There was an article pinging around on climate Twitter recently—in between retweeted photos of devastated Australian koalas and kangaroos—a fictional account of ending the climate emergency in 2030, written by a meteorologist, Eric Holthaus. For climate types, the ultimate click bait. The article explains how we get this done, year by year — a pretty compelling roadmap, actually. At the end of 2023, for example: “We will realize we have lost so much, but there is still so much worth fighting for. We will prioritize our own psychological and emotional resilience. We’ll take walks by the river. We’ll visit our friends.”
Sounds so good.
I already had friendship on the brain reading these words; I had just been interviewing journalist Lydia Denworth about her latest book, Friendship, which comes out January 28th. It’s a scientific deep dive five years in the making, looking at the topic in a new way. It contains plenty of studies and data for wonks, but also accessible personal stories of Denworth’s own friendships and family. “We know friendship is important, but we think it’s emotional. There’s this whole other side to the story about biology and evolutionary drive. It’s more important than we think,” she said. For years, friendship has been largely ignored by scientists, considered nice but not essential. “Now we know it’s essential,” she said, on par with other fundamental needs like diet, exercise, and sleep.
Friendship certainly feels critical at this moment of climate crisis, buoying many of us through grief and depression. Denworth says turning to our friends now is an evolutionary response, especially for women who respond to crisis by “tending and befriending.” “Friendship,” she said, “is designed to help us through the stresses of life.”
Denworth describes a study done of people looking up at the slope of a hill. When alone, it appears steeper than it does when with a friend. “Friends literally get into the circuitry of your brain and in your cardiovascular system and help calm down what gets going when you’re stressed,” she explained.
Isolation has a similar effect on your body and immune system as stress or trauma. According to Denworth, isolation can have the same effects on health as child poverty. So being stressed about the climate crisis alone is a double whammy. “If you combine those things, you are more susceptible to viruses and inflammation. Your genes will change.” It turns out social life — connection, community, shared experiences, friends, people you can rely on — is deeply important to health.
Many climate activists talk about the need for self-care. I don’t live by a river, but treasure walking in the woods to clear my busy mind. Now I’m adding friendship to my mix. It’s not some extra thing I dread having to do. It’s science — and the rallying cry of climate action is asking people to listen to the scientists!
An added benefit is I’ll be modeling behavior for my children, showing them the value of prioritizing friendship. My closest friends don’t live near me, but any member of my friendship circle can boost my health. Denworth contends quantity counts, but quality matters most. Also, when looking for new friends, shared worldview can be more important than shared interests. So some groups — like this one! — of people with shared worldviews, even online, count as community.
So, anyone up for a walk in the woods?