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Singing the Eco-Blues

A new study exploring eco-anxiety in Egypt hopes to inspire climate action across the country

By Abigail Flynn

A young man in Cairo loses sleep worrying about how the city’s pollution is worsening his mother’s asthma. Meanwhile, a teenage girl on the North Coast is wracked with daily anxiety as rising sea levels threaten to submerge her family home. As the consequences of climate change materialize and intensify, so does the impact they have on mental health.

Kate Ellis, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, studies how climate change is affecting young people in Egypt. “My research is on eco-anxiety. It’s a bit of an unusual term, but it refers to the emotional and psychological distress that people experience regarding climate change, like sadness, anger or anxiety,” Ellis explains.

These emotions can express themselves in different ways depending on an individual’s context. “For some people, climate change is threatening their very livelihoods, so their anxiety stems from their day-to-day struggles,” Ellis states. “At the same time, there are others whose lives haven’t been directly impacted, but they still have broader concerns about the world, their children and future generations.”

Interviewing individuals between the ages of 16 and 25 in Cairo, Alexandria, Marsa Alam and Assiut, Ellis has gained a comprehensive understanding of how the climate crisis is affecting people from different socioeconomic classes. After conducting these focus groups in collaboration with the Christian Blind Mission, an international organization that helps people with disabilities, Ellis attended COP27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, with an AUC delegation to present her findings.

One major difference that Ellis found was between individuals who live off the land and those who do not. “Anyone who is dependent on the agriculture, fishing or tourism sectors is going to be particularly affected by eco- anxiety. In Alexandria, for instance, many people are anxious because they have lost their homes to rising sea levels or pollution is causing them serious illness,” Ellis states.

Not everyone Ellis interviewed mentioned climate change specifically as the cause of their anxieties, but they were still very conscious of the changing environment.

“While many of these people would use a term other than ‘climate change,’ they were all aware of the environmental impacts that were affecting their lives and communities,” Ellis recalls. “We also want to raise awareness of what is causing these environmental impacts, that being climate change.”

Meanwhile, people who do not rely on agriculture, like Cairenes, express different concerns. “Focus groups in Cairo were more concerned about the state of the environment and economy,” Ellis says. “There was a lot of discussion about nonhuman life, how things like overfishing and river pollution would affect sea life and the economy.”

Understanding the types of anxieties young people in Egypt are facing and examining the sources of these stressors help researchers encourage a shift toward more sustainable behavior. For the last six years, Ellis has been working with various community projects that aim to improve sustainability all over Egypt, which is what inspired her to pursue the current eco-anxiety study.

“As people become more anxious due to climate change, they tend to become agitated and withdraw into themselves. You see this particularly in relation to extreme heat,” Ellis says about her general findings. “You hear a lot of teenagers saying they don’t want to have a family in the future because they’re concerned about losing their homes, not having enough money and the world generally falling apart.”

One major consequence of climate change and eco-anxiety is people losing a sense of agency. “Average people are angry at both the state and big business and industry. They perceive themselves as not being self-empowered,” Ellis explains. “The problem seems too big to address at an individual level.”

Ellis hopes to challenge this perception. “We want to show people they can make a difference at the individual and societal levels. There are so many youth groups doing work on climate change throughout Egypt, and we want to work with them to both improve education on climate change and potentially affect some sort of policy transformation,” she says.

For those suffering from eco-anxiety, Ellis emphasizes the importance of community dialog. “Letting people express how they’re feeling helps reduce anxiety and improve mood. Destigmatizing discussions about mental health is incredibly important,” she says.

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