Eco-anxiety, also known as climate anxiety, refers to the fear and worry people feel about the impact of climate change on the world we live in. That distress can be felt all too readily when it is directly connected to your home or your sense of place - a feeling that researchers call ‘solastalgia’. It is a growing concern among people of all ages, but especially teenagers and young adults. Parents and teachers are witnessing the environmental challenges faced by the younger generation, leading to concern for the well-being of their children and students and the future that awaits them.
How eco-anxiety takes hold
Eco-anxiety starts to affect us through an increasing awareness of the ecological crises the planet and society are facing. Education, news reports, social media, and scientific studies all contribute to this realization. According to research, three-quarters of young people aged 16-25 years-old in ten countries around the world think the future is frightening due to climate change, and 83 per cent think humanity has failed to take care of the planet. The emotional impact of this can leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and powerless.
However, by adopting a systems leadership approach, we can better understand the complex interactions between human activities and the environment, and that knowledge can lead to positive action. This can provide a valuable tool in reducing – or altogether preventing – eco-anxiety.
What are Systems Thinking and Systems Leadership?
Systems thinking is a way of "making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts". By being cognizant of these intricate relationships, we gain a clearer understanding of how we can contribute to positive action.
One of the key benefits of systems thinking is its ability to identify leverage points, areas where small changes can have significant impact within complex systems. By pinpointing these leverage points, we can strategically direct our efforts towards the most effective solutions. Individuals and communities can then take meaningful action, whether through personal lifestyle changes, grassroots initiatives, or advocacy for policy reforms.
This mindset is a key attribute of systems leadership. Systems leadership involves working with others by using systems thinking to generate a shared vision. That vision creates agency and purpose that leads to large-scale action and systemic change. This is particularly relevant in dealing with the environmental crisis affecting the Earth today, which requires transformative change across multiple complex systems, from energy to economy.
Moreover, systems thinking and systems leadership promotes collaboration and collective action. Recognizing the interconnected nature of our challenges, we can foster partnerships and alliances with others who share our concerns and aspirations. By joining forces, we amplify our impact and create a network of support and shared knowledge.
How agency and action can help alleviate eco-anxiety
The collaborative approach of systems thinking and systems leadership cultivates resilience, empowering both individuals and communities to recognize our agency and make informed choices that align with our values. This proactive approach brings a sense of purpose and direction.
It's important to acknowledge that, while systems thinking and systems leadership can help prevent or reduce eco-anxiety, they are not a substitute for mental health interventions when eco-anxiety, depression, or burnout have already taken hold. Just as yoga can be beneficial in preventing or reducing stress-related conditions, seeking appropriate health interventions is crucial when dealing with mental health challenges.
However, finding ways to take collective action can help in dealing with eco-anxiety because it fosters hope through action. Systems thinking and systems leadership provide a framework for understanding the complex issues we face and showing that there are solutions if we take action, which in turn can help alleviate eco-anxiety.