I could still vividly remember the opening scene in WALL-E where the titular robot was surrounded by mountains of trash. Set in the year 2805, it had been centuries since humankind left Earth aboard the Axiom. The whole premise of our planet becoming so unlivable that, sometime in the distant future, we would eventually leave it, struck a chord in my seven-year-old heart. As a kid, it bothered me that something depicted so far into the future seemed so near. I saw it as a Nostradamus-like prediction for humanity—if I had known who he was at that time. At that age, there was only one way to describe it: scary. To me, I imagined that I could very well go to bed one day only to be woken up and told to evacuate because there was too much trash on the planet.
About a year later, I stumbled upon an article in the children’s section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer about sea level rise in the Philippines. Illustrated like a friendly cartoon was a map of Metro Manila showing which cities would be submerged underwater by the year 2050. It brought that same sinking feeling, and I just had to ask my parents how this could happen.
How are you supposed to assure a child that the world would be fine when it isn’t?
Surprisingly, you don’t.
The feelings worsened with every bit of information that I found, with every article, documentary, and book on global warming. Looking back, it might have been too much for a young child to think about. Watching glaciers melt was scarier than any horror movie. Thus, the nightmares continued. Sometimes my dreams would be about the human race having to adapt to life underwater. On worse nights, they played out like a never-ending doomsday film. This feeling, I would later learn, had a name—eco-anxiety.
As defined by the American Psychological Association, this is a phenomenon that manifests itself as a chronic fear of environmental doom. While it is not a diagnosable medical condition, it gives us just enough insight as to just how much environmental degradation affects the mental state of people. Dr. Panu Pikhala, a Finnish expert in environmental theology, has found that a key group of those with eco-anxiety include children and adolescents. This is due to their developing mental processing capacity and apparent limitation of personal actions in the adult world. Similarly affected are those whose livelihood or lifestyle relies heavily on the environment: this includes farmers, indigenous peoples, and fishermen.
The anxiety of finding something to be a problem without a proper solution stems from two reasons, according to Pikhala. First is the need to adapt to changing circumstances on the planet. There is an urgent need to prepare for stronger typhoons, hotter summers, and other ecological shifts. Second, there is also a challenge in keeping one’s ethical responsibility for climate change while keeping things in perspective. This pertains to humanity recognizing their role in the planet’s well-being. While others have taken to more conscious practices, others are still in denial.
Nowadays, as we learn more about the climate crisis, increased awareness has made it a more welcome topic to discuss. While it is still an underresearched phenomenon, more have begun to speak up about it. Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist behind the Fridays for Climate Movement publicly recalled her own experience of dealing with eco-anxiety. Upon learning about climate change, she had felt a sense of hopelessness. This had reached a point where the teen refused to even eat or speak. Klimatångest, a Swedish term literally meaning “climate angst”, became a driving force as she began to organize school strikes. Over a year later and this movement has drawn support from millions of people around the world.
The discourse doesn’t end there, especially when it hits closer to home. Just a few weeks ago, Typhoon Ulysses hit the Philippines. While those in Luzon experienced the devastation and destruction left in its path, the rest of the country showed their support. Together, we called for the declaration of a climate emergency. This wasn’t one that came out of fear this time. It wasn’t the product of a single person fearing for themselves, but a nation fearing for their countrymen.
Right now, the clock is ticking and it really is daunting. Studies say that there will be more fish than plastic in the ocean by 2050; the planet’s surface temperature has increased by around 1.62 F; Earth’s glaciers have lost an average of 390 billion tons of ice a year; and new findings are released every day. Hearing those things can stir up more fear and anxiety in people but there’s so much more we can do.
On some days we will find ourselves feeling helpless about the state of our planet, but there’s an unnamed force that pushes us to get up. We stand with those who are shaken by the fear and trauma of climate change. We listen to scientists, petition to politicians, and continue to educate ourselves. Eco-anxiety becomes a catalyst, turning fear into fighting. This isn’t just about a fictional future anymore; it’s about our future.