Talking eco-anxiety with Yasmin Kapadia: Are we all equally affected?
This week we are speaking with Yasmin Kapadia, an integrative counsellor and member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, on how eco-anxiety intersects with systemic inequalities.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
Sure. I was born in London to two immigrant parents. My mother is Polish, and my father is Indian, so I’m mixed race. I grew up in London and I live in Brighton now. I come from a background of working in mental health in many different roles. Currently, I’m an integrative counsellor and I also mentor university students with mental health problems. Alongside my job and private counselling service, I take part in the Climate Psychology Alliance.
Could you tell us, from your perspective, what eco-anxiety is and how it can affect people?
That’s a big question. I guess it’s not a term I ever really considered until a couple of years ago when the mess the planet is in became very apparent to me and I suffered with my own version of eco-anxiety. I had periods of not sleeping, of thinking a lot about catastrophic, apocalyptic visions of the future. This led me to joining the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), particularly as I became increasingly aware that people I was working with were also suffering with these fears and that, in order to help them, I needed to tolerate and manage those feelings myself. Although we call it eco-anxiety for short, it covers a whole range of feelings that people who are waking up to the existential crisis of the climate emergency might experience; guilt, grief, dread, fear, panic, anxiety, anger, rage, helplessness, and the way those feelings can end up taking over a person’s life. Their relationships, work and wellbeing can all suffer. Eco-anxiety is a shorthand way of saying all of that.
It manifests very differently in different communities. In some communities that term wouldn’t even be appropriate, but that’s how I would describe its effects on the clients I’ve worked with, including people I’ve worked with through the CPA’s therapeutic support network. Some are parents who are scared for their children’s future, or university students learning about these issues without help to process their emotional responses, activists that have ended up burnt out, or older people struggling to come to terms with guilt around their part in the difficulties we’re in.
It’s interesting to hear about eco-anxiety manifesting so differently in different communities, especially given growing understanding that climate change does not affect every segment of society equally. For example, people with lower incomes may have less capacity to cope with flooding, or people living in urban areas may be more severely affected by urban heat. Do you think the experience of eco-anxiety intersects with systemic social inequalities like these and, if so, how?
I definitely do think that. The first way that comes to mind is really about young people and children. Their lives are going to be affected by the growing degradation of the planet for a lot longer, to a much greater degree than other generations, who basically have less to lose, and I'm particularly aware of that as a lot of the people I work with are younger people. However, I also meet a lot of young people who are facing this problem head on, in ways older generations aren’t, who are incredibly resilient, and I feel like I need to express some anger about how, during the pandemic, young people and children have made huge sacrifices for predominantly older people, and I don’t see so far, the same kind of sacrifices being made by older people, on behalf of young people in terms of the climate.
Do you think there are other groups in society who are disproportionately affected by climate change and eco-anxiety?
Yes. Certainly, people living in poorer areas, and we know that ethnic minorities tend to live in more deprived, inner city areas where there are greater levels of air pollution. In the UK, I would say it’s the same people who are affected by other hardships, that are more severely affected by climate change. People who can afford to live in the suburbs or countryside, predominantly white, richer people; they can have cleaner air and access to the countryside. They’re welcome in the countryside. On so many levels, currently, historically, and in the future, the people that are suffering and will suffer from climate change are those who are already suffering from other ills in society, from other injustices, economic inequalities, racism.
Obviously, we know globally, climate change is affecting, and has already affected people in the global South to a heavier degree than us in the West. It’s a privilege which is mirrored globally and locally. We talk about climate change as if it affects us all, and it does and it will, but there are people in the world whose lives are affected to the degree they’ve had to migrate, their crops are failing, there are water shortages. This is a daily reality for people right now, as we speak. The apocalypse has come for them already, and it hasn’t for me or the people around me. On a different scale, in this country you could say similar things about levels of air pollution. If you’re an ethnic minority parent, living in a highly polluted urban area, whose child is sick or dying from asthma, that is climate change affecting certain groups to a different degree than others.
If you’ve already been suffering many layers of existential crisis for many generations, eco-anxiety is another level on top of that. You’re not going from a comfortable place to, “Oh my goodness, we are all going to die,” because you’ve had generations of feeling like you’re all going to die already. There is an adaptability already inherent in those cultures, and a resilience. I think the concern is likely to be there and great, but the way it is manifesting isn’t panicking like your house is on fire, because maybe those communities have learnt that’s not the wisest or most useful response. When you have to deal with many existential crises over many generations, I guess you learn that you have to survive somehow. You have to keep going and adapt to terrible realities, and I guess it’s not as much of a shock. I don’t know though, which is why we need to listen. Those narratives need air space, and those communities’ voices need to be amplified, so that those narratives can have equal place within the existing narratives of the environmental movement.
Despite these impacts, ethnic minorities are infamously under-represented in the UK environment sector. How could we avoid this in relation to eco-anxiety, and create inclusive support for ethnic minorities?
This is such an important question because you’re right. When I’ve taken part in events with other organisations, it’s been a very white space and I've certainly felt the effect of that, personally, as a mixed-race woman. The world of therapy is a very white world, so I am used to stepping into a room and scanning to see how many other Black and brown faces there are and, very often, being in a sea of white faces feeling different. There’s also this assumption that ‘we’ are all on the same page and coming from the same place, and I often think, hang on, that’s not my experience or experiences of people I know from other communities, but it's really hard to say that when you’re the minority.
So, I think your question about how we create inclusive, supportive spaces for ethnic minorities experiencing eco-anxiety is a really good one. I’m hoping to address that within the Climate Psychology Alliance where we’ve just formed a group for BIPOC people. I’m hoping that can be a place within the organisation where, if you are Black or brown, you can just come, and be in a sea of faces which aren’t predominantly white, where we can support each other. Maybe a collective narrative can be formed, and then I hope that group will work in collaboration with other members of the CPA, who are also thinking about the importance of diversity, decolonising and anti-racist practice. I think you have to be very active to make this happen. You can’t just sit there and say, “I really wish this was a more diverse group of people. Why aren’t people from ethnic minorities coming?” You have to look at what the barriers might be, what it might feel like for those people to come and if those people would feel welcome.
So, I think having a space specifically for people of ethnic minority backgrounds within organisations can be a starting point. It can make people who are already in an organisation who don’t take part as much, feel more confident to do that, and also if people from outside the organisation see such groups exist, they might be more willing to join, knowing there's a home for them. We also need to be listening to different groups of people and doing outreach, which is not just about telling different groups about eco-anxiety and what we think they should do about it. We need to be asking people about their concerns and experiences. There needs to be an attitude of being really open to listening and learning, so organisations can offer services and support that people actually need. We need to make community links and networks in a very human-to-human way, making collaboration possible. Then we can provide support services with a special place for ethnic minority or anti-racist therapists where ethnic minorities feel more welcome.
Workshops themed around anti-racism would also help. If environmental organisations talked about climate change with [anti-]racism interlinked within that narrative, that would send a message to those who suffer from racism, that this is being taken seriously, that this organisation gets it and I won’t have to be the angry Black or brown person in the corner saying, “Excuse me. What about this perspective?” Because these are people, white allies, who hold that perspective already and are saying the things I normally only hear myself or people from my community say, and they’re showing me that narrative through their website, newsletters, their publicity, podcasts and videos. So, I think all of these things would lend themselves to more dialogue about eco-anxiety and what the appropriate terms are within a greater diversity of people, and to offering more useful interventions, more equitably.
A recent article described climate anxiety as an overwhelmingly white phenomenon and highlights how eco-anxiety relates to white fragility. What do you think white people can do to address eco-anxiety in anti-racist ways?
It’s very much like the question, “What can white people do to address racism in anti-racist ways?” It’s the same kind of thing: recognise where you sit, and the white supremacy that’s in you, the white privilege you have, the position that you hold in society and your role in all of this. Maybe the way your ancestors may have been part of this, how you benefit from a racist history and present. Recognise that, but not defensively. And then, stop centring yourself and the white experience. There is a need to listen to the perspectives of other groups without falling into a spiral of shame, or guilt, to stop and just listen to other communities and voices. I've read the article and the responses from white people immediately jumping in to defend themselves. I think really letting in the reality of the history of colonialism and slavery, these kind of roots of the environmental crisis that we’re in, and recognising that these roots are the same, and they must be addressed. The roots of racism and the environmental crisis are the same, and white people need to acknowledge that. That’s anti-racism for me. Eco-anxiety needs to be addressed in a way that puts it in a context that recognises all of that.
We’re going to need all of us working together on this. It is a global crisis, and for us to really work together, we can’t ignore the differences between us. We can’t pretend we’re all in the same boat, that we’ve all caused this equally and are all equally affected. We must acknowledge the differences and the different levels of responsibility that we hold; the different ways we are affected and be honest about that. The race conversation is a very uncomfortable one, and I think you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. The climate crisis is also uncomfortable, and the race aspect of that is another level of uncomfortable on top, so we have to be willing to lean into that discomfort and talk about it openly.
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And you can learn more about the work of The Climate Psychology Alliance, including upcoming events, resources, and therapeutic support at...