Photograph by Iacopo Pasqui / Connected Archives.
words by daphne chouliaraki milner
Ahead of the release of their debut book, It’s Not Just You, climate activist Tori Tsui breaks down the overlapping systems that are driving both the mental health crisis and the climate crisis.
The climate emergency is a crisis of separation. It is a crisis of intentional disengagement; a crisis of binary thinking and isolation.
This is why climate activist and mental health advocate Tori Tsui decided to write their debut book, It’s Not Just You: How To Navigate Eco-Anxiety and the Climate Crisis. In the era of environmental collapse marked by increasing grief and disillusionment, It’s Not Just You challenges the mainstream narratives of individualism surrounding climate activism and mental health in a bid to unpack the intersectional injustices that are driving the climate emergency—and the mental health crisis. In other words: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and capitalism are making us sick.
It’s Not Just You is divided into four key tenets: The first underscores the importance of solidarity and interconnectedness in confronting climate challenges; the second illuminates the significance of intersectionality, urging readers to recognize the diverse voices and experiences that shape the climate movement. The third part dives deeper into the systemic underpinnings of the climate crisis. And finally, in the fourth tenet Tsui explores the transformative potential of collective action and the restoration of community bonds as vital tools in challenging dominant narratives.
Below, Tsui speaks with Atmos about pathologizing eco-anxiety, investing in (environ)mental health, and what it will take to confront the forces that work to fragment and isolate us.
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Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
To start, what was your motivation for writing, It’s Not Just You?
I believe it stems from the fact that most mainstream narratives I encountered failed to grasp the true nature of this crisis as an intersectional problem—and specifically how the climate crisis intersects with the mental health crisis. Many narratives in the mainstream media focus only on western environmental themes specific to the Global North, all the while representing the mental health crisis as an individual issue. It’s Not Just You hopes to challenge these perspectives and provide a platform for voices often excluded from these discussions. It was also important for me to share how I personally navigate my experiences, which I think sets the tone of the book.
But as we know, my experiences alone cannot speak for everyone. They serve as more of a case study illustrating how we can move beyond individualization. To be honest, having struggled with mental health issues throughout my life, I’ve had to confront narratives that pathologize much of what I go through. This work allows me to reclaim my experiences and emphasize that it’s far more intricate than that. There are specific factors in our world that contribute to people’s suffering, and we must make room for those discussions.
Eco-anxiety is, as you argue, not only an individual but primarily a collective struggle against multiple and intersecting injustices deeply entrenched in societal systems such as capitalism, racism, sexism, and ableism. I wonder however whether the popularization of a word like eco-anxiety, which originates in individual psychology, to describe such a complex social intersection might turn out to be misleading in shining light on these systems?
I think eco-anxiety as a term can do a disservice to these conversations because it homogenizes climate-related anxiety through a westernized lens. Eco-anxiety predominantly centers on narratives from individuals based in the Global North, who are often white and middle class. And this has unfortunately created a misconception that people from the Global South and those from Black and Brown communities don’t experience eco-anxiety. But the reality is that these communities experience a huge amount of eco-anxiety.
Also, eco-anxiety as a term overlooks the historical and current foundations of the climate crisis. It fixates on an uncertain future and a fear of the unknown, whereas the majority of people I interviewed for the book have already lived through and suffered losses due to the climate crisis. And this begs the question: what type of climate crisis are we talking about? Because to many people, we’re not just talking about the physical manifestations of a dying planet, we’re also talking about colonialism and genocide and social injustice all of which characterize the climate crisis.
In those instances, eco-anxiety feels like too small a term to capture the full extent of these struggles—even though they are also mental health struggles and they connect to the climate crisis. For me, eco-anxiety serves as a starting point for these discussions, but even as a starting point, it falls short because it excludes so many voices. And I think that by attempting to use eco-anxiety as an overarching term to encompass so many emotional experiences, we undermine the rich range of human emotions and our inherent complexity. Personally, I feel a great deal of anger towards what is happening, but the term “eco rage” is rarely discussed.
By attempting to use eco-anxiety as an overarching term to encompass so many emotional experiences, we undermine the rich range of human emotions and our inherent complexity.
So, is it about redefining the term or about broadening what we talk about when we speak of eco-anxiety? Or do we need to create an entirely new language?
That’s a great question. I actually stipulate that the book isn’t necessarily a space for creating new language, in part because I feel like there are a lot of terms that exist out there. They just need to be brought to the fore. There’s no doubt that expanding our eco-psychological lexicon can help people. For instance, there’s solastalgia, and words like eco-grief that some people relate to. But it’s also worth noting that those are Eurocentric concepts because they’ve been derived from the Global North. Solastalgia has been applied to frontline communities, but those words aren’t necessarily the words that they’ve chosen themselves. And Native communities have their own words to describe the type of loss and grief that they’ve experienced through environmental destruction and genocide.
What I try to do instead is use that logic of eco-anxiety being a natural reaction to unnatural circumstances; to go a bit deeper and say, We need to appreciate that the majority of people who experience mental health illness experience it as a result of racism, of sexism, of class, inequality. In the UK, we have a record-breaking number of mental health illnesses being diagnosed. And more people are going on pharmaceutical drugs—that’s not to stigmatize people who seek those particular forms of treatment, but we need to be asking, is this a solution? Or are we just putting a metaphorical bandaid on a wound that actually represents the society that we live in? I would argue it’s capitalist realism in real life. Capitalism makes these problems for us and markets the solutions back to us. We are a source of profit when we’re in distress.
I loosely adopted a term in the book that I coined myself for my own purposes: (environ)mental health. It helps me understand that our environments are having a deep impact on our mental health. It’s no surprise—a healthy planet with thriving ecosystems means healthy minds and bodies. And there’s a large part of the book where I question dualism and the hierarchies of nature and society as well as body and mind; and I look at how western science does us a big disservice by siloing everything and seeing ourselves as separate. In my eyes, the climate crisis is a crisis of separation as much as the mental health crisis is one of compartmentalization.
Definitely, and I think for many of us, eco-anxiety is driven by feelings of guilt or personal responsibility when it comes to climate change. In line with what you were saying about how this is a crisis of individualization, how does It’s Not Just You provide guidance on overcoming the negative narratives of individualism and individual responsibility?
I believe in collective practices, being in community, and rebooting ourselves towards our kin is an affront to capitalism, which in turn tries to individualize us. When we start to understand what we call the natural world in the West as a kin, we begin to realize that we are codependent and interdependent. And that by taking care of one, we are inherently taking care of the other.
With regard to kinship, there’s a lot that we can learn from queer communities and also Indigenous wisdoms. For instance, we’ve seen that the Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand has been granted legal protection because the Whanganui people see the river as kin. And the law goes that if you protect the river, you’re protecting them because it’s an ancestor. In the same vein, queer communities challenge relationship rules and monogamy by showing that relationship anarchy is one of the most powerful ways that we can learn to see each other as family. Again we’re starting to see this enshrined in law in Cuba, the first to pass a law that stated family isn’t necessarily defined by blood, but who takes care of you and who you take care of. This is radical because it’s challenging the individualism of this western patriarchal, heteronormative society; it’s challenging this mindset of separation and scarcity that’s driving the mental health crisis and the climate crisis.
In my eyes, the climate crisis is a crisis of separation as much as the mental health crisis is one of compartmentalization.
You speak of community as the antidote to capitalism—are there particular community-led practices that you’ve found grounding over the years?
Yes, one of them is the Climate Resilience Project, which is a youth-led organization and peer support group that helps young people address their mental health in the face of a climate crisis. I’m on the board of youth within the Climate Resilience Project, and we do some amazing workshops and collective practices together. But I also think there’s something to be said about glamorizing resilience—especially for marginalized people—when we don’t want to glamorize that struggle. We want people to live happily and healthily, and that inevitably also means coming together. And although we’re all climate activists and come from a climate space, sometimes we just talk about things that make us human; we literally just show up and we talk about the things that bring us joy. It’s really important for the organization to understand who people are outside of these spaces, because many of us in the climate space can come to be defined by the struggle that we’re part of.
This is also why I think it’s important to uncomplicate the notion of community—because community is incredibly personal. Sometimes when we’re trying to fight back against individualism, we can think of community as this super intentional practice that is really exclusive; as if you have to be organizing with people in order to have a valid community. But your community can literally be anyone: Who do you eat a meal with? Who do you laugh with? Who do you go to in times of crisis? This crisis is going to change this world and the people in it, and so it’s imperative that we make sure we have those people around us that we can lean on.
I love what you said about uncomplicating this idea of community—because I think many of us can put pressure on ourselves to live up to or strive towards an imagined idea of what community is. And our attempt to live up to those aspirational ideals can end up feeding the narratives of scarcity or not enoughness you were talking about earlier.
Exactly. And what is enough? If we’re striving towards a world where everyone lives in dignity and in community, then we certainly can’t have billionaires making and hoarding an unimaginable amount of wealth or people in power deciding what lives matter.
Definitely. My last question is an acknowledgment that It’s Not Just You is in many ways also a very personal book to you and your experiences of mental health. How did you find the process of researching it and writing it?
It was definitely very mixed. I found aspects of it quite difficult and isolating. Having to sit down and really concentrate is a struggle at times. But at the same time, I did get to speak to a lot of people, and that was really, really important for me when it came to this book. This book is a collective process—and I insisted that, if I was going to use this platform, I was going to use it to tell people’s stories. So, I would have to say that it was equally as lonely as it was fulfilling.
I could edit and change It’s Not Just You a million times over. I don’t think it will ever be perfect. It will always be a work in progress. And the brilliant thing is that I know that some of the words I use will become obsolete and some of the things that I’ve written will one day seem outdated. To me, that’s beautiful because it means that we will have found better and more nuanced ways to talk about these crises.
Tori Tsui’s It’s Not Just You: How To Navigate Eco-Anxiety and the Climate Crisis is available to order here.