Monday, January 13, 2014

Eco-Anxiety: The Challenge of Being Green and Anxious

Pic: Shehal Joseph

It’s going to be 43 degrees Celsius in Melbourne today – a ‘scorcher’. I’m at my PC, noticing how rapidly my hair is drying and trying to figure out how soon I can dash off to the shops for supplies before the air starts to bake. The milky blue of the morning sky is threatening somehow. It seems like a good time to complete my blog entry on the challenges of having anxiety, or any sort of mental illness, and being eco-friendly or simply aware of the issues, ie climate change.

There is a vague menace in heat waves for me that makes the difficulty in sleeping, especially early on in the heatwave, almost certainly psychological.

It’s not just the magic figure of 43 that is stressing me out today, but the fact that it’s the second day of what will be a five-day heat marathon, with four days of temperatures 39 and above. I picture myself by the end of it a frazzled, dried up twig, mentally scarred for life by my ordeal.

For the fact is once my double brick house starts to cook, if I don’t take adequate cooling measures I quickly go into an odd dissociated state of mind that makes me incapable of taking positive action. The trouble is that this state creeps up on me before I have time to prepare, so I have planned for it this time, and will probably end up in the local library by early afternoon. Later in the week, once the sun has started to set, you might find me wading into the dirty water of Elwood Beach, oblivious to the frenzied chirping and splashing of the crowds who actually think it is FUN to cool down on a hot day and not just grim necessity.

Heatwaves are made more likely by climate change, which leads me to the original topic of this blog entry – it’s not easy being green, and it’s especially not easy if you have any type of mental illness.

I need to acknowledge from the get-go that poor people – and many of us with mental illness are poor – produce very low carbon emissions anyway.

One thing that annoys me about this is that we don’t get social credit for our small carbon footprint. No-one congratulates me on not having replaced my 1997 Starlet with a new car in the last few years but they would probably pat me on the back if I bought a new Prius. Yet I am saving more emissions by not buying a new car, because the emissions involved in producing the Prius would probably be higher than the extra emissions from continuing to drive my little four-cylinder. Similarly, I get no kudos for not having an air conditioner to help me through the heatwave (although I do get plenty of sympathy!) I know someone on disability who doesn’t heat his house in winter, and he’s not earning any awards for Best Green Citizen of the Year. Of course, many of us don’t have cars (that may also be a conscious choice).

But what about voluntary green actions? These often involve extra effort, such as shopping at an organic grocery store that may be further away than the local supermarket. They also require additional planning, eg having enough plastic bags in stock, and remembering to take them with you when you go out. And often (but not always) buying green products is more expensive than the conventional option. As well, with automated checkouts, the anonymity of supermarket shopping can seem so much easier.

If you do have a car, it’s tempting to drive to a social event rather than taking public transport because you don’t have the stress of waiting for the train or tram, or battling your paranoia about the other passengers and any other worries common to anxiety sufferers; then there’s the quick get-away that a car makes possible if the socialising gets too much.

The irony is that people with mental illness can struggle just doing normal things, while conscious green actions require a kind of super-normality.

But being green is also important for many people, whether or not they have mental illness. This is because meaning and purpose are vital to wellbeing, and making an effort to be eco-friendly can provide some relief from the feelings of guilt, fear and anger that the ecological state of the world can ignite.

However, I have no illusions about the limits of said greenness in the scheme of things. In a free market economy where both major parties in Australia are centre right, the idea of doing the right thing – and being viewed by various industries as a niche market for your trouble – can be demoralising rather than empowering. The sense of helplessness this situation engenders can lead to depression, so it’s tempting to ignore the whole issue.

It’s true that nothing I do personally, in my day-to-day practical life, is going to affect climate change significantly. That idea is itself a form of greenwash, brought to you courtesy of the fossil fuel industry and big finance, which between them are investing in enough coal mining and exporting to send the planet to buggery in a few hundred years.

It is also a depressing fact that wholefood stores are generally just as profit focused as the evil supermarkets. It is highly likely that your local organic store is not using green power, for instance, and if it the company is growing, its carbon emissions may actually be increasing.

And buying a green product from a large company that mostly manufactures non-eco-friendly products is tokenistic at best. I bought a diary this year that was carbon neutral, but the company as a whole is anything but, and produces plenty of products that aren’t carbon friendly at all. If you’re going to buy green products, I’d suggest buying them from a company that is trying to do the right thing with all its products, not just one or two that have been created for marketing purposes. The book Greenwash by Guy Pearse has enlightened me on this distinction; it has all the dirt on who’s really doing the right thing in the corporate world, and who’s not.

Yet I don’t see my tokenistic green actions as a complete waste of time, money and energy. I see them as contributing to a more eco-friendly culture – one that will hopefully grow stronger in the long term, and is waiting in the wings for when climate change has become such an emergency that even the most cynical powerbrokers are forced to act.

Also, when I buy from wholefood stores I am at least protecting diversity (Australia has one of the most concentrated supermarket markets in the world, dominated by the duopoly of Woolworths and Coles) and supporting small suppliers. I’m also planning to put my money where my mouth is, by moving my term deposits entirely away from the big banks at the end of the month. This will not only increase my support for local credit unions but it will give me a lovely, revenge-y feeling – I can’t wait to tell the NAB that my money’s no longer going to support their dirty investments.

It’s also the case that being slightly greener can sometimes save money, for example buying from op shops or thrift stores. This retail model is flawed too, I know, because it relies on a certain amount of consumers to buy new products to donate. Yet there is so much good in op shops – the volunteers and what they gain and give, the programs that the profits go to support, and the idea of re-using someone’s discarded junk instead of having it consigned to landfill. A few op shops have been set up to include an element of repair and restoration, and it would be great if this model was adopted more broadly.

Then there’s the wider recycling movement, which is literally redesigning the culture of consumption – fix or repurpose things if possible; if you do create something new, build it to last; and borrow, share and rent rather than buy.

Well, my hair is now dry so I am dashing off to the shops – sadly, it must be admitted, in my car. The irony is that it’s even harder being green during a climate-induced heatwave, especially if you’re heat-phobic. Which leads to my conclusion, that I now take small green actions when I can, while voting for the Greens, the party that wants to take big action. And when I can’t be green because of mental issues or finances, there’s no point in bashing myself up about it.

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