Painting by Frederick McDonald

Anxiety, Climate Change, and the Sacred — Lessons from COVID-19

Cornell University
May 4 · 8 min read

By Karim-Aly Kassam

The tragedy of COVID-19, with its devastating loss of life and disruption to our food and social systems, will be a walk in the garden compared to the looming catastrophe of human induced climate change. As we tenuously begin to emerge out of this pandemic, our attention is returning to the shattering impact of climate change.

Farmers, fishers, gardeners, herders, hunters, orchardists and even tourism operators depend on seasonal variation for their livelihoods. They are not afraid of anticipated changes; they depend upon them. Seasonal changes in weather are necessary for the health of ecosystems and the organisms they sustain. Historically, the nexus of complex sociocultural, economic, and ecological systems such as the Silk Roads by land or Silk Route by shipping lanes linking Asia, Africa, and Europe depended on climatic variation for exchange of goods and ideas. Similarly, today international trade fundamentally depends on these seasonal changes for our food systems. Recognizing this simple fact is important in understanding the ability of our societies to adapt to change.

However, with human induced climate change the cause of anxiety is the rapidity, intensity, accompanying uncertainty, and the frequency of extreme weather events. The immediate impact of human induced climate change is uneven affecting certain communities more than others even though they did not contribute to its root causes. Indigenous Arctic, coastal, mountain and rural societies are at the vanguard of its impacts. We are already seeing the disruption to their livelihoods and a rising number of climate refugees. Like COVID-19, climate change exacerbates existing inequities. It is disproportionately affecting those members of our society who are most vulnerable even though they did not benefit significantly from the wealth that industrialization brought, which is the primary cause of climate change.

Again, COVID-19 gives us insight into the physical and mental health effects of climate change on these societies. In both cases we have had mixed messages of its dangers and cures. Myopic, self-serving leaders have downplayed the deleterious impacts of both on our lives and social structures. Moreover, they have been distressingly slow to react to the innumerable expense to lives and livelihoods.

Anxiety arising from climate change is not just related to the pervasive fear: will we react in time, or how will the collapse of other communities affect ours? Rather, it is also about an insidious and festering worry on what the future will look like for one’s livelihood in the next season as well as the wellbeing of children, and grandchildren. These anxieties are hard to perceive, let alone measure by health experts.

Painting by Frederick McDonald

Damaging psychological health impacts begin with disruptions to food systems. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 70–80 percent of the world’s food is produced by small-scale family farms. Even if these numbers are inflated, recent studies suggest there is no question that at the emergence of the third millennium, farmers and herders are central to their regional food systems. Increasingly farmer suicides are being reexamined in many rural and Indigenous societies as the overdetermined effects of climate change. Disruption and anxiety caused by human induced climate change affects not only their wellbeing but also the food security of large populations in cities who depend on their harvest.

With COVID-19 restrictions we are not able to attend churches, mosques, synagogues or temples in large numbers. While locked up with others in our homes, ironically the sense of isolation became unbearable, and many turned to our habitat in local parks or hiking trails to find relief and connect with something greater than ourselves. Virtual meetings while helpful, were insufficient. Even for those of us who engage our spiritual needs in a less public manner, the presence of other life in the outside environment was key to mental health during this pandemic. Arguably, human societies, urban or rural, from the north to the south, east to west, find meaning and peace by engaging one’s habitat with all its challenges and beauty. These spaces are not only a refuge for plants and other animals but also for us.

Sacred spaces are fundamental to our wellbeing on many levels and will provide succor during the most devastating impacts of climate change. Discussion of the sacred has always been considered a private matter in our secular society. Yet, climate change will turn our social norms upside down as anxiety will become pervasive. Among the Indigenous communities that I work with in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, the Circumpolar Arctic, and the Northern Forest. The sacred is embedded in their ecology and is fundamental to their food and livelihood systems. It encompasses human behavior including how one eats, works, and rests. Just like physical buildings are affected by weather related events such as avalanches, landslides, hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, and so on; similarly, sacred spaces in our habitat have a mortality to them because they may be irrevocably changed by the intensity and rapidity of climate events. Our relationship is characterized by intimate connectivity — as humans steward these spaces — in turn, these sacred places provide meaning, continuity, and hope. It is a reciprocal relationship which industrial civilization not only damaged, but largely fails to perceive.

Diverse ethnic societies of farmers, herders and hunters in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Xinjiang, developed ecological calendars to keep track of time and seasonal change. They used biophysical signs such as local topography in relation to sunlight, blooming of a plant, the arrival of a migratory bird, appearance of an insect, snow cover, or breakup of ice to indicate the start or conclusion of specific livelihood activities like ploughing, seeding, moving herds to pastures, harvesting, hunting and so on. Our research on these ecological calendars is showing that these observations included all the senses as a dynamic process of telling time, such as the soundscape of birds singing or the feel of heat from the soil. It was a complex relationship with sophisticated knowledge of their habitat. With industrialization and the imposition of Soviet and Chinese style communism, entire populations of Indigenous peoples were displaced in the Pamir Mountains. Furthermore, religious fanaticism imported into Afghanistan through a global war localized also has had destructive impacts. As a result of all these external colonial forces, these calendars and the knowledge associated with their use was actively suppressed, and subsequently, eroded. By recounting these facts, I am neither idealizing nor ignoring the weaknesses of these human communities, but simply recounting how a culture and its body of knowledge was diminished through imperialism. However, their legacy of insight was not entirely erased and can inform our thinking today.

Human society depends on ecological professions such as farmers and herders, who in turn, depend on seasonal change for their livelihoods. This does not mean that this variation did not produce a notable amount of anxiety. The difference is that in the past they could anticipate the difficulties that would befall them. As a result, Indigenous peoples in the Pamir Mountains built into their ecological calendars moments they spent for reflection and contemplation. They called these periods chilla commonly referring to the number forty; although, the exact number of days could vary significantly. These reflective periods, when livelihood activities were at a minimum, were a time to search for meaning by understanding the role of the ‘self’ in a greater web of life and human activity. The impact of the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic had the same impact on our civilization of hustle and bustle. We were forced to slow down and reflect. Travel was reduced and carbon emissions dropped as human activity was forcibly tempered to save lives. We took time to think by taking a clinical look at ourselves and how we treat others especially the vulnerable and diverse among us. The outrage at disproportionate deaths in certain groups within our societies due to the pandemic or police action became glaringly apparent even though it has existed for a long time. Historically in mountain landscapes, these moments of reflection took place within sacred spaces amid environmental markers such as streams, caves, ancient trees, rock formations and so on. Personal and sometimes painful realization is not just an internal contemplative exercise, it takes place within ecological spaces that provided an enabling environment for awareness. The people of the Pamirs have given humanity a legacy of how to deal with stress resulting not just from the strain of seasonal variation, but the day-to-day vagaries of life.

Can we consider building into our modern-day calendars, before the impacts of climate change accumulate to unbearable distress and debilitating anxiety, moments to pause and reflect on the impact of our actions towards ourselves, each other, and the earth that sustains us? I am not just speaking about Christmas and Thanksgiving Holidays or summer vacations which have become commercial boons. What if we actually situate moments throughout the year in both the summer and winter to pause and reflect, developing a deep sense of connectivity with our ecological space and the significance of our human activities. To make these times part of our children’s curriculum in both the social and biological sciences. To thoughtfully and meticulously think not only about our rights but our responsibilities towards each other and the planet. The global scale of COVID-19 has taught us that behavioral change is possible and can be rapidly achieved when human lives are at stake. Instead of engaging our lives on this planet from a self-centered perspective, COVID-19 offers an important lesson for addressing climate change by reorienting ourselves to a planet-centered self. Thus, recognizing our integral place in a world teeming with life.

Karim-Aly Kassam is International Professor of Environmental and Indigenous Studies at Cornell University and a 2020–21 Global Public Voices Fellow at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell. He has recently published an open access Chapter on “Anthropogenic Climate Change, Anxiety, and the Sacred” in Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds.

Frederick McDonald is an award-winning painter, photographer, and poet. He is a member of the Fort McKay First Nation, Alberta, Canada, and is a 2020–21 Global Public Voices Fellow at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University.