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Weather by Jenny Offill:

An exploration of ‘eco-anxiety’ and the challenges it poses to medical practice -- part 1

‘Suppose you go with some friends to the park to have a picnic. This act is, of course, morally neutral, but if you witness a group of children drowning in the lake and continue to eat and chat, you have become monstrous.’ [1]

Building on this analogy, Jenny Offill characterizes the curious claustrophobic myopia that has begun to afflict modern society in the global North as it increasingly acknowledges the likely impacts of climate change: how is it possible to go about tending one’s own garden when the world beyond is drowning, drying, or burning? Offill explores this perpetual sense of impending doom through the fictitious Lizzie Benson, a dissatisfied librarian in New York who acts as an unofficial shrink to her isolated mother and her brother, a recovering addict. Despite her capacity as a familial lonely hearts advisor, Lizzie is struggling to piece together her own existential puzzle. Is she a good enough wife and mother? What happened to her career prospects? Should she choose the more expensive (less reliable) local taxi service, or just succumb to Uber? Is it worth stock piling chewing-gum now for the post-collapse society (given that it can be used to boost morale and also as bait for fishing)? Will she always be afraid of the dentist?

In the midst of these musings, Lizzie accepts an opportunity as a part-time PA for her former mentor Sylvia Liller. Sylvia is the host of a well-known podcast called Hell and High Water which tackles burning questions thrown into the audio stratosphere by the general public: Do angels need sleep? What would it mean to bioengineer humans to be more efficient? What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos? How do you maintain your optimism? The autofiction amalgamation of podcast correspondence, chapters from ‘Doomstead’ preparation manuals (‘practical’ bedtime reading), and the musings of a woman enabled and entrapped by capitalist society are haunting, witty and poignant.

Weather is, then, dominated and driven by ‘eco-anxiety’, first defined by the American Psychological Association in 2017 as ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’. Eco-anxiety is spreading like wildfire. [2] This is perhaps unsurprising given that the 2019 IPPC report called for a minimum 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 to prevent unprecedented global consequences. [3] It appears that eco-anxiety as an existential phenomenon is limited mainly to developed countries that suffer less from the direct effects of climate change. [4] That is not to dismiss the trauma suffered by those in less developed countries who bear much of the direct impact of rising global temperatures. Particularly in light of current global circumstances, it is clear that poverty and wealth inequality are both a consequence of increasing ‘natural’ disasters, and also a driving force behind them. It only takes a quick Google search to begin to scratch the surface of the (metaphorical) iceberg: in 2019 Cyclone Idai claimed the lives of more than 1000 people across Southern Africa, droughts in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have left 15 million people in need of aid, and last year floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh left over 12 million people homeless. [5] However, as Cianconi et al explain, these immediately life-threatening situations have an overarchingly acute impact on the victim— vulnerable people are more likely to suffer from direct physical and consequentially related mental injuries. [6] Although acute impacts will give way to long term impacts such as resource scarcity, climate migration and displacement, these are largely phenomenal as opposed to philosophical concerns.

The eco-anxiety encapsulated by Offill can be grossly categorised as a subacute impact of climate change [...]

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow; or read the long-form piece now at Medium.

Jasmine Virk, Junior Doctor, 2020

1. Offill, Jenny, Weather (London: Granta Books, 2020).

2. Schlanger, Zoë, 'Climate Change Is Causing PTSD, Anxiety, And Depression On A Mass Scale', Quartz, 2017. [Accessed 17 July 2020]

3. IPPC, “Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C”, IPPC, 2019. [Accessed 17 July 2020]

4. Nugent, Ciara, "Terrified Of Climate Change? You Might Have Eco-Anxiety", Time, 2019. [Accessed 17 July 2020]

5. '5 Natural Disasters That Beg For Climate Action | Oxfam International', Oxfam International, 2020. [Accessed 17 July 2020]

6. Cianconi, Paolo, Sophia Betrò, and Luigi Janiri, 'The Impact Of Climate Change On Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review', Frontiers In Psychiatry, 11 (2020). [Accessed 17 July 2020]


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