Understanding Climate Change Anxiety in Rural Communities

Climate change can impact people’s mental health in many ways. Natural disasters such as droughts and forest fires can cause displacement, economic stress, and impacts to livelihood. But climate change can also fuel feelings of uncertainty, guilt, despair and anxiety. Recently, the Oxford English Dictionary included a new word: eco-anxiety, which refers to people’s anxiety in regards to climate change. The American Psychological Association describes eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.”

Those in farming and rural communities may be more directly impacted by climate change, as their livelihood often depends on environmental factors. The uncertainty and sense of impending change can cause many people significant distress, including a sense of grief and loss as their way of life becomes more precarious.

To understand more about how mental health and climate change are linked, we interviewed Sage Palmedo, a scientist and artist currently pursuing an MD at Dartmouth Medical School while starting a regenerative farm in her rural community.

Can you tell me more about your regenerative farm in Claremont and what prompted you and your partner to begin this endeavor?

We are just starting the process of regenerating a 12-acre piece of property in Claremont, New Hampshire. We are new to rural living—both of us are from more suburban communities, but we share a sense of connection to the Earth and are excited to learn about the local history and culture from our new neighbors.

When we first met, my partner told me he wanted to own a farm someday. At the time, I was the manager of our college’s student-run garden, where we grew vegetables, herbs, and fruits for the college dining hall. I was also studying ecology, which is essentially the interconnected nature of life. I was learning how intelligent the Earth is — plants, animals, fungi, and even soil microbes are all listening to each other at any given moment, coordinating their rhythm of life with one another and exchanging nutrients in a dynamic balance. As I learned more about growing food, I was gaining perspective on the cycles of life and death, and how my actions were connected to the fabric of the planet. I learned about industrial farming and its damaging effects on our ecosystems and our health.

Studying at Princeton showed me how our country was founded upon a distinction between people who grew food and people who had food grown for them. It also showed me how this distinction has manifested itself across the globe and impacted humanity’s relationship with Earth. I started to understand how the evolution of our species into an industrial society—with the powerful extracting from the disempowered—has led to pollution of our Earth, the pollution of our homes, and the pollution of our bodies. In a way, this society has also polluted our minds, by convincing us we don’t have the power to change it.

While my partner and I embark on our farming journey, our goal is to transition into a way of life that feels more connected with the Earth. We recognize that, although this land has a complex colonial history, we are all native to Earth and can adopt a sense of responsibility to heal the disconnect between our species and the rest of the planet. Our first step will be to grow as much of our own food as we can, prioritizing fruit trees, nut trees and other perennials. We are inspired by permaculture as well as Indigenous philosophies of farming—but are still in the early stages of understanding how to homestead and farm, since neither of us came from self-sufficient families. Our ultimate goal will be to share the food we grow with our community, share our philosophy of love, and share what we learn about self-sufficiency, health, and sustainability.

Many people experience distress around climate change, especially those in rural communities whose livelihoods are so closely linked to the environment. What are some strategies for working through these anxieties, and what are some actions that we can take as a community?

I think the first step in addressing our emotions around climate change is to gain an awareness of the causes of climate change. The layers of society that create stress within your body—hierarchies, lack of empathy, corporate profit over people—are the same layers that are responsible for the climate collapse we’re experiencing. Societal structures have disconnected us from Earth’s natural cycles over the past several generations. Instead of thinking about climate change as the source of our anxiety, we can start to understand climate change and psychological stress as interrelated processes. With this perspective, we can start to combine the act of healing ourselves and healing the Earth into one journey—reclaiming our power to heal from a society that profits from the Earth’s collective disempowerment.

One helpful affirmation that we can continue to emphasize to ourselves, and to one another, is that we are not alone. You are not alone. All of life on Earth is in this together—interconnected, interdependent, and alive. You are part of the fabric of Earth, participating in a flow of energy that encircles the planet. Allow yourself to recognize your power, and connect to the present moment. Reality only exists in the present—in the “now”—and everything else is just a story we tell. You have the power to create the story of life on Earth that arises from this moment onwards.

An essential principle of health that applies internally as well as externally is the principle of connection. We can heal from Earth’s collective imbalance simply by listening more deeply to our planet and to one another. Where in your community can you help create more feelings of connectedness toward each other and toward the Earth? This could take an infinite number of forms: inviting non-judgmental conversations, sharing your feelings and perspectives with others, offering to help one another grow communal food or trade offerings… Even if you don’t see things the same way as your neighbor, what do you share? Where can we strengthen our bonds with each other in the support of an interconnected planet? The more connected we become, the more our bodies, minds, and planet will benefit. The first step is to get the conversation going, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution—like our landscapes, our communities are all unique. And you have a unique gift to share with the world in this healing process!

You mentioned you’re interested in cultivating mind-body health and resilience. As a medical student and someone involved in farming, can you talk about how these two worlds intersect and inspire you to cultivate community wellbeing?

While the medical system has traditionally treated the mind and body separately, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that the mind and body are profoundly interconnected.

Human societies used to orient around our relationship with the Earth, growing food from the Earth and preparing communal meals. These behaviors—time spent interacting with the Earth, in community—nourished the mind and body at the same time.

In contrast, our global society of today is oriented towards profit. Compared to other regions of the world, North American agriculture consists of larger farms which place more emphasis on machines, chemicals, and genetically modified crops. Big agricultural companies have actively shaped governmental food policy, and as a result, our farmers must meet the demands of the industrial food system to stay financially secure. Driving across the landscape, it is easy to find farms where one single plant species is grown over a large area, year after year—genetically modified corn and soy among the most common. This industrial style of farming undermines the health of the Earth, degrading the microbiome of the soil. It also is the main style of farming used in the production of processed foods; and although a large portion of the foods we consume are processed and packaged, these foods have been shown to disrupt the microbiome within our bodies, undermining our mental and physical health. Industrial farming is a feedback system where, as the health of our soils and our bodies degrades, corporations can profit off of chemicals and engineered seeds that are marketed to fix our problems.

Many healthcare providers have started to recognize the role of nutrition in disease prevention, using the phrase “food is medicine.” Despite this understanding, medical doctors are trained to treat metabolic disease at the individual level, often with medications or surgery. Doctors are not trained to address the root cause of metabolic disease—the industrial food system. Conventional farming treats the land like a machine, and similarly, conventional medicine treats the body like a machine.

Regenerative farming entails working towards a food system that cultivates health on the planet and within our bodies. Despite our mechanical culture, ecological science teaches us that in reality, the land is alive, exchanging information with our bodies at all times. We would like to honor and heal the Earth in the farming process, using the inherent intelligence of nature to nurture the natural intelligence within us. Stress-reduction is an intergenerational process, so the cultural shift towards a healthier society will be gradual. We hope that by cultivating a loving, egalitarian relationship with the Earth beneath our feet, we can play one small role in the collective effort to build an economy centered around human and planetary wellbeing.