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Climate action alleviates eco-anxiety

William Gagnon, BEng 17, is looking for innovative solutions to accelerate the clean-energy transition
June 19, 2019
By William Gagnon

I’d like to paint a picture in your mind. Close your eyes.

You’re standing on Great Slave Lake in the Canadian Arctic. There is nothing but crisp snow, ice, wind and sled dogs barking in the distance. The northern lights dance in the sky. It’s the middle of February — and 55°C below zero. Just you and your thoughts in the dark.

This is the Great North.

I live in the Northwest Territories — in Yellowknife. Our city’s famous Snow Castle closed early this year due to melting. A local fisherman recently told me he’s witnessed the thickness of the ice drop from two metres to one in just 10 years.

Trucks that bring fuel and food to communities are falling through ice roads. The village of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., is literally sinking into the Arctic Sea because of melting permafrost. The caribou population is declining and the tree line is moving north.

Indigenous populations struggle with a feeling of homesickness — even without leaving home — because of these rapid environmental changes. It’s so prevalent there’s even a word for it — solastalgia.

Standing on the ice, it’s warm. I can hear the ice sheet below my feet crack and pop and move. I can’t help but be reminded everyday: we’re in a climate crisis, walking with eyes closed toward a food-system breakdown.

There are days when I am so scared that I call my psychologist. He tells me action alleviates anxiety. Climate action alleviates eco-anxiety.

There’s an emergency doctor in Yellowknife, Courtney Howard, who is also a respected environmental leader. She prescribes climate action — and calls eco-anxiety a constructive, unpleasant emotion. Just like our natural instinct to run away when we see a bear, eco-anxiety is a constructive emotion if we know what to do with it.

Concordia allowed me to feel those constructive emotions — to harness them and focus my energy on finding innovative solutions to accelerate the clean-energy transition. It’s hard to do alone, but Concordia gave me strength.

Concordia has one of the most innovative solar research labs in North America, under the direction of Andreas Athienitis, professor of Building Engineering. He inspired my work.

Concordia is diverse, inclusive and a front-runner on climate change, divestment, LGBTQ issues and Indigenous resurgence.

Concordia says: “Hey — there’s a problem, and we’re going to solve it.”

Climate-change denial is always rooted in conflicting personal interests; it’s just a form of self-protection and must be treated with empathy.

Concordia has given me the tools and knowledge to not feel threatened by this clean-energy transition. Instead, it gave me the opportunity to thrive in it.

You may not have realized it, but I just walked you through the first four psychological barriers to climate change: distance, doom and gloom, dissonance and denial.

The last barrier is identity. Concordia is a place where as a student you can experiment, shape your identity and make connections — in one of the most exciting and progressive cities in the country.

I think it’s important to talk about climate change, to speak up — not be shy about it. I used to be reluctant, especially in a professional setting. Yet at some point I realized that if I don’t talk about it, nobody will. I think we must also question our own behaviour. Look at what you know, and what you are doing, and see if it matches.

William Gagnon, BEng 17, is a green buildings ecology specialist at Ecology North in Yellowknife, N.W.T.

He is a longtime affiliate of the Green Party of Canada and was named among 2018’s Top 30 Under 30 in Sustainability by Corporate Knights magazine.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @wgagnon.

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