Green Or Gone

Why Even Dire Environmental Warnings Don’t Move People To Act

"Saving the Planet" isn't enough. Activists must begin to think about other ways to push people towards an ecological approach to life.

Paris' Global Climate March on Nov. 29
Paris' Global Climate March on Nov. 29
Catherine Vincent


PARIS â€" Of course, there were all these shoes piled up on Place de la République in Paris, as part of Avaaz"s global climate mobilization. There was also a human chain with thousands of people holding hands along the Boulevard Voltaire, one of many symbolic gatherings across France. But the state of emergency declared after the Nov. 13 terror attacks â€" which bans mass gatherings â€" meant that these events planned to coincide with the COP21 climate change conference haven't had the visibility the organizers had planned. It's yet another blow for those who, year in year out, struggle to raise awareness about our planet's demise.

Conferences on the environment are multiplying, alarming reports are piling up, all pointing to a global ecological catastrophe, yet our reaction remains ludicrous. A survey by French research agency BVA published in March revealed that reversing climate change was a priority for just 13% of people, far behind those more concerned about unemployment (60%), terrorism (41%) or their dwindling purchasing power (36%).

This can be explained chiefly by the topic's complexity. Because it interacts with sciences, economics and social issues, any worthwhile discussion of climate change requires intelligible, complex vocabulary and knowledge. It's not easy to make it accessible. There definitely is an audience for it, as demonstrated by the popularity of alternative websites on the topic â€" Reporterre, Terra Eco or Bastamag. But these are small organizations unknown to the majority of the public.

Too much to chew

The size of the problem also explains public apathy. "Ecological urgency doesn't really encourage people to take action, because the causes of what's happening are far away and invisible," says Bruno Latour, a sociologist and philosopher. "Because it requires you to look at inequalities, as Pope Francis underlined in his encyclical Laudato si. Because it's a topic of war that requires you to accept conflict situations â€" for instance, between nuclear energy and alternative sources. It's a topic that can drive you crazy!"

To make matters even more complicated, Latour adds, something should have been done about reversing climate change as early as the 1980s, and now it's too late to avoid serious consequences. "This is all very hard to swallow," he says. Denial is a common behavior in the face of the worst issues, especially when the feeling of powerlessness prevails.

"We only really take action when we're faced with a perceptible and immediate danger," says philosopher Dominique Bourg. "Abstract repercussions have no influence on our behavior." Hearing year after year that the change is irreversible can lead people to believe that any action is futile even though there's still time to avoid the worst.

But at what cost? Nobody has any illusions anymore: To meaningfully mitigate the current ecological crisis means redefining our relationship to the world we live in and making drastic changes to our lifestyles, from the food we eat and the methods of transport we use to our energy resources and our productivity model.

"We are in a long-lasting economic crisis, and it's not the best of times to imagine a radical change," says Lucile Schmid of France's Green Party (EELV). "Ecology won't solve the unemployment issue. This transition period therefore gives rise to an anxiety that life will change and that we'll lose comfort," she acknowledges. To consume less, to heat your house less and to eat less meat are all unglamorous prospects.

"The ecological project strongly questions growth, which is still a crucial concept to the might of a nation, its economy and its social well-being," Schmid says. It's all very scary to many people, and the moralizing ecological rhetoric can irritate. Besides, we ask ourselves, "What's the point in us doing anything, if those at the top aren't doing it either?" Citizens are willing to sort their garbage and to recycle, but when they learn that Volkswagen cars cheat diesel emissions tests or that oil companies are making obscene profits, it's tempting to throw up their hands.

A tangled web

Not to mention the fact that an eco-friendly attitude can become a spiral of contradictions that can discourage even the most determined people. Should you switch to low-tension light bulbs? Should you eat farmed fish to ease the impact on natural resources? But what about the impact of fish farming on the coasts and the production's sanitary conditions. What about banning furs? It's the main alternative to synthetic fabrics, which are made out of oil. And so forth.

What's more, ecology-friendly behavior is often seen as a luxury that not everybody can afford. Buses pollute more than trains, but they're cheaper. Organic food might be better than industrial products, but they cost more.

There are, however, measures that don't cost a thing, and some that might even save you a little money: turn off the lights, use public transport, recycle. All of those actions make an ecology-friendly lifestyle look like an opportunity rather than a constraint.

And indeed, some things have already started to change. "In 20 years, our way of life has become more sober in terms of transport, heating, sustainable consumption," Schmid says. "When ecology goes with saving money and local jobs, people are ready to change their daily habits." In January 2014, a study showed that 80% of French people had begun shopping with reusable bags, while 66% favored local products.

One of the keys is to turn sustainable living into something desirable. "The effects of pollution and the health problems it can cause provide as many opportunities to see the ideas of a good quality of life and of sustainable development converge," says sociologist Marcel Jollivet.

The success of the urban gardening project Incredible Edible, launched in 2008 by two mothers in Todmorden, England, is telling. In France, a similar initiative in the southwestern city of Bayonne sees gardeners and artists cultivating their vegetable gardens together and sharing their produce with other locals. It's enough to make people believe that the green revolution is underway.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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