Eco-Anxiety and Conservation Optimism in 2020

October 19, 2020

Caring about the environment and being concerned about the future of our planet can be overwhelming. This feeling is so common that in 2017, The American Psychological Association defined it as 'eco-anxiety'. 

My coping mechanism when things get daunting has been conservation optimism. By looking at success stories for inspiration, remembering the many people working tirelessly for our planet, while remaining realistic and advocating for change, can make things feel more manageable. It was even the motivation for starting this blog - a place to share positive conservation news and ways we can all help the environment.

However, I have struggled with optimism through the rollercoaster of 2020. The global pandemic, green spaces still not being safe or accessible enough for all, being failed by the government on environmental (and many other) issues, catastrophic forest fires around the world, and finding out the UK is on track to miss most of its biodiversity targets has made it a heavy year. But after taking a long break from posting, I have finally been hit with inspiration to write about staying motivated when leaning further toward despair. 

Conservation Works

The most important thing for me was remembering that it's normal to feel pessimistic and/or anxious about the environment. There are plenty of reasons to and burying our heads in the sand and pretending everything is fine isn't how change happens.

"Actually feeling this anxiety is an emotionally mature state to be in, which shows that you are aware of the crisis that we are all facing. So, whilst it can be unpleasant, I would firstly say that this is a sign of willingness to face painful truths and facts.."

But it's equally important to remember the progress that has been made so far, the hard work many individuals, communities, and organisations are putting in right now to make change, and that conservation does and can work. 

A study in Conservation Letters revealed that conservation efforts have prevented up to 48 bird and mammal extinctions since 1993 (the year that the UN Convention on Biological Diversity came into force). Authors said their findings showed that governments should be encouraged to reaffirm their commitment to halting extinctions.

Environmental victories, from the removal of lead petrol in 1999, to the fight against acid rain, show how civil society can force governments and business to change, and can be a source of inspiration and motivation.

"It is easy to forget that environmentalism is arguably the most successful citizens’ mass movement there has been. Working sometimes globally, at other times staying intensely local, activists have transformed the modern world in ways we now take for granted."


© Rosemary Mosco

A Focus on Nature

One positive thing to come out of lockdown was the realisation that so many people turned to nature for solace. Hopefully, people who were previously apathetic about the nature crisis now realise how much we depend on the natural world, and will be more inclined to protect it going forward.

"The natural world is there for us, even in pandemics, even in lockdowns; it is there to console and repair and recharge us, often unrecognised and unacknowledged, but still giving life to every one of us, regardless."

Not only did the public find comfort in nature during this challenging year, but David Attenborough's documentary, Extinction: The Facts, showed that viewers are concerned about the state of the planet. Attenborough has previously been criticised for shying away from uncomfortable truths because of the fear that viewers will switch off. This was not the case in his recent offering, and producers were surprised that viewers couldn't tear themselves away from the heartbreaking scenes.

Community and Activism

Action is another way to deal with eco-anxiety. This could be through individual action such as lifestyle changes, working with your community (I love this example of a village in Oxfordshire working together to help hedgehogs), taking part in citizen science projects, or joining environmental groups. This year, I joined UK Youth For Nature's Organising Team, and being involved in campaigns with other people that are concerned about the environment has definitely helped.

"When it comes to treatment, experts say taking action—either by changing your lifestyle to reduce emissions or getting involved in activism—can reduce anxiety levels by restoring a sense of agency and connection with a community. Collective action, says Hickman, is a good treatment for a collective problem."

Supporting others within the environmental community is crucial. Working in conservation and caring about the environment can be tough on everyone's mental health, but many people experience an extra burden of not feeling safe or welcome in the environmental sector or green spaces due to race, gender, class, sexuality, or a disability. Putting in the time to learn, discuss, and reflect on how we can improve this is essential: 

Nature's Good News