Ecopsychology: Surging Anxiety Over Climate Change
Climate change has a powerful impact on our psychology. Years of intensifying superstorms, wildfires, and extreme temperatures have spurred an increasing level of eco-anxiety, particularly in younger generations. What does that mean for housing?
Although scientists have been warning of the perils of climate change for decades, governments, businesses, and individuals have been slow to react, threatening the very future of humanity. That future belongs to younger generations, who are generally frightened by their prospects.
According to a recent survey conducted by COGNITION Smart Data, Green Builder Media’s market intelligence division, 87% of Millennials respondents reported that they are worried about climate change, and 56% believe that humanity is doomed because of climate change.
In fact, Millennial respondents claim that failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change is their top global risk of highest concern, more so than economic or social instability, COVID, terrorism, or gun violence.
These individuals report feelings of sadness, anger, powerlessness, and helplessness when it comes to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Nearly 50% feel ignored when they try to express their climate anxiety. They’re upset at older generations and governments for largely ignoring climate science and allowing the situation to get so out of hand through inaction, and they’re demanding climate justice—as well as palpable structural action—as a remedy for their deep-set feeling of betrayal.
Reuters recently conducted a survey that found that people 18-30 are selectively avoiding climate-related news and other ‘serious’ topics in an effort to guard their mental health. The report shows that younger viewers are burnt out by the barrage of doom-laden news about climate change, pollution, and the destruction of ecosystems across the globe.
A scientific paper on Clinical Ecopsychology published by Frontiers reported that “the occurrence of extreme heat events is a major public health problem, as they have been linked to a vast array of mental health consequences, including aggressive and criminal behavior, wake and sleep disorders, depression, and suicide.”
The report indicates that drought, water, and food insecurity, and air pollution are also linked to psychological distress, anxiety, hopelessness, and depression.
According to the study, “The global scale of the crisis can further give rise to feelings of apathy, numbness, loss of control, powerlessness, uncertainties about the future, as well as a state of “eco-paralysis,” particularly in young people. These feelings can be further exacerbated by observing the apparent inaction by global leaders and the general public to mitigate or adequately address the crisis.
In addition, the impact of the climate and environmental crisis is unequally distributed across the globe, often most affecting those who contributed least. This issue of injustice is a component of the crisis that has the potential to induce strong emotional reactions, including anger, and (ecological) guilt.”
Another scientific study conducted at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research published earlier this month in The Lancet Planetary Health showed a direct link between extreme temperatures and hateful social media posts that include racial discrimination, misogyny, and homophobia. Researchers found that online hate speech increased when temperatures rose above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, increasing by as much as 24% on hot days.
The lead author of the report, Annika Stechemesser, confirmed that when “temperatures go too hot or too cold, we found that there’s an increase in online hate speech, no matter the socioeconomic differences, religion or political beliefs.”
The Way Out
Interestingly, many scientific studies show that the best remedy for eco-anxiety is spending time in nature.
The Clinical Ecopsychology report states that “evidence of the indirect effects of climate change on mental health can be seen in the rapidly ongoing trend toward urbanization, as more and more people lose contact with the natural world. The current discrepancy between the modern (urbanized) lifestyle and our psychophysiological development is thought to impact mental health.”
A separate study titled “Nature and Mental Health: An ecoservice perspective” published in Science Advances documents a growing body of empirical evidence that reveals the value of nature experiences for enhanced mental health, describing the positive psychological impact of spending time in nature specifically to combat eco-anxiety, climate-change phobia, and solastalgia, a term now used to describe “the pain or distress caused by the loss of, or inability to derive solace connected to the negatively perceived state of one's home environment.”
According to the study:
Over the past century, people have been increasingly concentrated in urban areas. In many instances, modern living habits involve reduced regular contact with outdoor nature and increased time spent indoors, on screens, and performing sedentary activities. This disengagement from nature may be partially driven by a negative feedback loop. As direct nature experiences become progressively unavailable to new generations, this creates an ever-narrowing spectrum of nature experiences. An “environmental generational amnesia” and “extinction of experience” may stem from each generation’s reduced experience of ‘wildness’ (or increased experience of environmental pollution)—shifting the baseline of reference points for the acceptable quality, richness, and variation in nature experiences.
Climate Anxiety and Housing
Given this context, it’s no wonder that homeowners are yearning to reconnect with nature and making decisions accordingly to increase window and door sizes, augment outdoor living spaces, bring nature inside their homes, and move to communities that offer amenities like walking trails, community gardens, and green spaces.
We know that homes in the United States can be dangerous for physical health (the National Center for Healthy Housing estimates that 35 million homes in our nation place their occupants at risk because of poor indoor air quality.)
Fortunately, there is a broad and growing spectrum of innovative, cost-effective products—from ERVs and ventilation fans to non-toxic products and antimicrobial surfaces— that improve IAQ for enhanced physical well-being.
But there has been less attention given to mental health in our homes. According to COGNITION Smart Data, Millennial and Gen Z homeowners believe that healthy homes don’t stop with IAQ, they also incorporate concepts like healthy cooking, sustainable lifestyle choices, and stress relief.
These younger individuals are looking for features like intimate areas for calming activities like yoga and meditation, outdoor sanctuary spaces to connect with nature, private gardens, and serenity rooms where they can find peace and solitude.
Clearly, there is an opportunity for everyone in the housing sector to become more thoughtful and methodical in the way that we think about housing as a panacea for health and wellness, proactively addressing physical and mental health through sustainable design and green building best practices.