An Existential Toolkit for climate anxiety

by Elizabeth Slocum
When Sarah Jaquette Ray ’98 sensed the pervasive hopelessness in her students, she knew it was time for a change of course.

Her environmental studies classes had once been full of upbeat nature lovers hoping to make careers of protecting the Earth. But something had shifted, Ray says, leading to long lines for her office hours and lots of tears.

“The students were despairing about how the Anthropocene has hit, and we are in this moment where humans have irreversibly affected nature,” says Ray, a professor at Humboldt State University in California with a background in the humanities and social justice. “This is no longer about protecting something. This is about human survival in a radically altered future.”

Ray’s syllabus had never shied away from these facts; for years, her courses offered a critical perspective of nature as situated in human activity, leading some students to reckon with their own complicity in environmental justice.

Over time, however, the students had grown more hip to these realizations before even entering the classroom, Ray says.

With each critical discussion, they drove closer to “What’s the point?” “The students themselves were so overwhelmingly despairing that they couldn’t even learn this material,” says Ray.

“The more I told them how bad things were, the more that just piled on this overwhelming intractability and interconnectedness to all the problems of the climate crisis and environmental degradation in general.”

The experience inspired Ray to write A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet (University of California Press, 2020). Pulling from psychology, sociology, and even Ray’s Swarthmore degree in religious studies, the book addresses the burnout and guilt felt by many of her students, and equips them to push forward in the fight against environmental threats. Ray calls it an “existential toolkit for the climate generation.”

Much of the guidance Ray offers in the book is also employed in her classroom.

“I’ve shifted a lot of my orientation toward things like building community over individualism,” she says. “And that goes everywhere, including how you arrange the seats in the class, who builds the syllabus. I also try to prioritize solution stories over negative stories and have students participate in radical imagination creation, without necessarily giving them the whole rationale behind why that’s important.”

Perhaps the biggest change, Ray says, is giving students the space to acknowledge their feelings. By encouraging them to journal their thoughts or check in with fellow classmates, they recognize they’re not alone.

It’s not therapy, she says, though it’s certainly therapeutic.

“American culture is so fetishizing of happiness that students never get permission to just have negative feelings and not have to make them go away,” she says. “If there’s anything that we can do, it’s to actually validate negative feelings. We don’t have to fix them, make them happy, therapize them, pathologize them, take medication, distract ourselves away from them, or even use the intellect as a solution. They’re a reasonable response to the reality we live in.”