Don’t turn our eco-anxiety into ego-anxiety: Have eco-empathy

Pre-COP Workshop, 27 Oct 2019

Credit: Samatha Thian

Hello everyone. Good to be here with you. I’m not going to pretend I know more than any of you because I don’t. None of us can claim to be experts in this adaptive challenge of climate change.

I spend too much of my life speaking and hearing my own voice in this current stage of my life, so I’m going to keep this short because I’d rather have a conversation with you all, then tell you.

There are so many aspects of eco-anxiety that we can discuss. But I’ll just share 3 very quick points on this:

  1. Eco-anxiety is real, and attributable.

Firstly, I am 100% convinced that eco-anxiety is real and definitely on the rise, especially amongst children and young people, because of the dystopia of the future due to climate change and therefore the despair and hopelessness associated with these environmental concerns. The media coverage, public protests and social sharing of climate change causes an intense fear of environmental collapse. The sheer magnitude of the problem is overwhelming for many. Combine this with feelings of little control in the midst of environmental crisis and feelings of anxiety can naturally arise. It is a psychological phenomenon yet I do not think it should be classified as a mental health condition because generalised anxiety disorder or GAD cannot typically be attributable to specific causes.

2. Eco-anxiety is different from mental health conditions caused by extreme weather events and climate-induced displacements

My second point is that we must clearly differentiate eco-anxiety from mental health conditions that arise for those affected by extreme weather events like survivors of Hurricane Katrina and increasing rates of suicides amongst farmers in rural Australia. The other group would be what we loosely call as ‘climate refugees’.

Among the public health consequences of climate change, environmentally induced forced migration is one of the harshest and most harmful outcomes, always involving a multiplicity of profound resource and social losses and frequently exposing migrants to trauma and violence. I heard a few stories directly from my friends in the Pacific islands when we met at a civic engagement forum by the US State Department last year. Therefore, one particular aspect of forced migration, the effects of population displacement on mental health and psychosocial functioning, deserves dedicated focus.

Thankfully there is increasing scholarship and research on this. In 2017 alone, 18 million people — 61.5 percent of global displacements — were forced to move due to natural disasters. A 2018 World Bank report estimated that by 2050, there would be 143 million climate change-driven migrants from the regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia alone. So the mental health challenge from this large-scale displacement should be of deep concern to us.

3. Don’t turn eco-anxiety into ego-anxiety, have eco-empathy: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are

My third point is back to eco-anxiety. There’s no disorder that you suffer from if you suspect you have eco-anxiety. I actually believe it is a healthy response on our part to what’s going on — we know what is causing our anxiety. More focus on climate chaos and the climate crisis is good to pressure governments and businesses to take action. But if you feel personally helpless and overwhelmed by all this, then that is something important to listen to and act upon.

As a life and leadership coach, my most common question to my clients is how can you unpack what makes you feel snowed under? What is the first thing you can do to signal to yourself that you are not stuck? Roosevelt said “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

We know that in Singapore, businesses contribute over 60% of our carbon emissions. We know that the Government can enact more climate crisis-appropriate policies. You can be angry about the evil Government and the evil businesses but it will be more helpful to your eco-anxiety if you channel that anger into concrete actions such as rallying a group of your fellow residents to go meet your MP, be part of a community organisation, do something in your workplace….

We know we must be part of the solution too for the other 40%. And again, we do what we can — since we are all at different stages of awareness, readiness and challenges in life .

At the personal level, I’ve started this journey a long while back. I gave up my car 10 years ago after 25 years of zipping around in convenience. I became a vegetarian 10 years back and then a vegan 2 years later so been a vegan for 8 years. None of this was imposed on me, it was part of the arduous work on myself that I had to do to get me out of the colossal complete collapse 12 years ago of a broken heart, a broken business and a seriously broken bank account. I started be more congruent in little aspects of my life, down to the eco friendly toilet bleach I use. Through this process, I made the change from inside out instead of outside in. I started living my life based on what truly matters to me. Because of this, none of the changes were any badge of honour to show so there was no sense of sacrifice or deprivation, it became natural and therefore sustainable. Going vegetarian and then vegan started out from a multiplicity of health, moral and environmental reasons all those years before science came to support it! I think a Oxford University study found that meat eaters are responsible for twice as much dietary green house emotions per day than vegetarians and 2.5 times more than vegans.

Having shared all that, I also urge us all to make sure that eco-anxiety doesn’t become ego-anxiety by thinking our way is the only way or the better way to solve this mammoth adaptive challenge, and to unintentionally create more guilt and despair, and eco-anxiety in others just because they don’t do what we do. I don’t impose even on my own family but change has happened, slowly but surely. Again, in a more sustainable manner.

So I would like to invite us all to exercisel eco-empathy even as we go out all to fight this climate crisis. For if we are truly honest, we all know that its humanity that we are saving, not the planet because Earth has always regenerated herself in the last 4.5 billion years. That realization was so visceral for me when I stood on millions of years of ice at Antarctica in the expedition last year, feeling like a transgressor at the same time. I hope we don’t lose our humanity with each other in our collective effort in climate change actions. I sometimes think that is our bigger test, and may be our only test in climate crisis.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to the conversation with you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at