There is no doubt that our mental health is linked to the health of our environment. Clean air, green spaces, and drinkable water are integral to maintaining our peace of mind. And when the health of our environment is threatened, it can often cause disturbances in our souls. This is what we call climate stress.
This is the subject of the following interview with József Hézl, mental health professional, organizational development consultant, and teacher, editor of ahaelmeny.hu. The respondent is Bence Horváth, law student, Young Ambassador of MTVSZ - FoE Hungary
What do you see on people when they hear about climate protection?
I think people are becoming more interested in the issue. That's a big change because it wasn't the case a few decades ago. For example, a few years ago, if you were talking about climate change, climate, and environmental protection in a company, people would just shrug their shoulders and say it's all nonsense, it's just making small things bigger. This is partly understandable, of course, because it is difficult to see a problem if you are not even aware of the nature of the problem itself. The truth is that we have all been born into a system here in Europe, and in other developed countries around the world, that is fundamentally unsustainable. It is very true to say that just because everyone is doing something does not mean that it is right and desirable. Our habits, our way of life, our whole economic system are built on the wrong foundations. This is the realization that more and more people are coming to.
Of course, the main reason for this is, on the one hand, that people in the 21st century are already feeling the adverse effects of climate change in their everyday lives and, on the other hand, that, quite rightly, there is an increasing emphasis on this issue, both in public life and in people's everyday lives. The emphasis is on awareness. The more people are informed about the effects of climate change, the more think that this is an important issue, and there is already a desire among people to demand real climate protection.
Do you see people's views changing on this?
I see that more and more people are realizing the need for climate protection. Humanity is slowly beginning to realize that instead of chasing economic gains and money, we should be looking at the destruction we have done to our oceans, our forests, our land, our air, for example, practically everywhere on this planet. And because the Earth is our home, we have, in our greed, practically committed this destruction against ourselves. Because let us be honest, our Earth is dying and nature is giving us its last cries for help with more and more natural disasters, droughts, melting ice, or now the coronavirus epidemic, which has also become a pandemic, born of humanity's intransigence.
How persuadable are they?
The best way to convince people is to explain to them, by means of very simple examples, why they should or should not do something. For example, if you tell your neighbor, "Look, don't throw that plastic bottle you've been using in the municipal waste, you're polluting the environment". He will probably say, why, it's just a bottle, what does it matter, there are much bigger problems than that. But if you explain to him that billions of PET bottles worldwide are not recycled every day because of this and that they will sit in a pile somewhere in nature for 400-500 years, with the microplastic pieces that decompose from them polluting our soil and groundwater, he might say that you are right, from now on I will always collect my waste selectively.
But if you also tell him the interesting fact that tap water has 95% fewer microplastics in it than bottled water, he may never buy bottled water again, but simply get a canteen that he can refill anywhere, anytime. That's the way I believe. People need to know why it's okay and worthwhile to do what they do, and if they embrace these facts, they will be fully persuaded.
Are they willing to make changes to reduce the environmental burden?
Once something has become a habit, it is very difficult to change it. But people have to step out of their comfort zone, even if they want to change. I can tell you this best from my own example. I used to be a big carnivore. Typically a man who ate meat with meat. But since I've become aware of the environmental burden the meat industry has on the Earth - from deforestation for feed to chemicals to massive methane and carbon emissions - I've gradually started to give up meat. At first, I went meat-free one day a week. Then it became two, three, four. Now I'm at the point where I sometimes 'forget' to eat meat in a week. I'm fine without it. I'm happier, healthier, innocent animals don't die, and I'm also putting significantly less strain on the environment. I think there are many people, and more and more, who are making some small or big change to make their lives greener. The key is never to expect yourself or anyone else to make radical changes overnight. Of course, it can be done. But let's strive for gradualness.
By doing this, we often realize that it is much more rational to do things this way than the way we used to do them. This realization is the whole point because green solutions are not only environmentally friendly, they are also rational. And once we realize this in the process of change, we can't imagine our lives without these "new habits".
What is climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety is the anxiety and depression caused by climate change. Many people feel that they have been let down by policymakers in the fight against climate change and therefore see their future as bleak, which leads to anxiety. The symptoms can be many: feelings of helplessness, insomnia, panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, excessive stress. These symptoms can also affect the mental and physical health of the individual. It is a very serious problem which unfortunately is not being addressed with sufficient attention by the public or by professionals. Yet in Hungary, according to the latest Alto survey, 87% of young people are experiencing some degree of anxiety about climate change.
What can individuals do about it?
Of course, it is important to be aware of the adverse effects climate change will have on our future and to know that we really cannot be too optimistic about our future as things stand. But we also need to know that the situation can still be changed. But to do so, we must act. So I urge everyone to act. Let's do some research, let's be aware of the environmental problems in our environment, in our way of life, that we can change. Let's live in an environmentally friendly, sustainable way, let's set an example for our environment, and encourage others to do the same. If we focus on solutions and action rather than problems, we are doing good not only for the environment but also for ourselves.
What would you say to people about this?
Tell them not to give up hope. Even though the situation often seems hopeless and we may feel that there are few of us who really care about the climate crisis and even fewer who want to make a difference. So sometimes saving our planet can seem like a world-changing task. But this is not true. The reality is that there are many of us who have that goal. Millions of people around the world are working every day to stop man's destructive activities and to find solutions that will move us towards a green and sustainable future. I would like to highlight the work of international and non-governmental organizations, which are the driving force behind this.
So it is our task to do our part in our own lives, in our own environment, to join domestic environmental NGOs, to volunteer, to make a difference, because only by working together can we keep our Earth a place that will still be fit for human life thousands of years from now.