Tomorrow, today

How Tanja Wessels copes with eco-anxiety

by | Jun 23, 2019

When Tanja Wessels saw a coconut wrapped in foam packaging and cling film in her local supermarket something shifted. “I stared at it for what felt like ages, my mind racing and my body unable to move”. She began to understand that everyone thought someone else was taking care of the crisis: a government, a corporation, an NGO, a billionaire, but that was a misguided notion. “We are the ones who actually have to step up and get stuff done”. The Hong Kong-based artist and environmental activist has since started giving talks, writing stories and creating art work about mental health issues related to the climate crisis. We asked her a few questions. The photos are by Alex Macro.

What is eco-anxiety? 

Eco-anxiety is a chronic concern over environmental issues. It’s going to look different for everyone, but in my experience it was a trip to the supermarket that tipped me over the edge. I had already been feeling sensitive about the available climate information, and the over-consumption that I was witnessing around me, the loss of biodiversity and the piles of waste washing up on beaches. When I saw a coconut wrapped in foam packaging and cling film in my local supermarket something inside of me shifted – I stared at it for what felt like ages, my mind racing and my body unable to move.

I understood that something was going on inside me and searched for the words plastic and panic online and this whole universe opened up: eco-anxiety.

Is it a medically recognized condition?

The American Psychological Association describes it as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” and Psychology Today defines it as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”. While there is yet to be a medically recognized condition, feelings such as anger, guilt, grief, terror, shame, anxiety, despair and helplessness are all appropriate human reactions empathising directly with the planet.


When did you first start feeling anxious about the climate?

I’ve always felt a close connection to the natural world – wildlife and plants comfort me. I get it from my mother, who grew up on a farm in South Africa. About four years ago I started sensing a shift in the way people were communicating environmental news – an acceleration in the frequency of headlines, coupled with urgency in the language. I took a closer look at what is going on and quickly understood that if things had reached the public critical mass in terms of awareness, then the reality was probably a lot worse. I understood that everyone thought someone was taking care of it, a government, a corporation, an NGO, a billionaire, but that was a misguided notion. We are the ones who actually have to step up and get stuff done.

Do you know of many people experiencing it?

I interact with sustainability professionals in a number of areas – plastic, fashion, food – and whenever I mention the words eco-anxiety their eyes light up. I give talks on the subject at conferences, festivals and for corporate clients. There is a look of relief when I start explaining my own experience, because people finally have a description of what they are feeling and going through in their own lives. Understanding that you have not lost your mind, nor are on your own, is a very powerful and comforting.

Tell me about the work you do?

I talk about eco-anxiety, bringing it into the limelight. In this day and age of body positivity, gender inclusivity and radical inclusion, mental health should be treated with the respect and openness needed to remove stigma and outdated notions of what it means. In an age of climate collapse, how are people meant to respond? It is normal and natural to feel sadness around a subject of such great importance. The easier it is to help people heal and feel heard, the easier it will be to be pro-active.

My work includes public speaking, writing, art, activism and research. I’m looking to create more momentum by working with organisations and individuals.

How can we move from a place of hopelessness to a position of power?

Understanding what is going on for you is absolutely crucial. I was fumbling around in the dark for a while until I learned about eco-anxiety, it was affecting my relationships and my own wellbeing. When I could give it a name I could start the serious work of turning it around for myself. Eco-anxiety plays out in stages. I see it as a spectrum and we are all on it – whether we know it or not. There are a number of ways to move from hopelessness to power. As I speak to people in very different geographies, there can be very different responses. For example, what works for someone in California may not resonate with someone in Hong Kong.

But there is an overarching action I recommend for all: get out of your head and into action. Make something with your hands, use your skills, join a group or create one. Taking action was a game changer for me. Each and every single one of us is capable of so much more than we can ever imagine.

Where do you find source for hope?

Innovation and business as unusual. Extinction Rebellion. Student Climate Strikes. Fashion Revolution. Impossible Foods. Greta Thunberg. Stella McCartney. William McDonough. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. These are people working to create scalable, far- reaching solutions. We can advocate for more conscious consumption and a zero waste lifestyle, that is important and valuable, but we need to work on industry to create better systems to address 7.7 billion people living on earth today. We don’t have the luxury of time for a complete evolution in human consciousness. At this stage in time it feels less about sustainability, and more about damage control.

Tell me more about you? 

I am a biophile, born in Portugal to South African parents, I speak Afrikaans to my parents, grew up on five continents, have never stopped travelling, studied art and filmmaking in Lisbon and London, went to Cambodia to make a documentary for two weeks, ended up staying for 4 years. I have been living in Hong Kong on and off for 10 years, got married at Burning Man, stopped buying new clothing two years ago, and my life changed forever when an over-packaged coconut found me in a supermarket.

How did these pictures come about?

I met Alex Macro through a group we both belong to, Circular Community Hong Kong. We both studied art. Alex is an award-winning photographer from London. Our mutual commitment to sustainability, coupled with a whacky love for creating the unusual, saw us start to experiment with what we see around us. People are starting to notice our work and the possibilities feel limitless.

Instagram: itstanjawessels

Images: Alex Macro

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