Three months after Gretchen bought a house in Grass Valley, California, the most destructive and fatal wildfire in the state's history ravaged the towns about 40 miles northwest of her.
"For a long time, I kept on having this vision of what my town will look like if one of those firestorms happens, and I felt like I needed to work on that."
The Camp Fire of November 2018 was noteworthy not just because of its damaging scale but because of what started it all: a spark from a faulty transmission line owned by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which services nearly two-thirds of California.
PG&E reacted by announcing almost a year later that in advance of days with a high fire risk, it would proactively institute power outages in 17 counties throughout the northern part of the state, including the one where Gretchen lives. The binary options seemed to be: cause another fire or intermittently plunge tens of thousands of people into literal and figurative darkness, impacting emergency services, health, food, internet, gas, and any other electrified necessity or convenience of modern life.
This summer, in between the end of the Camp Fire and the beginning of the blackouts, Gretchen, who asked to keep her last name private, decided it was time to seek counseling for climate-related anxiety.
"That was a very traumatic experience to go through," Gretchen, 39, says, describing what it was like to have recently settled in this increasingly fire-prone part of her home state, and later witnessing a colleague flee California altogether after his own home burned down and he couldn't afford to stay. "For a long time, I kept on having this vision of what my town will look like if one of those firestorms happens, and I felt like I needed to work on that."
While research on climate anxiety—or, more broadly, the effects of climate change on mental health—has been slowly but surely piling up, the actual experience of diagnosing and treating it is less well-documented in both media and academia. An ongoing Yale University study of American perceptions of climate change shows an increasing proportion of concern: In 2018, 29 percent of 1,114 survey respondents said they were "very worried" about climate change, up from 16 percent in 2008. But there are no parallel large-scale studies of whether a similar proportion of people are in therapy for climate change-related mental health issues.
That might be because many would-be clients don't yet realize that this is a valid concern for which to seek out professional support. It could also be because there are no definitive or unifying resources for therapists who are counseling people on the topic. Climate anxiety is notably absent by name from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the psychological gospel for everyone from clinicians to lawmakers. The manual was last updated in 2012 (and published in 2013), just when the first documents of climate anxiety were beginning to crop up.
A small 2013 study surveyed college students in the U.S. and Europe to try and answer the question: Is habitually worrying about the environment a mental health concern if it's a response to a real threat? The study concluded: "...those who habitually worry about the ecology are not only lacking in any psychopathology, but demonstrate a constructive and adaptive response to a serious problem." In other words, worrying about a concrete external concern like the state of the environment is on a different plane than habitually worrying about an internal concern, like feelings of inadequacy. Therapy may still help with the former, but the diagnostic framework could ultimately look different than what is typically used in generalized anxiety.
For now, the best resource for therapists counseling patients battling what is sometimes dubbed "ecoanxiety" is a 70-page booklet called "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance," whose publication was co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, which publishes the DSM. It's been through two editions already, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017.
"It's not clear to me that [climate anxiety] would merit its own diagnosis, at least at this point," says Susan Clayton, who was the lead author on the 2017 edition and who studies this area at The College of Wooster, but doesn't counsel people directly. However, she says, "I do think that there are some differences [from generalized anxiety], and one of the important differences is, of course, that there's some realism here."
Clayton says that group therapy may be a particularly useful way to affirm for people that they're not the only one experiencing climate anxiety, especially in communities where it might be taboo to not only affirm the existence of climate change but to be openly affected by it.
On drawing therapeutic inspiration from historical examples of other global dangers—such as the widespread fear of nuclear threat during the Cold War—Clayton says: "That was such a different time and they were thinking differently about mental health, but I think in many ways the fear is very similar. It's not like worrying about your finances, it's worrying about the end of the world. So that sort of existential component, and the fact that it's shared, both are very similar here."
There are precedents that therapists can refer to for guidance on helping clients managing climate anxiety, like the approaches used to support people dealing with a terminal illness or battling systemic racism. Such treatments need to stay rooted in the reality of the trigger.
"You don't want to say to them, 'That's not a real thing,'" Clayton explains. "So I think of [climate anxiety] like that. It does mean that the therapeutic focus is not going to be on trying to get people to be reasonable," which is to say that their anxiety is not inherently unreasonable.
"I think it is important to recognize that the anxieties have a legitimate basis," she adds.
"I feel more comfortable now being prepared, being prudent, but not dwelling on it all the time."
Gretchen's reality is now one of adapting to living an off-the-grid lifestyle that she didn't intentionally sign up for. She puts gas in her car in advance of blackouts, and waits to see week-by-week if the school where she teaches second and third grade, in the foothills of Tahoe National Park, will be closed. Her union has yet to figure out how this stop-and-go schedule will affect her salary; she has to keep rescheduling parent-teacher conferences; and she no longer knows when the last day of school will be—existing summer plans for her personal life be damned. Even her interview for this story was affected by this instability.
While trying to schedule a time to talk, she wrote, "Speaking of climate change, I may not have work the rest of the week due to PG&E power outages. If so I will have a very flexible schedule." Later, she suddenly had to decline. "As it turns out, the power's not going out. I will be at work."
In therapy sessions, she works with her counselor to focus on preparedness, where possible, and to specifically frame that preparedness as a source of regaining some of the stability she's lost rather than a sign of imminent trouble. That nuance became necessary after a training at work had the opposite effect.
"We've gone through scenarios [where] if a firestorm happens and we don't have time to evacuate, we have to gather all the children into the cafeteria and fend off the flames ourselves with help from the fire department, and keep them alive if we can't get out in time," she says. "After that day, or that training, that really scared me."
Her therapist uses a type of psychotherapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to help Gretchen move away from traumatizing images, such as picturing her town on fire, while emphasizing what it is that she can control, such as making sure her car has a full tank, in case she needs to evacuate. EMDR has been shown to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the World Health Organization offers practice guidelines around it.
"I feel more comfortable now being prepared, being prudent, but not dwelling on it all the time," she says. "I feel a little less heightened anxiety and have stopped replaying [those images] in my mind."
Overall, the type of support Gretchen receives is based on pre-existing tools for managing other well-established mental health burdens like PTSD and generalized anxiety. Although no definitive, new practices have specifically emerged around climate anxiety on a comprehensive scale yet, Gretchen says she was nonetheless met with compassion when she first approached a therapist about the topical source of her anxiety, and doesn't feel that her care is lacking in any way.
"I don't know enough to know whether or how it should become its own diagnosis, but I feel like it's something that is still evolving. Down the road, as we see more populations having to move, more refugees, more real effects, that might change," she says. "For me, using the old tools in a new way has been effective at this point."
Gretchen hasn't yet explored with her therapist the more existential worries that climate change dredges up for her—worries about whether or not to have children, and if it was a mistake to settle down in Grass Valley. She's only been in therapy for her climate anxiety since the summer (although she has intermittently sought out professional mental health support for other reasons over the last eight years), and it will take time to get to these bigger issues, she says. She's not sure yet whether that part of her counseling will look different than what's she's done so far.
But she does wonder about the overall usefulness of pathologizing what, as Clayton said, are legitimate anxieties. She has the same question when it comes to providing mental health support for her students, many of whom live in poverty.
"Is it just putting a bandaid on something that is unfixable, or is unfair?" she ponders. But de-escalating the psychological toll that climate change can have on people is crucial to giving them back the energy to deal with the problem itself, not just their reaction to the problem. Clayton believes that engaging in climate activism can provide solace for the people who do have that energy.
"This is a social issue, and there's obviously lots and lots of climate activism," she says. "You might not be comfortable being politically active, but I think getting involved in some way, and addressing the issue, would help people feel much more empowered, and would help with the experience of climate anxiety."
"Remember that nature is not just a source of anxiety, it's also a source of replenishment and restoration."
As far as what shape this personal involvement takes, an increasingly vocal movement of people is calling for a refocus. They say the onus of reversing, or at least stymying, the situation should fall on the big businesses and governments that have been too slow to act, not on individual consumer actions, like buying sustainably made clothes, divesting from the meat and dairy industry, or driving an electric car.
But outside of formal therapy and even activism, however that looks, Clayton has another suggestion for combating climate anxiety, and it's one that is surprising in its simplicity: Go outside, and take stock of that which boldly continues to exist.
"People who are anxious about climate change, it's partly about the survival of the species, but it's partly about the sense that, 'Something I care about is being destroyed,'" she says. "Remember that nature is not just a source of anxiety, it's also a source of replenishment and restoration."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."