Episode 19

Welcome to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for curious, thoughtful, creative, and beautiful advanced English learners like you. Remember to make the most of this episode. Use the interactive transcript and Quizlet sets for self-study available at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. Whenever I refer to a resource such as an article, video or website it will be linked from the transcript. Finally, you can also follow me on Instagram at BetterLanguageLearning for a wide-range of materials for C1 and C2 English learners and the people who teach them.

This spring I joined a small working group of teachers and psychologists concerned with the issue of mental health in education. Miriam is based in Germany, where she teaches English and German in a state school. Gabriela is in Uruguay, where she is a practising teacher and psychologist. María is in Mexico, where she teaches English in a secondary school. And finally there’s Rosemary, who’s a psychologist in Montreal. Oh, and then there’s me, who teaches English to young adults in Barcelona. In our most recent session we discussed the topic of suicide among children and teenagers, as this is an issue María had brought up. She told us that more and more of her students seemed to be struggling with mental health issues and that she felt ill-equipped to handle this crisis. According to her the attitude among most teachers is that these problems are simply someone else’s problem to deal with.

To get the discussion going we read a recent piece from The New Yorker entitled The Mystifying Rise of Child Suicide. The writer is an acquaintance of a family whose teenaged son ended up dying by suicide. It’s a very moving piece of writing and to be honest it doesn’t really give any clear answers or quick fixes. Still, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. As we were discussing it, I said to the group that maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that suicide seems appealing in the world we live in. And by world, I don’t mean that I think the world is objectively awful, far from it. But nowadays so many of us experience life through the prism of the social media feeds on our phones. And that means we’re receiving a steady stream of bad news to disrupt our nervous systems.

What happens when we see the the world through the prism of social media? What gets distorted? What becomes invisible?

As I mentioned back in Episode 9, Marshall McLuhan wisely pointed out that the media are an extension of our nervous system. Thanks to neuroscience research we now know that the human brain doesn’t reach full maturity until the mid-twenties, and yet we allow teenagers and sometimes even children unfettered access to smartphones without an adult to mediate all that information. We are all dysregulating our nervous systems through our constant exposure to media and we forget how woefully unprepared the young are for this full on attack.

Yes, this is kind of dark, but bear with me. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I was listening to an episode of the CBC podcast Ideas, called Generation dread: Finding purpose in an age of climate crisis. It’s an interview with Britt Wray, a researcher in the intersection of climate change and mental health. She claims that young people are disproportionately affected by the grief that climate change causes. Feelings of powerlessness and dread are widespread among youth and there’s even a sense of betrayal, that governments are not facing the crisis head on. As she points out, surveys reveal that young people are less likely to want children of their own because of this sense of environmental doom and gloom. And this comes as no surprise – I’ve heard plenty of people around me saying similar sorts of things.

Ikigai: that sweet spot where your skills, values and material well-being converge with the broader needs of society.

What’s important about Britt Wray’s message isn’t that we should give up hope. Her point is that we should not turn a blind eye to young people’s eco-anxiety, that we should acknowledge it is real and that it deserves attention. She recommends Dr. Ayana Johnson’s Climate Action Venn Diagram, which requires that you answer three questions, namely 1) What are you good at? 2) What brings you joy? and 3) What work needs doing?. Finding how these three things overlap allows you to define how you, as an individual, can help work to put an end to climate change. Those of you familiar with the Japanese concept of “ikigai” will recognise that this is basically a variation on that idea.

So, in my case, I’m good at writing and teaching – or at least I hope so. And researching new ideas and sharing them brings me joy. And clearly there’s a need for greater awareness of the existence of eco-anxiety and ways to process it. So, maybe my personal Climate Action Venn Diagram is about sharing this message. At least that’s a beginning.

Now maybe you don’t think climate change matters enough to you. But I’m pretty sure you underestimate how much you care. I think when people feel powerless they would rather convince themselves that they don’t care rather than admit there’s a problem. Let’s take a simple example. Lately when I think about the amount of plastic waste I generate as a single person every day I wonder where it all goes. And I feel a slight twinge of guilt every time I buy something packaged in plastic. Imagine if we all did something with that wasted energy, rather than just pretending nothing can be done? In a way I think these constant small moments of awareness when we realise our behaviour isn’t sustainable are like a tax that slowly drains us. Britt Wray refers to this as cognitive dissonance, which according to VeryWellMind.com is basically “the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values or attitudes”.

Going back to the crisis in mental health among young people. Maybe it’s just that they aren’t as good at managing this cognitive dissonance. Those of us who are older may see our tolerance for this conflict as a sort of necessary pragmatism, but the young may see it as nothing less than hypocrisy.

To give you an idea of how we can use art to see climate change and environmental protection through a different perspective I asked my friend Julie Sperling to speak about her work as an artist focused on climate change. Julie has a background in science – she is a policy analyst with Environment and Climate Change Canada. She creates mosaics dealing with environmental issues and has won numerous awards including the 2019 Members’ choice award at Mosaic Arts International. I asked her what motivated her to start creating art and what others can do.

Hi there, I’m Julie Sperling and I make art about climate change and the Anthropocene. I wouldn’t say I was feeling any sort of ecological anxiety when I started my work. It was more kind of born out of a feeling of disengagement. I was just at this point where I was completely saturated. With articles coming out every day about how things were much worse than scientists initially thought, and I, you know I found myself. Thinking, wow, like if I’m at this point where my eyes are kind of glazing over and I’m saying like yeah, yeah I know it’s bad, you know, and I’m someone who’s arguably quite invested in this topic, how are people who are less immersed in it supposed to really care?

For Berta (They Fear Us Because We Are Fearless), Julie Sperling, 2019

And so it started as a way to engage others in this dialogue, and also to re-engage myself. That said, over the years my ecological grief and anxiety have definitely gotten worse, and I found that art for me is a really great outlet, not just to kind of deal with what I’m feeling right, because art is a great sort of, is very therapeutic, you know no matter what kind of art it is. But because I specifically work on climate change making that art is also a way for me to feel like I’m contributing in some way.

Now of course it’s also a bit of a double-edged sword for me, because in making these pieces, these pieces of art, I end up sitting with a topic for weeks on end, and I really kind of go on a deep dive and get to know them quite intimately, and so it can really send me into a funk, if I’m not careful, so it’s a really interesting strike a balance.

But I think really like the general wisdom out there is that one of the best ways to deal with any sort of eco-anxiety that you’re feeling is to get active and to contribute in some way. And what’s really interesting about climate change is that it touches everything, right, it touches every facet of our lives and so literally any skill or interest that you have, you can put that to use in working to find solutions and so of course that includes art, but it also includes anything else that you can imagine. Ayana Johnson has this really amazing Venn diagram to help people think through how they can contribute based on their unique kind of skills and passions. I’d really actually recommend checking that out, if you’re looking to find your niche as a way of channelling your eco-anxiety, or if you’re just looking to get involved and contribute in some way.

Check out Julie Sperling’s portfolio here.

Vocabulary Summary

feel ill-equipped to handle a problemfeel unprepared to deal with a problem
see something through the prism of something elseused to talk about how something affects how you see a situation, because of how a prism refracts light
unfettered accessformal, unrestricted access
be woefully unpreparedbe extremely unprepared, in a way that’s sad or pathetic
dread somethingfeel anxious or worried about something that is going to happen or may happen
face something head onif you face something such as a problem head on, you do not try to avoid it, but deal with it in a direct and determined way
turn a blind eye to somethingdeliberately ignore something that you know should not be happening
acknowledgeadmit or accept that something is true or that a situation exists
feel a twinge of something: a sudden short feeling of physical or mental discomfort such as pain, guilt, envy, sadness or jealousy
drainIf something drains you it makes you feel very tired and without any energy
disengagementwhen you are no longer interested in something
my eyes are kind of glazing overIf your eyes glaze over, they stay still and stop showing any emotion because you are bored or tired or have stopped listening
be invested in somethingbe committed to a project
griefextreme sadness, especially because someone you love has died
a double-edged swordsomething that seems to be good, but that can have a bad effect
send you into a funkinformal, when something makes you sad, worried or afraid
strike a balancegive the correct amount of importance or attention to two separate things
a facetone of several parts of someone’s character, a situation, etc.

Thanks for listening. I would love to know what your Climate Change Venn Diagram looks like. Send me an email to podcast@BetterLanguageLearning.com and let me know.

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