A Tale of Two Fires: The Validity and Danger of Eco-Anxiety

Hannah Nelson is a sophomore history major.

01_Climate Change: GRAPHIC BY SOPHIE REICHERT/GRAPHICS CENTER 

When I was in first grade, the Chino Hills State Park, mere blocks from where I lived, was consumed by a brush fire. In October 2020, it was destroyed again, this time by the Blue Ridge Fire, and my family and I evacuated our home. The difference in 2020 was that this fire was not an uncommon or unavoidable disaster—it was part of a record-breaking wildfire season in California caused by climate change. 

In the months leading up to the Blue Ridge Fire, California was struggling with several other large fires. I remember seeing photos from San Francisco that September, with the sun hidden behind thick smoke coming from the Bear Fire of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

On a windy morning in October, the Blue Ridge Fire began spreading over the hills near my home. The possibility of wildfires in California had become so real that throughout the day, I remember hearing the wind and thinking how quickly a fire could start and spread. By the evening, we were told to be prepared to evacuate and were instructed to leave the next morning. Luckily, no houses in our neighborhood were damaged as the fire was stopped at the edge of the state park. However, when we returned, we were greeted by charred, blackened hills. With the smell of smoke lingering in the air, I felt sad seeing this expanse of hills I had admired since I was a child empty and burned. Additionally, I was scared about what this might mean for the future of the state park and other areas like it across the state. 

As a young person who has always cared passionately for the environment, I am deeply troubled about the effects of climate change in my lifetime and often feel like I am trapped in an inevitable process of environmental decline that began long before I was born. This is upsetting because I like to think that I can make a difference in my lifetime. However, when I see the effects of climate change worsening every year, it makes me feel like nothing I am doing is worthwhile. I am not the only one who feels this way. “Eco-anxiety,” is a term coined and defined by the American Psychological Association and the nonprofit ecoAmerica as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.” This feeling is very real for many people.

One fire is troublesome enough, but even more concerning is the dramatic increase in fires I’ve seen in my home state year after year. Growing up in Southern California, which is famous for being dry, I would hear about fires every few years. In recent years, however, several large fires burn annually, and it seems like the sky stays smoky for weeks on end. According to Cal Fire, 2020 was the largest wildfire season recorded in California’s modern history and saw the state’s first “gigafire,” the August Complex Fire, which burned more than 1 million acres. 

These wildfires can no longer be written off as unpredictable phenomenon. They are are a direct result of global climate change. While there are many factors that lead to wildfires, the LA Times reports that exaggerated conditions like heat waves, drying vegetation, and extreme weather events caused by climate change are a large part of the state’s extreme combustibility. 

Knowing all of this can make me feel dejected. We are intrinsically tied to this earth, so it is natural to feel fear, grief, or hopelessness about its destruction. There is also the very real possibility of human lives and livelihoods being threatened by climate change and extreme weather events brought about by it. It’s okay to be scared. I have shed real tears over climate change, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. However, these feelings can be dangerous, especially if we don’t talk about them. 

When we allow fear, sadness, or anger to develop into hopelessness, we are in real danger of doing nothing at all. Instead of harboring our eco-anxiety, we should learn to find community through it, and use it to push for change before it truly is too late to keep our planet habitable. 

The first step would be to communicate these feelings with others and encourage them to also care for the environment. On an individual level, things like conserving electricity, utilizing public transportation to reduce car trips, and shipping fewer items to your home can help reduce our carbon emissions. 

We also need change on a societal level. If you care about the environment, I encourage you to contact elected officials or join protests to push for policies which would set stricter carbon emissions standards for companies or invest in infrastructure like green energy needed to reduce emissions on a macro level. 

We are seeing damage in real time caused by climate change. An acknowledgement of this harm must be accompanied by actions to stop this destruction of our future.

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