In this article I propose the concept of anthropocenic emotions in order to capture the multiple interconnections between emotions and ecology. Building on this, I make a case for placing emotions at the heart of ecological debates and action, and related scholarly inquiries.
The ecological crisis is first and foremost a crisis of emotions: at the core of our broken relationship with the planet lies a broken emotional connection with it. We seem to be stuck in a paradox: we are paralyzed by increasing anxiety for the future, yet fail to be moved enough to implement the urgent societal changes needed to avoid ecological collapse.
The overwhelming evidence of ecological degradation and climate change catastrophes, the direct experience of millions of affected populations around the world, the endless appeals to consumer common sense and intergenerational solidarity, have all failed to produce changes. Neither fear, nor logic, nor ethics seem to have a grip on our consciousness, which remains firmly focused on “me, here, now.” Psychologists tell us that our minds, especially in times of uncertainty, resist stretching to consider the future, or the well-being of others beyond our immediate family (Hornsey and Fielding 2020; Spence et al. 2012).
This propensity for “me, here and now,” in part, explains the continuous rise of the ideologies at the roots of the ecological crisis: individualism, capitalism, and neoliberalism. Behind these ideologies lie ideas of unlimited growth and progress; they ignited the industrial revolution, which was in turn made possible by the unequal and exploitative practices of colonialism and imperialism, which in turn thrived on the abominable justification of the institution of slavery. As Kathryn Yusoff (2018) shows, a continuous thread of exploitation and subjugation connects slavery to the Anthropocene.
Colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism are all born out of the same emotional response to the world: greed—a desire to own, dominate, and exploit anyone and everything, human beings, animals, plants, and landscapes.
These broad historical socio-cultural and economic ideologies and processes were permeated and fueled by specific emotions. In the same way that human actions are motivated by emotions at individual level (Lerner et al. 2015), so do emotions underpin larger historical dynamics. Colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism are all born out of the same emotional response to the world: greed—a desire to own, dominate, and exploit anyone and everything, human beings, animals, plants, and landscapes. Greed has been so blindingly powerful as to effectively prime over other emotions such as empathy, which might have led us down different historical paths.
It seems trivial to state that change is urgently needed. The ecological crisis impels us to think in terms of deep time and planetary systemic interconnectedness, this entails a comprehensive and radical paradigmatic shift in the way we think, feel, and act. But how to go about it? If fear, logic, and ethics have failed, what else might pierce through our irresponsible oblivion?
Emotions such as greed might lie at the roots of the problem, yet once again emotions might offer insights into a way out of this impasse and inaction.
Emotions and Ecology
The importance of emotions in the way we perceive and respond to the world cannot be overemphasized: emotions are crucial to our attention, communication, memory, learning, and decision-making, and, by extension, to our sense of identity (Barrett et al. 2016).
Emotions and ecology are intimately interconnected in complex, unpredictable ways that defy simplistic and deterministic assumptions.
Emotions and ecology are intimately interconnected in complex, unpredictable ways that defy simplistic and deterministic assumptions, such as positive emotions leading to positive environmental action, and vice versa negative emotions leading to negative outcomes. The picture appears to be much more nuanced. Studies in ecopsychology (Roszak et al.1995; Rust & Totton 2018) and environmental philosophy (Albrecht 2019; Belshaw 2014) reveal the deep connections between our mental health and the integrity of our environment. As the state of our planet worsens, we experience increasing levels of eco-anxiety, despair, anger, and solastalgia.1
These feelings should not be dismissed nor suppressed. Anxiety, anger, and grief are not pathological but ‘healthy’ adaptative psychological responses, which signal an assessment of the situation and an appropriate reaction to its gravity (Clayton 2020). There is also evidence that negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, can actually motivate positive environmental action (Stanley et al. 2021). In addition, experiencing negative emotions such as grief for ecological losses carries a performative and transformative potential: we can share our sorrow with others through participation in mourning ceremonies; this creates “affective communities” (Zink 2019), which can bring about solace and healing, and support pro-environmental action and ethical transformation (Cunsolo and Landman 2017; Barnett 2022).
Positive emotions, such as awe and wonder, appear to promote pro-environmental behaviour (Sander et al. 2018; Yang et al. 2018; McShane 2018). Psychologist Dacher Keltner (2023: 7) defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” Awe is a self-transcendent emotion, where the experience of being surpassed and overwhelmed by something bigger than ourselves shrinks our ego and promotes feelings of communion with others (Stellar et al. 2017), as well as a pro-environmental disposition (Zelenski and Desrochers 2021). If positive emotions appear to promote environmentally conscious behaviour, the reverse is also true: when engaging in pro-environmental action we experience a positive feeling, or a so-called “warm glow” (Taufik et al. 2015), which can act as an efficacious self-reward and motivational lever.
From Palaeolithic cave paintings to the exotic specimens collected in Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the ever-lasting fascination for Sir David Attenborough BBC nature documentaries, it seems we have never ceased to marvel in front of natural beauty and mystery. We need emotions like awe and wonder to counter indifference and cynicism, and make the soil of our beings fertile again for hope, projects, and dreams—no future can be imagined, let alone constructed, without them. Yet positive emotions too can be ambivalent. As environmental philosopher Joshua Trey Barnett (2022: 3) reminds us, it is not enough to profess ‘love’ for the planet, this only raises new ethical questions about who and what we love (and do not), and why.
Becoming more aware of the nuances and implications of our feelings for the planet may lead us to become more competent and precise in expressing and acting upon those feelings.2 Then, evoking feelings of love for the planet in the face of ecological decline will not be naive statements, but rather acts of courage, commitment, and resistance.
I suggest the concept ofanthropocenic emotions in order to capture this nexus of complex and ambivalent interrelations between emotions and ecology in the Anthropocene. Anthropocenic emotions refer to the broad spectrum of emotions (greed, despair, sorrow, anger, guilt, anxiety, but also hope, awe and wonder, among many others) engendered by ecological relationships—that is by being in relationship with the planet. This concept enables and invites an analytical focus on the quality and implications of the interrelations between our feelings and ecology.
Negative and positive causality appear to be messily entangled with each other. Emotions such as greed negatively influenced the course of history and contributed to the current disaster; in parallel, we are increasingly negatively affected by ecological destruction, as evidenced by raising levels of eco-anxiety, anger, guilt, and despair. Yet, as mentioned, these same emotions might trigger positive changes in our behaviour and even promote deep ethical shifts (as in the case of ecological grief and mourning). Accomplishing something good for the planet makes us feel better (the “warm glow” effect) and fosters emotional resilience, yet we might ask, is our love really unconditional and uninterested?
A focus on anthropocenic emotions helps us disentangle these ambivalent interrelations by making visible the connections between emotions and the specific features and tenets (including emotional) of the Anthropocene. Anthropocenic emotions emphasize the deep embeddedness of emotions in the ecological crisis and cast light on the agentive character of emotions—feelings make us do things.
Addressing the ecological crisis requires that we delve into its affective dimensions, present and historical; only by addressing the emotional aspects of the crisis, can we move towards sustainability, well-being, and action. Given their relevance, emotions should have a central place in ecological debates. Ecology simply cannot be non-affected—indeed there are calls for “emotional ecologies” that consider emotions an integral part of ecology (Morgan 2022).
Anthropocenic emotions are an invitation to counter cynicism and indifference by engaging fully with the whole spectrum of emotions we are capable of, as a way of being alive and responsive in front of ecological destruction.
A greater awareness of the connections between emotions and ecology opens opportunities for more pointed interdisciplinary collaboration across the environmental humanities, the affective sciences, and the environmental and natural sciences, and creates opportunities to apply new insights to promote ecological action. More broadly, anthropocenic emotions are an invitation to counter cynicism and indifference by engaging fully with the whole spectrum of emotions we are capable of, as a way of being alive and responsive in front of ecological destruction.
Averting ecological collapse might require wiser governance and new technologies, but it also demands individual and collective responsibility for what we choose to feel for this planet. Emotions can become pathways to more dignified, non-exploitative ways to be human in a post-Anthropocenic world.
Feature Image: Spiritual Tree, Solarisation, Nevit Dilmen, 2006, Wikimedia Commons.
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1 Philosopher Glenn Albrecht defined solastalgia as “the pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory. It is the existential and lived experience of negative environmental change, manifest as an attack on one’s sense of place.” (2019: 38; 2005).
2 In the same vein, Glenn Albrecht (2019) developed a new vocabulary to grasp the many nuances of ‘earth emotions’, including a range of positive (terranascient) and negative (terraphthoric) emotions.
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