What an irony it is that at a time when we are turning to nature more and more to boost wellbeing, nature’s own predicament is itself contributing to many people’s anxiety and depression. It’s an irony which mirrors this year’s World Environment Day theme.
World Environment Day falls on 5 June each year, run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to build awareness and spur action. And the theme this year, Generation Restoration, is a striking one. It encourages us all to “get active, not anxious”, to remember that while there are many environmental threats, there are also many practical ways we can respond, from planting a tree to letting a patch of garden go wild.
These last few years have seen far wider awareness of pollution, species loss and urbanisation. Climate emergency has become a buzzword. With this awareness comes reaction: fear, uncertainty, sadness and even despair.
Experiencing nature has such power to improve mood and to calm us. But for some people now, simple enjoyment of nature is overshadowed by feelings of doom. If absence and scarcity are what we notice most in nature, then the positive impacts can be lost. This can be particularly true for older people, who remember a time when places were different, when there were more insects, more birds. Even where nature still seems abundant, people might feel its time is running out.
Eco grief, as it is called, may have different triggers. For some, these will be images or news of melting ice sheets, of floods and droughts aross the globe. For others, these will be closer to home, maybe seeing local open space built on or a stream polluted.
Some people liken eco grief to a form of bereavement. They cite the different stages bereavement can follow, maybe from disbelief to anger, fear and some form of acceptance. But it is too early here for acceptance. To some degree nature’s future is still in the balance. There remains a window of opportunity to make a difference, to slow or halt decline, to turn the tide. That can make it all the more distressing for people to see time drifting by and that opportunity squandered.
Maybe it is this which has inspired World Environment Day 2021’s theme, with its focus on getting “active not anxious”. It seems like a call to do what we can even while the scale of need overwhelms us. It seems like a call to harness our anxiety or sadness for action, to draw on these feelings themselves to encourage us to act.
Supppressing or denying feelings of fear or depression can erode mwental wellbeing and only defer the time when those feelings will come to a head – although everyone’s experience is different. So recognizing that there’s still a place for action could be helpful. And while the theme Generation Restoration might seem to highlight the role of the next generation, of younger people, restoring nature depends on all of us.
Maybe, as we find even small and simple ways to try to restore nature, we will feel nature’s power to restore us in turn renewed all the more.
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