Anxious Reflections

Did you hear about the recently published Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? My rather pessimistic take-away from the report is holy crap, how are we ever going to stop climate change? If you haven’t read the report, here’s a brief summary of why I feel this way:

  • “Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5˚C will be beyond reach.”  
  • “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change, making extreme climate events, including heat waves, heavy rainfall, and droughts, more frequent and severe.”

Yikes. *cue eco-anxiety*

Frequently, when reports like the IPCC are published or another thousand-year-old glacier begins collapsing into the ocean, I become overwhelmed and quite frankly, feel useless. I’m not an environmental scientist, how could my actions as a student volunteer mean anything in the grand scheme of things? Are my initiatives doing anything of value?

That’s where I’m wrong – as I’ve recently found out. 

I think I’ve always had a hunch that I should believe in myself and that my actions should be within my capacity and not beyond my limits as an individual. But these thoughts didn’t minimize any guilt I felt for the environmental actions that I wasn’t achieving, striving for or capable of doing. However, within the first few sections of her field guide, Sarah Jaquette Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: how to keep your cool on a warming planet, my feelings were validated, I felt empowered to do what I can for the planet, and I experienced many wow moments. Considering that I have never learnt much about managing eco-anxiety and why it happens, this was eye opening and I can’t wait to finish the book and dive into more resources! 

The purpose of Ray’s field guide, as her introduction states, is that “fear and feelings of helplessness and eco-grief (sadness over the destruction of the earth and its species) make it difficult to take long-term action. Such feelings are not good for us or for the planet. Instead, we need to turn them on their heads and treat a path from despair to hope and, crucially, empowerment” (p. 8). I’ve also pulled the synopsis for the field guide from Amazon to give you an overview of what to expect:

Drawing on ten years’ experience leading and teaching in college environmental studies programs, Sarah Jaquette Ray has created an “existential toolkit” for the climate generation. Combining insights from psychology, sociology, social movements, mindfulness, and the environmental humanities, Ray explains why and how we need to let go of eco-guilt, resist burnout, and cultivate resilience while advocating for climate justice. A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety is the essential guidebook for the climate generation—and perhaps the rest of us—as we confront the greatest environmental threat of our time.’

Considering we’re all in a similar situation – students with limited free time, resources or a budget who care deeply for the planet – I thought I would share some wow moments with you from the guide thus far. And then maybe you’ll also want to pick it up for some validation and feelings of hope after you’ve made it through this blog debrief. 

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Right from the beginning, I was hooked. Ray described an activity she had introduced to her class where she wanted her students to focus on the positive what-ifs of the climate crisis. In other words, what if we won and climate change was no more, what would this look like to you? Ray was stunned by silence in her classroom as the students could not complete the activity and “they confessed that they couldn’t even form a mental image of the path ahead, much less a future that they could thrive in” (p. 2). Ironically, our most recently published podcast episode of Sustainability Stories addressed this exact same sentiment. Wow. Personally, I was stunned to see a parallel between students I was speaking with at the University of Alberta and these students that Ray taught elsewhere – I think I recognized right away that this doubt for and fear of the future is serious, and these feelings are shared by a much larger proportion of people my age than I had ever imagined. Ray also touches on this, as she highlights that we are “the first to have spent [our] entire lives with the effects of climate change” (p.3) – we are the climate generation and we’ve got a lot ahead of us. The next step is figuring out how to sustain ourselves while the end-goal remains decades away.

Returning to the opening paragraph of this post and the anxiety-inducing quotes pulled from the report by the IPCC – this fear and emphasis of this insurmountable problem needing to be solved (literal climate change) – is not beneficial to sustaining long-term involvement for climate activism, as Ray points out. Instead, Ray focuses on community support and positive sentiments as the most critical motivators of long-term involvement in sustainable initiatives. Wow. I was trying to think back to things I had said and heard in the past that were entirely problem-centred. I think the main reason I took an interest in sustainability to begin with was out of fear (anyone else watch Cowspiracy?); the main point I try to convey to climate change deniers I have spoken to is that the world is essentially going to end and go up in flames, so we have to do something (yes, very doom and gloom, my apologies)! Ray’s field guide instead recommends to “find ways to honor your true capacities and passions, rather than some standard defined by the IPCC, your family, your best friend, or Leonardo DiCaprio” (p.54). Another wow. Not only was this section of her guide eye opening to how I will discuss climate change with other individuals in the future, but it was entirely validating that what I’m doing now, within my own capacity, is good enough instead of not enough. She ends this section by saying, “to fix [this sentiment], we need to actively combat messages that tell us that the problem is too big to fix, and to remind ourselves that small is all, and that small is enough” (p. 76). Simple facts, if you ask me. 

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

I think personally something I’m good at, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, is suppressing my own fears and desires because I don’t have it as bad as other people elsewhere and have a significant amount of privilege (for example, Edmonton doesn’t face the same extreme damaging weather as a result of climate change as elsewhere; I have access to a relatively unlimited amount of food choices). For context, I really really really love sushi. But I recently went vegan to reduce my ecological footprint and no longer will experience the euphoria of eating delicious salmon oshizushi. I recognize that not everyone has the privilege to go vegan, nor is this a lifestyle that is sustainable for certain people or groups of people! However, I think Ray really captures my sentiments in this decision saying that “many of us feel that we are complicit in causing harm if we do not suffer alongside those who suffer the most” (p.40). I do feel like I’m guilty of doing this, but I don’t think it should be framed as a negative quality. This is a really large concept that I still struggle to reflect on and am by no means an expert. Especially considering that okay, maybe leaving behind sushi in my previous diet was a sacrifice, but I also feel empowered by that decision and will carry this through future initiatives I take on.

But Ray goes on to argue that “the ethos of sacrifice that underwrites so much environmental work is not a path toward effectiveness; on the contrary, it is disabling” (p. 41). Wow. I had never considered this. Personally, I’ve always believed I live in a place in the world and with certain privileges where we need to make sacrifices due to the sheer amount of overconsumption. I always believed that being sustainable where I’m from was meant to limit my consumption and reduce my impact on the planet. Although I’m really not sure I can bring myself to start eating salmon in the future, Ray still puts forward the concept that it is okay to indulge as this will sustain your positive impact. I see aspects of Ray’s perspective that are great. For example, taking time out of your action plan for mindfulness, taking breaks to process new reports, or seeking happiness. But honestly, I do struggle more with the concept of sacrifice that Ray proposes and will continue to reflect on this. I encourage you to as well! I would love to hear more perspectives on this.

And there’s so much more in this book that I didn’t even touch on. I can’t spoil all the wow moments for you!

I have many more pages to flip through, but this is a start and hopefully it has helped you reflect on some points of sustaining your energy in the climate emergency and as the climate generation. This is a really popular topic right now, as recently seen at the University of Alberta at the Alberta Student Leadership Summit: Sustaining Momentum, in our recent blog post Sustain U, as well as in our most recent podcast episode Feelings of Change

One last note to part on provided by Ray: “If what counts as action for climate justice for you is changing a law or dismantling capitalism, then you may never feel adequate, unless you can break these goals down into next steps that are much smaller and will require exactly the opposite of urgency – patience” (p. 63). 

So, after reading the IPCC report I will do the following within my own capacity: finish this blog post and continue to reflect; finish Ray’s field guide; continue to be involved in the Sustain SU campus community; and to take meaningful time for my own well-being. I recognize now that these seemingly tiny or unrelated actions will have a lasting impact and might even be the beginning of a ripple effect. And that effect might start with you.

Thank you for reading! 

Remember to breathe and take time for yourself.

By Megan Jones

  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sixth Assessment Report: and
  2. Sarah Jaquette Ray, Field Guide on Climate Anxiety:

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