Last year, everyone was so wrapped up with the Covid-19 pandemic that other natural disasters seemed to fly under the radar. Yet they happened.
In the US alone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that there were record-breaking 22 separate weather and climate disasters in the US that each cost more than US$1 billion in damage.
Elsewhere in the world, the Red Cross reported that it had responded to a record number of climate disasters – 29 in the Asia Pacific – and said that this confirms what scientists have predicted: More volatile weather is bringing more climate-related disasters.
A spokesman said: “Our teams are seeing the devastating impacts first-hand as they respond to widespread – and in many cases unprecedented – floods, storms and other extreme weather events.”
Just this month, Texas suffered a massive snowstorm that knocked out power across the US state, leaving millions freezing and without power. The death toll cannot yet be determined.
I was recently tasked with identifying the five most important values in my professional and personal life, and my mind zoomed in on empathy, compassion and kindness, and their co-relation to sustainability.
That gave me a simple but eye-opening epiphany – kindness is not only a critical part of my life and aspirations, but it’s also crucial to achieving sustainability and sustainable development. I have always vowed to be kind to others around me, especially the less fortunate, but it’s equally imperative to practice kindness with our planet, and to remember to be kind to ourselves.
My long personal battle with Imposter Syndrome has in some ways been exacerbated in recent years by feelings of eco-anxiety – a term coined by the American Psychological Association to describe “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
As the future of our children and grandchildren hang in the balance – how can we not be overwhelmed by a sense of urgency and of doom and gloom?
Sure, I have done my utmost to “reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle”, go plastic-free, adopt a plant-based diet, reduce my food wastage, or direct my personal savings to more sustainable investments, amongst others. I have championed corporate sustainability efforts at work, and made it my mission to shine the spotlight on sustainability issues and solutions as a freelance journalist.
Yet it has always felt that regardless of what I do, my personal and professional endeavours seem to pale in comparison to the gargantuan efforts required on the individual, corporate and policy-maker level to tackle the global climate emergency.
Is sustainability a luxury of the privileged few?
I also used to think that becoming a sustainability advocate and a climate activist is a luxury that only those of a privileged background – through access to quality education and well-paid jobs – are able to pursue, so those with the means are obliged to make a difference.
How can you think of adopting – often more expensive – sustainable lifestyles or policy choices when you are living hand-to-mouth?
In addition, why should we – those lucky enough to have the time and resources to commit to sustainability – get so caught up in the mental health effects of the climate crisis when many others bear its much more devastating physical impact – extreme weather conditions, natural disasters, disruption to sources of livelihood, deteriorating health conditions, and the list continues?
How can you effectively discourage villagers from illegally clearing protected land or poaching critically endangered wildlife without offering them alternative sources of income? How can women become an active part of climate action when gender equality is still a far-flung concept in their community, including lack of access to land, financial resources or education?
Ultimately, socio-economic and environmental justice must go hand in hand – we can’t build more climate resilience in populations most vulnerable to climate change without addressing the pervasive economic and social inequalities in these communities.
The more involved I have become in the fight against the climate crisis, the more questions and dilemmas arise, so here are four things that has helped me navigate eco-anxiety better:
1. Focus on solutions (and not just problems)
As a writer, I have gotten used to the doom and gloom stories that tend to dominate mainstream news headlines, and have struggled with how to communicate the reality of climate change to get people to care but not panic.
Following the UN’s warning in 2018 that we only have 12 more years to take action against global warming, I couldn’t help but wonder whether clickbait titles that flooded the news predicting cataclysmic climate disasters and mass extinctions have caused more paralysis than action.
People often end up on two extreme ends of the spectrum: Developing a deep fear and trauma over an inevitable climate apocalypse, or choosing to simply ignore or deny the problem.
My solution thus far? I have tried to cover what I find lacking in today’s media: Reporting on not just the grim stats on climate change, but how people and organisations are responding to the climate crisis.
From discovering a Singapore-based start-up that brews beer from upcycled food waste to an Indonesian social enterprise that repurposes discarded tyres – a source of toxic pollution and disease – into sustainable footwear, solutions journalism has been gratifying at a time when innovative approaches to reducing our carbon emissions are more critical than ever.
2. Engage with the youth
I’ve had opportunities to participate as a mentor and judge for university hackathons, school workshops or volunteer sessions with students. And seeing their enthusiasm has reminded me that empowering the next generation of changemakers is key to the fight against climate change.
We must teach the science behind climate change in school curriculums without causing undue alarmism. And we need to show our youth that they too can become part of the solution, from small steps such as participating in beach clean-ups or changing their diet to seeking a career in a “green sector”.
From the 25-year old who completed the world’s first clean energy-powered Antarctic expedition to raise awareness of climate change to the siblings who helped enact Indonesia’s first ban against plastic bags in Bali, the Asia-Pacific is home to some of the most remarkable youth climate activists.
And connecting with these climate heroes is what helped me overcome feelings of anxiety over the future of our planet on countless occasions.
3. Call out but don’t get paralysed by greenwashing
As I was obsessively scrutinising every detail of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 and the slew of sustainability targets announced in this year’s Budget, I wondered: How do you remain reasonably critical of sustainability measures without developing an unnecessary paranoia of greenwashing?
I see so many brands these days that exploit sustainability as a marketing ploy or simply consider it a box-ticking exercise.
Looking out for certifications such as B Corporation, which measures companies’ social and environmental performance, or sustainability reporting standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative, the Carbon Disclosure Project, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board or the UN Global Compact can be helpful to root out greenwashing.
But the sheer number of different sustainability certifications and standards can be overwhelming and confusing too. So instead of looking for perfect solutions, I seek out organisations that are honest not only about their achievements, but also their failures on their sustainability journey.
4. Chart your own sustainability journey
Since sustainability is a journey, in the words of sustainability platform Green Is The New Black, every ‘little green step’ counts.
Granted, corporates and governments have an even greater responsibility to “green” their practices and their regulations, but individual action is equally crucial.
Have you considered replacing single-use items with reusables? Tried out a (more) plant-based diet? Bought (less and) from conscious brands? Invested your savings in sustainable funds? Walked, cycled or used public transport instead of cabs or cars? Volunteered with or donated to a social or environmental cause? Lobbied for a more robust sustainability policy at your workplace?
The options are endless, and we each can play a role – within our means – on either an individual level or within our communities. We might feel that whatever we do is not enough – a tell-tale sign of eco-anxiety – but remember to be kind to yourself, and to those around you who might not be as far ahead on their sustainability journey as you are.
My last piece of advice? Make sure you make sustainability – financially and mentally – sustainable for yourself.
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