Our Environment, Animal Tips & the Great Outdoors

Eco-Anxiety: The Environmental Issues We Face, the Human Anxiety About It All, and the Ways We Can Make a Difference

By Published On: March 27th, 2024

In the most romantic day of the year, February 14, The New York Times published a love letter to me. It moved me, pulled at my heartstrings, and set flight to butterflies in my stomach. 

The title of it was, “A Collapse of the Amazon Could Be Coming Faster Than We Thought.”

Awe, Times. You shouldn’t have.

On a daily basis, the Times leaves me these thoughtful rosettes alongside my morning coffee. After digesting its account of the previous day’s apocalypse in Washington, DC, there is always some little memento of the more ominous cataclysm that is devouring our entire planet, day by day, and “faster than we thought.”

Refilling to the rescue

In the face of creeping doom, I turn to Dr. Bronner. 

I take inordinate pride in one bottle of his magical soap in my bathroom. It is vintage Dr. Bronner’s, dating from at least 2016, although I have no record of when I actually bought it. Last year, it shed its flip-top closure, leaving it susceptible to the vicissitudes of droplets from the shower and the potential for watering down the soap within. It was time to retire her.

Long stained with lime deposits, I had managed to reuse the bottle for nigh seven years, filling up a repurposed glass growler at the Berkshire Co-Op with a fresh supply of Dr. B’s whenever she ran low. I carefully tilted the glass jug over the old plastic receptacle until the honey-gold resupply reached the neck of the bottle, at which point I could screw on the cap, content in the knowledge that I had saved yet another bottle from the recycling bin. 

My mania for refilling receptacles has been inconvenient at best. My collection of repurposed peanut butter and Ball jars requires a certain amount of maintenance, and I often get to the co-op, only to realize that I left that one, last, critical jar on the counter at home, now half an hour in arrears. It is one more thing to think about, to remember, and, to an extent, worry about in my routine. It’s kind of a pain in the butt.

Do something

The difference it makes to the environment is modest – negligible, really – yet it also provides a reassuring sense of agency: I am doing something. As my unbagged coffee beans percolate on a Sunday morning, I can read stories of California floods or Canadian wildfires blotting out the New York City sun and know that in the face of all of these environmental disasters, I (pausing to flip back my cape) pulled back one single bag from the landfill – the possible tipping point that could have led us headlong into the apocalypse. 

Admittedly, it’s kind of absurd. 

But I am doing something to stem the ever-rising tide. And if you and your family were to sign on to a reuse/recycle credo, there would be a few more of us. When I go to the co-op, my fellow shoppers are a band of brothers and sisters committed to a common goal. That is the very definition of community.


Finding points of connection is a strategy endorsed by the American Psychological Association for handling environmental anxiety, which it has defined as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.” That pretty much sums it up for me. 

Environmental anxiety is not a diagnosable disorder à la the DSM 5, but the state of our environment can directly and indirectly affect our mental health. The question at hand is whether or not one’s concern amounts to a “chronic fear” that persists over time. Ultimately, a strain of uncertainty drives the anxiety, and any number of causes can fuel a fear of the unknown: absent parenting, whimsical governance, or unpredictable forecasts. 

Will it rain tomorrow? Will it ever stop raining? What if it never stops raining? What if the Housatonic permanently swells until it reaches my doorstep? 

Environmental anxiety can take on that kind of snowball effect (for those of us who remember what a snowball is). Small, persistent thoughts of how one small change in our environment could lead to catastrophe – can become a kind of pre-traumatic stress disorder that threatens to pervade our thoughts and actions. One can derail this train of thought with small actions like refilling a plastic soap bottle. 

A bigger impact

Some of us are truly more directly impacted by environmental change than others. Native populations such as the Inuit face an existential crisis when their world collapses around them. This is not only a matter of material well-being but also of identity and self-worth. 

As explained in the APA’s 2017 report, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, researchers “reviewed case studies of several Inuit communities and reported weakening social networks, increased levels of conflict, and significant stress associated with relocation or even thinking about relocation. In evocative language, Inuit community members interviewed by Durkalec et al. (2015) reported that an inability to go out on the sea ice (due to a changing climate) would make them feel like they ‘have no health’ and ‘can’t breathe,’ and they would ‘be very sad,’ ‘be lost,’ or ‘go crazy,’” 

And for you, locally

While this might read as the isolated concern of a marginal community –and that should be reason enough for us to care about it– one can also read it as a stand-in for all of those who make their living off the earth. Our neighbors in farming rely on terroir for their living, and while annual meteorological shifts are part of the gig, persistent environmental changes in our climate can spell an existential threat. Farms in our area have been literally washed out by excessive rainfall in the past year, and a 2010 report by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection listed maple syrup, dairy, warm-weather crops, and shellfish among the top five agricultural products that will be most impacted by our changing environment.

The antidote to uncertainty is control, or at least the illusion of it. With these threats also come opportunities. Farms are already adapting to the change by planting crops such as grapes and hops, two vine-grown products that can take years to cultivate but that produce lucrative environmental products. Perhaps such adaptation will allow farmers to stay in the agricultural game longer, but there is no guarantee that our climate will stabilize long enough to make the transformation profitable. 

And with an aging population of farmers, why would they even try?

But perhaps I am projecting my own anxiety onto others. The APA recommends fostering one’s own sense of self-efficacy and optimism to combat the effects of climate change, and my bottle-filling, while modest in scale, is a meaningful response to that threat. Rather than pathologizing one’s response to this real existential threat, the more we can validate it in the service of collective action, the greater our impact will be. Just one more reason why the time to act on climate change is now. •