people, brands, and conversations that contribute to the bottomless pit of consumption. My memory often goes back to the Chennai airport when I had just returned from the US as a little girl. On the ride back someone asked me about my bulging pockets and I said that I was collecting my trash to dispose of when there was a place for it. I was told I could dump it anywhere and out went the garbage and onto tar roads. I let it happen to me - this attitude to turn a blind eye when I should have held firm and educated others. The awareness now in my late twenties brings with it the embarrassment that I too was responsible for today’s climate through deeds of my past. The guilt stretched from my throat to my tummy and I lost appetite whenever that happened.


Let’s say you’ve identified vulnerabilities and surrounded yourself with materials for a deep sense of understanding of the subject you want to save. You’ve become an active participant in threads being woven and inspire some change in your immediate circle with your adventurous attempts. There is still the question of scale; change at a level where it actually makes a difference. The inability to meaningfully respond or participate for true progress brings on a heavy sense of helplessness. It is a gathering cloud that never sheds its weight, and having too many solutions from Google can also leave one confused, overwhelmed, or exhausted. You trace back a few steps to solve a problem, trace that back even further and before you know it you’ve found yourself contradicting. You’re back to feeling helpless.

If you’ve related to what I’ve been carrying around, then there’s a good chance you have bundled emotions similarly without identifying it with a label. Planet panic, climate doom, Eco anxiety, Eco paralysis - call it whatever but accept that it is very much real. On the flip side, experiencing this becomes a starting point to act positively and provides a source of purpose too. Read here on how to curb Eco anxiety and use it as a push for the planet’s future.


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