by Peter Phelps
According to the Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon, individuals seek three things from society: “comfort, use, and protection”. It seems as good a yardstick as any to measure how much our own society, with its rising anxiety, under-employment, and deadly pandemic, is failing us on all three counts.
Every age faces uncertainties, and other societies have confronted challenges just as menacing. As Sadakat Kadri writes (p.12) even in relatively recent times there have been pandemics not dissimilar to Covid-19, and the increased anxiety we’re experiencing is the normal response to the insecurities they cause. From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety can be seen as adaptive, encouraging us to steer clear of peril. It’s not, as some suggest, a recent construct – it was identified as a distinct mental ailment in Greco-Roman times, and treatments then bear similarities to the cognitive therapies used today.
While nothing new, the sustained leverage Covid has applied to a whole host of uncertainties – sickness and death, unemployment, indebtedness and social isolation – has undoubtedly assaulted both our physical and mental health. But the pandemic only exacerbated the tidal wave of mental health issues we’re experiencing, it did not cause it. A clinical study by University College London of 6.6 million patients across the UK, concluded shortly before the virus struck, showed an “explosion” in generalised anxiety disorder,
with cases trebling in the decade following the financial crisis of 2008. Perhaps most startling was the generational divide, with the over 55s far less affected than younger members of society. It’s tempting to deduce that older people are mentally stronger, more stoic. But in fact the level of anxiety felt is simply in direct proportion to the insecurity experienced. The social traumas caused by the recession and the austerity which followed the financial crisis had a disproportionate effect on the young, so naturally they experienced higher levels of anxiety. While no comparable study including the Covid era has yet been done, many polls including our own (p. 26), show a significant deterioration in the mental health of older members of society now, commensurate with their increased risk.
A clinical study by University College London of 6.6 million patients across the UK, concluded shortly before the virus struck, showed an “explosion” in generalised anxiety disorder, with cases trebling in the decade following the financial crisis of 2008.
Another reason the young are more anxious now is the much greater existential threat posed by the climate crisis. The reductionist thinking dominating western thought since the Enlightenment has led us to treat the virus in isolation, a single adversary we need to defeat so life can go back to “normal”. This has led to corona knocking the climate off the front pages. But have we really forgotten the terrifying bushfires that ravaged Australia and saturated our newsfeeds in the weeks leading up to the virus’ outbreak in early 2020? In the eighteen months since then, record temperatures and wildfires have swept the globe, from Siberia to North America to the Caribbean. Barely a day passes without a new climate record: droughts in South America, floods in Africa and Asia, hurricanes in the Atlantic. Meanwhile the sixth mass extinction event continues apace, with species decline occurring at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs.
Many of us have put off thinking about the climate emergency – if we thought of it at all – because we’re focused on the immediate threat posed by Covid. Yet the separation of human health and planetary health is a dangerous delusion; whether it arose from a wet market or a Wuhan lab, the pandemic is a product of our catastrophic abuse of nature. The causes of the climate crisis also increase the risk of pandemics. As well as being a leading source of emissions, deforestation for agricultural and livestock purposes is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide, and forces wild animals into potentially harmful contact with people. Large farms and markets often facilitate the transfer of infections between species.
Since James Lovelock developed Gaia theory in the 1960s, we’ve had a scientific rationale for what all of us are capable of intuiting, that life on earth has evolved as a single, self-regulating, self-sustaining system. Yet we usually act as if this is not the case, as if we are separate from nature and its resources are inexhaustible. Whether we agree with their tactics or not, movements like Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate show how the young grasp this more clearly and are increasingly less willing to acquiesce in our suicidal self-delusion. As Einstein pointed out, we can’t solve a problem using the same logic that got us into it. We should replace our reductionist thinking with a little of Bacon’s inductive approach of synthesising all the available evidence. It’s not a matter of succumbing to anxiety, but of facing up to the reality of the holistic nature of the multifaceted crisis we face, and of channelling our fear into finding a solution. If kids can figure that out, adults should be able to as well.