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Hot topic: Dealing with climate anxiety

TedxBristol 2019 speakers share their thoughts and tips on tackling a very real and widespread problem of contemporary society

Climate breakdown has left many of us feeling alarmed and distressed. To address this on an individual and a collective level, TEDxBristol 2019 is devoting a large slice of the schedule on 17 November to examining this very 21st-century problem, delivering talks, workshops and strategies on how to both understand and act on climate change.

This year the event is pioneering a cross-organisation collaboration to create the most environmentally sustainable event possible. The goal is to #WasteNothing. From going paperless to trialling a cup deposit scheme at Bristol Old Vic for the first time, the Smart Planet working group will deliver a range of innovative, accessible actions on the ground to minimise waste and promote planet friendly behaviour. The working group includes Bristol Water, Bristol Waste, Bristol Old Vic and TEDxBristol volunteers. The day will feature speakers, experts and interactive workshops to help people engage with the topic in a positive and proactive environment.

What would you suggest is the best way to approach speaking to children about climate change?

Fi Radford: Speaking to my own children about climate chaos is easy because they are in their forties! They are very supportive of my activism, as is my goddaughter, age 39. I have a five-year-old grandson, and I would not talk to him about it yet. What I do is try to show him the wonders of nature and the animal realm, so that he will grow up loving them and wanting to protect them in the future.

Caroline Hickman: My current research is around talking with children and young people about the climate and bio-diversity emergency, in the UK and the Maldives. They often have a greater clarity about the need for urgent action than adults – in part I think because this is their future that we are talking about. Many of them also have not got the same compromised relationship with the natural world that adults have. So they see more clearly that interdependency and need to save ‘the other’ in the world around them in order to save humanity.

When I have asked them about eco-anxiety, every child I have spoken with is clear that they are feeling anxious. They are also clear that adults need to learn to listen to them, and need to have the courage and honesty to face the reality of the situation we are all facing – and not lie to children, otherwise this is a betrayal and another form of abandonment.

In short we need to tell children the truth, but in ways that they can understand. Try to relate it to their local environment as well as further afield (it’s not just polar bears that are at risk).

Adults need to face their own feelings about climate change first in order to then be able to talk with children without frightening them. They need to show and acknowledge their own feelings, but not in an ‘out of control’ way, and also give permission to children to talk about their feelings.

We need to make the conversation fit the child in front of us – so judge their age and capacity to understand, then start the conversation by asking them how they would like to discuss it. Give choices, use some books, watch the David Attenborough documentary – but then discuss it together.

Andres Roberts: I am a new father and I know this will get more difficult. My sense is that with all things climate-related, we need to balance fact and feeling. We need to share the reality but we can do so while passing on a love of life and a sense of wonder. These are qualities that I would love to pass on to my daughter. I think that we can say that the Earth is struggling; that humans have created many problems, but that there are millions of amazing people trying to make things right – and she can be one of them. Our job is to help these good things to grow, not forgetting love, play and wonder.

How do you manage your own mental wellbeing around climate grief and uncertainty?
Fi: This is an issue that I do take very seriously. I think that, deep down, I am grieving all the time. I grieve when I see the beauty of the natural world, or when I watch those David Attenborough films on the television, or when I see little children. Nature, which does offer consolation, also gives me pain, as I know that it is threatened. I think that grieving is the price of loving, however, and that it is the pathway to sustainable activism. The writings of Joanna Macy have taught me a lot about all this. I have conducted ‘truth mandalas’, which allow people to share their pain in a safe space and to feel truly heard. For me activism is the antidote to despair. Extinction Rebellion came along just at the right moment for me. I had tried everything else. It has given me a community, and the opportunity to take some action, without which I would feel impotent and depressed. I also went to the William Blake exhibition at the Tate, when I was up in London for the Rebellion. Poetry also helps.

Caroline: Good question. I have a dog, and the hour-long dog walk every day is a very important part of my day for just walking and breathing and reminding myself that while I am feeling grief and anxiety (and anger and frustration etc) it is also important to balance this with attention to everyday life as well. Playing with the dog during that hour is important too (to him as well as to me). It is a mindfulness approach that reminds us to focus on the here and now and doesn’t dismiss grief and anxiety; but asks them to not be at the front of my mind, for an hour.

I try to make sure that I look after myself in all the usual ‘wellbeing’ ways – eat, sleep, breathe, spend time with family and friends. Crucially, to remember joy and beauty and love and creativity also exists in the world – and not let fear wipe this out. But to make a space for living with both fear and appreciation of life. It is ok if you do not always manage to do this perfectly, we are human, not machines. So sometimes you will not always get it right – but just do not judge or be self critical. Be compassionate.

The uncertainty is complicated – but it requires an acceptance, that we are under an illusion if we think we are in control of life. So this is just a bigger version of that. I do have trust in humanity (mostly); that while there are things to be afraid of, there are also things to be celebrated. Finding community is very important here. Climate change and climate anxiety is not an individual concern, it is collective. So sharing that concern with others and finding ways to take positive action is really important.

Andres: Most days I practice a little exercise. It comes from the Zen Buddhist monk – Thich Nhat Hanh. With a breath in, I relax my body. With a breath out, I smile. With another breath in, I notice everything around me – the people, the sky, the feelings I am experiencing. With another breath out, I feel grateful for everything in that moment. It takes me less than a minute, but it’s amazing how it brings me back to the present – away from any future anxiety and back to a sense of being alive in my body. We live in serious, critical times, and the future is uncertain. But we are certainly alive and the world is utterly beautiful; there are extraordinary people and projects unfolding and we are capable of miraculous things. So, let’s care for the future by being well in the present.

What are the most effective things you can do to play a part in the bigger picture?

Fi: See above. I have been campaigning hard for 10 years, with Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and many other environmental organisations. I must have signed thousands of petitions and have got to know my MP and local councillors. We may have won a few small victories, but the war against global heating is being lost, big time. In the end, I decided the only worthwhile thing I could do was to put my body on the line, literally. I was arrested last April and nearly arrested a week ago, when I tried to glue myself to the doors of Black Rock. I feel I have no other option since time is running out and this is an emergency. Though you would never know judging by the behaviour of our political class.

Caroline: Again I would say community – campaign, take action, join XR, support school strikers, set up climate cafés, become an earth protector, form parent/youth support groups. Reduce personal isolation and also build good relationships with others through a shared concern.

But – importantly – have some fun with all this. That is important. The climate and biodiversity emergency is not something to take lightly, but equally we also do need to remember to play and learn and not turn against each other, and to not blame others.

Andres: This is where I think many people feel stuck today. We see the urgency, but we don’t know how to act. I’ve a feeling two kinds of action matter. The first are the everyday things we can change – if we all do them they will mean great shifts. Eat less meat; travel less; eat local food; buy less stuff; move your money to a sustainable bank; support green businesses and politicians; this all counts. Every action you take is a vote – so do go out and support positive projects and organisations. But then I think there is something bigger. I love the thought of taking a whole chunk of time to reboot ourselves away from the system. Take a couple of days to do nothing. Go into nature for a week. Try a month of non-consumption. Do it with friends. Unbind yourself from the system. Trust that, collectively, we make a new system. People power changes the world.