Sense of Purpose

Everyone gets depressed from time to time. Some people very rarely, some much of the time. And then there’s the difference in the depths experienced. Some tendencies are suggested to be genetic, some bio-chemical, some stirred by material conditions. I have been a therapist and in therapy, a social worker and a parent, a teacher and a student, a lover and a hater. I have no qualifications to make heady statements about the causes or effects of depression. I simply experience it like any other human being.

There is much being written about our children becoming more prone to depression, not least because of the knowledge of climate change. I’m certainly in no position to quantify the causes of what appears to be an epidemic as large as the predicted impact of the Coronavirus. For example, at least 1 in 4 young women are suffering identifiable and seriously impacting depression in Britain at any one time, and male suicide is increasing amongst our young. Identification of depression is being recorded in ever larger proportions of younger and younger children.

This cannot be blamed upon we, the disparaged “doom-mongers” of the Climate Movement, although some do. We have had the discussion and tested the theory that doing something, taking action, joining with others to shout-out against Ecocide and Extinction is the best antidote to climate depression.

This is not so much a question of having Hope but Purpose. Hope is as ephemeral as Joy or Happiness. These are each emotional exceptions, momentary sensations that come-and-go and cannot be relied upon. People report moments of pleasure even from inside a prison cell and when hope isn’t present.

Purpose, by contrast, offers some consistency, stability and solidity. Emotions can rise and fall by the hour, day or week, but having a goal, committing to a cause, offers a sense of purpose that can balance the highs and lows.

This is not to say that people prone to depression are vulnerable to being coerced into being recruited into extremist sects or cults. True, the deepest depressions are wholly disabling and require help and support and a safe space well away from the demands of society in crisis. And we all have our vulnerabilities, our Achilles Heel.

But for most of us, depression does not blind us to rational thought even if it may colour perception. We can still perceive the inadequacies of an argument, the lies inside a fraud, the gaps in a theory. When someone says that half of all life on Earth faces extinction, or predicts that global heating is accelerating at such an unprecedented rate that we face societal collapse, the vast majority of human beings, young and old, require a sufficiency of evidence.

So I reject accusations that climate activists are scaremongering, hoodwinking, exploiting, oppressing or grooming the striking school students and young adults. The scientific evidence, best triangulated and double-checked well away from Wikipedia, is as close to absolute as is possible in a universe of no absolutes.

But it may be true that those advocating Hope are indeed hoodwinking us, and therein lies a challenge. Their individualist remedies – turning down the central heating and wearing more layers instead, recycling plastic, using public transport instead of having a car – may make us feel like we’re doing something for the Planet but may just as well make us feel all the more powerless and depressed, as well as less comfortable.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t all do our bit, but even Extinction Rebellion notes that, with an average (always a deeply flawed statistical tool) annual emission of around 7.5 tonnes per person (UK), were we to live a hair-shirt existence in an unheated yurt and picking berries we could not reduce our average below 4.5 tonnes. Why? Because we cannot escape being one of 60+ million people living on the island of Britain. Such is the law of averages.

It is the construct of Society, the sum-total of inter-relations and interactions of human beings, that is the source of the global heating gases that are rapidly increasing global temperatures at a speed and intensity not seen in the past 2 million years (at least). And so a society so damaging has to be reorganised if we are to prevent extinction. The System in which we live cannot and will not continue as it is, in the very near short term.

That is a harrowing and unnerving fact. Whether six years old or sixty, the prospect of the future needing to be like nothing you have experienced, or are familiar with, or are used to is daunting if not depressing. Unless, of course, the current system continues to offer you so little, such discomfort, so little Hope that the prospect of something else and indeed something better than this is truly inspiring.

I’m not suggesting that the Environment and Climate Movement is offering any Pie-in-the-Sky promises. The situation is dire and we shouldn’t be blamed for saying so. It is still the case that the majority of young people are either wholly uniformed or misinformed about the Climate Emergency. Extreme weather conditions are not the source of the depressed emotional climate.

Much of the depression of our current youth is documented as being about current social pressures – body shape, bullying, gangs, academic testing and competition – indeed all the alienation ensured by neoliberal capitalist society, little to do with any predictions of potential climate collapse.

What we can offer is the possibility of another world, a more inclusive, sharing, less pressurised existence. Becoming Carbon-Zero is indeed a daunting challenge but for all but the wealthiest 10% its far better than the alternative of continuing to live as we do now, let alone face the chaos and barbarism of societal collapse. And by recognising just how big a challenge we face we are not offering any level of false Hope, just death-defying Purpose.

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