No, this title is not about people suffering from the winter blues, but from something said to be really serious — the failure of the rest of the world to do the right thing and move towards a truly green planet. I learned about this new illness from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. It seems that a Dr Nicole Thornton, having diagnosed the disease in herself, is setting up an online support network for others suffering from the illness, which apparently has other names, like ‘doomer depression’ and ‘ecoanxiety’.
Apparently she had been happily working in the field of environmental politics (the article says ‘green awareness and eco-tourism’) when something happened. Thornton had always been easily upset by apathy towards, and denial of, environmental issues. But now she began to notice an oddly powerful personal reaction to “the small stuff” – like people littering, or neighbours chopping down an old tree…
She found herself suddenly and strongly enveloped by unfamiliar feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, anger and anxiety. “It’s strange. Sometimes you just don’t feel you’re making headway in the time you’ve got, before it’s too late for the planet,” Thornton says. “All these little things weigh you down, and then the big stuff breaks you…”
The United Nations was about to hold its 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, and Thornton felt she had a personal investment in it. She, like many thousands of activists and scientists and green campaigners, had high hopes that a new and robust version of the Kyoto agreement would be created in Denmark.
“But the reality was a massive, epic failure of political will. It broke me,” she says. “The trigger point was actually watching grown men cry. They were senior diplomats from small islands, begging larger countries to take action so that their nations would not drown with the rising seas.”
Thornton pauses, takes a breath. “It still gets me, five years later. That’s when I lost hope that we were able to save ourselves from self-destruction. That’s when I lost hope that we would survive as a species. It made me more susceptible to what I call ‘climate depression’…”
“Every time I talked about environmental issues, I would start crying, which I think is a really unusual response,” she says. “I’m a scientist, so I like to break things down – to drivers and causes – but I was confused. I had never heard of anyone who had something like this. I tried talking to some of my colleagues and friends, and I felt like an idiot. I felt quite stupid talking about it. It was a lonely and steep, frustrating learning curve.”
I’ve quoted this story at some length, because it is quite fascinating. Why, you ask, is Dr Thornton so fixated on doom? There is no point, I imagine, in suggesting to her that she take a long hard look at the evidence, relax, and find something else to do with her life. She is a believer. She has ‘lost hope’ that humanity will survive as a species, we are involved in ‘self-destruction’, because we have too little time ‘before it’s too late for the planet’ — and the rest of us are not doing what she wants us to do. Yes, I am not surprised that she is clinically depressed, because this is the language of depression.
People have killed themselves because of the fear of global warming. We can’t ask them what exactly they were fearful of. But in Dr Thornton’s case we could ask her when she first became sure that the planet had only a little time left. All the evidence is that it seems to be chugging on pretty happily, and Matt Ridley has another enjoyable piece about why we should all take some comfort in the present state of things, even in the world of the natural environment. Perhaps a friend might suggest that she read it.
But part of me is just exasperated with the self-importance of the story. How many thousands are there are there who are suffering from ‘climate depression’, ‘doomer dismay’ and all the rest of these alternatives. Doesn’t she, and those who said similar things in this newspaper story, realise that there has been a substantial shift in the climate debate since 2009 and the Copenhagen fiasco.
That was nearly five years ago, and it is as though she has shut her eyes and ears to the realisation, that the warming that was going to go through the roof has not done so, that much more is known about climate, that the science is not at all settled, and that governments are backing away from the notion that the most important issue facing humanity is the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
But it seems that no one around her is prepared to tell her a few simple truths. Indeed, one of those in the story sympathises with her. ‘Think of the overwhelming evidence they have’, she writes, and of the despair she feels when a government waters a bill down, and fails to take the right actions.
With friends like that, Dr Thornton is not likely to be on the mend for quite a while.[And, coincidentally, Anthony Watts has published a set of letters from Australian climate scientists some of which express similar emotions. Is it just that Nature is not playing ball with the models?]