I can't look at any more oil-soaked animals.
June 23, 2010 1:15 PM   Subscribe

Advice on coping with sadness brought on by environmental disasters?

Similar to this question from 2007, I've been anxious, but mainly just really sad about the global environment lately. I do what little that I know to do at an individual level (public transportation, recycling, not being a super consumer, eating local and humanely-raised food), but I get upset at the fact that changes that need to take place at a national or global level don't seem to happen. The way policy-makers and corporations behave seems so short-sighted and selfish and I'm finding it's making me cry on a pretty regular basis. I'm in therapy, so I can talk about it there, but I'm curious what the thoughtful, self-aware people on here do to cope with sadness about the environment? Any books to read that inspire hope? Actions to take? Or just take it a day at a time and not worry?
posted by lagreen to Human Relations (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Focus on how lucky / fortunate / blessed you are. You have time to worry about the world at large, because you are personally well off, as are your friends and family.

Find a cause / group to get involved with that works towards something bigger, or if you are short on time and have more available money, donate towards that cause.

Embrace the notion that even though humans might royally screw up a location / ecosystem, something will replace it. The 19-mile (30-kilometer) "exclusion zone" set up around the [Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant] has turned into a wildlife haven. It is by no means a natural situation, but as a professor used to say, "nature bats last."
posted by filthy light thief at 1:23 PM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with FLF. "Nature bats last" is a good way to look at it. Consider: scarcely anything we presently have at our disposal could truly destroy the planet. Could we cause untold suffering? Render multitudes of species extinct? Make the planet utterly inhospitable and incapable of supporting human life?

Yep. We could do all that.

And then, something would come along to replace everything that was lost. Something perhaps even more wondrous and beautiful.

Some days, I think that perhaps the best thing for the planet IS just for us to destroy ourselves so that it can move on.
posted by kaseijin at 1:46 PM on June 23, 2010

Point being: on a long enough time line, the environment will be OK. Even if humankind is not around to appreciate it.
posted by kaseijin at 1:46 PM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm with you on this one; I've felt as you have for most of my life. I find that having friends or a social network of people who do care about the environment is helpful. Also, Jane Goodall offers a strong message of hope and has a new book, Hope for Animals and Their World. I find her very inspirational and comforting.
posted by Dilemma at 1:52 PM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I get really hung up on big world events over which I have no control, I often find that it's a way of distracting myself from other, more immediate problems in my life. How are things going with your job/friends/family/hobbies/finances/etc.? Any chance you could pick one aspect of your personal life and focus on making that incrementally better, instead of worrying about vague global evils you can't change? Your being miserable isn't doing anything to help the sea turtles, after all.

As far as the environment itself goes, I also like filthy light thief's point about "nature batting last". While we do have a duty not to be careless with the environment, it's important to remember that we're part of nature, that nature made us, it's still way bigger than we are, and that we're very far from understanding all the resources that life on earth has to recover from man-made injury. Here's an article you might find interesting, on the Gulf's surprising recovery from the huge 1979 oil spill. All is not lost!
posted by Bardolph at 2:02 PM on June 23, 2010

I get upset at the fact that changes that need to take place at a national or global level don't seem to happen.

They do happen. Not as quickly as we might like, but they do.

* Nearly every country has adopted the Montreal Protocol ("It is believed that if the international agreement is adhered to, the ozone layer is expected to recover by 2050.")

* Acid rain levels in the US have dropped 65% since 1976.

* Lake Erie was so polluted it was "declared dead" in the 1960s and/or 70s (depending on the source), but is much cleaner (though not totally unpolluted) now.

That's just off the top of my head.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:06 PM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Become an agent of change. Become an activist.

First, get in touch with the possibility of change by reading how change has occurred in the past. Read Ganhdi, Martin Luther King and Rachel Carson. Read Noam Chomsky. (The links go to some examples to get you started.)

Then, try to answer the following question: what proportion of my time, effort, and budget, is it necessary for me to dedicate to saving the environment, given the moral imperative I feel?

Once you know, find an organization that is well organized and powerful, and join them.
posted by gmarceau at 2:22 PM on June 23, 2010

Action will ease your sadness. Join a local or national campaign group and get involved. Then, whenever you feel sad, you can think that you are doing your part to change things on a larger scale, as are millions of people around the world.
posted by teraspawn at 3:17 PM on June 23, 2010

Ignore anything you can't immediately work on or change.

You gain nothing by tracking, say, Wal-Mart's environmental impact.

I throw away mail from the ACLU unopened because they make money from constantly pissing people off or making them cry. Which is fair--I respect what they do--but there's no need to make myself crazy. I just budget a certain amount, give that, and ignore everything they send me.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:44 PM on June 23, 2010

"Yet another thing I can't do anything about" is pretty much my default state.

I think you undersell your conservation efforts, though. The things you list are not small things in the context of all the people who aren't changing fast enough for you. Think about it: you're doing "little," yet the pace of change makes you sad enough to cry. There's a disconnect there, since presumably more people would be doing "little" if it was so "little." A little perspective and self-esteem helps a lot.
posted by rhizome at 3:52 PM on June 23, 2010

Environment and the abuse it's absorbing make you feel sad. I do not doubt that. I hope we all feel this way to different extent. What I wanted to ask , is how do you feel when watching images of starving kids, victims of violence or wars and any other form of injustice?
They probably make you sad as well.
It's also possible , that you are sad in a deeper , more permanent way, and that "sadness evoking" images serve merely as the catalysts, that allow you to externalize your feelings of despair in a way that makes sense to your logical "you-ness".

Feeling sad is natural in unnaturally modified, chemically & physically abused world of ours. Allow those moments to be a temporary moments of descend that precede moments of ascend and don't try to search for logical explanation every time you feel "on the low".
If they last too long however - you gotta face them head on:
- turn your passive sadness into action packed determination ("clinched teeth instead of sad puppy eyes" sort of speak).
- physically - tackle lasting sadness with proper diet, proper sugar levels in your blood, sun in your skin and physical exercise, I strongly recommend sex, in form that works for you/is available to you.
- Have you seen Unbreakable with Bruce Willis ?(the sadness he felt before he realized his placement in career timespace).... the realization as a fix.
- if none of the works - more radical steps may be necessary.
adopt a homeless animal or a bunch of them.
- Toy with the idea of changing place (lot's of rainy days where you live?)
- Change/get job until you find your tribe and your mission.
- Pray a lot if you believe.

Goodluck with your journey and know that you're not alone.
posted by DivineShadow at 4:33 PM on June 23, 2010

Nthing action on small things you can affect, information and awareness-raising for things you can't.

First - if you have a garden/yard, make it seriously wildlife friendly. Read up on how to do this in your locality; it varies a lot, but: plant some native trees and shrubs, grow a patch of local native grasses you only cut once a year, dead wood piles, low water use - really go to town on it. Even a very few pots and native flowers on an apartment window box, plus an insect home is enough to make a real difference. If you don't even have this, join a local conservation volunteer organisation. The key point is to have a wild place you have stewardship over, can be in and see the results of your hard work. It's truly an amazing thing, and it'll help with the crying.

Second - tithe off what you can afford - and only what you can afford - to a reputable environmental charity. Be a bit suspicious of the big guys - check out the board of trustees for Conservation International or the full policy statements of Greenpeace for example - but they'll do. Ideally you want a local/regional group who actively purchase and manage land in perpetuity. If nothing appeals, then remember your dollars go further in the developing world; as a very random example I noticed recently that Mozambique has some good NGOs and a high ratio of results to dollars. People are also a good investment - look for a way to sponsor the training of a reserve ranger, or administrator.

Third - quietly tell people about what you're doing when it's successful. This stuff is contagious...
posted by cromagnon at 4:42 PM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Perspective. Even if humans warm up the planet so much we do ourselves in, nature would hardly be affected from a global, long-term perspective. The planet has had many heating and cooling cycles.

Even a nuclear war would be only a temporary setback for the biosphere in the long term. Mass die-offs of most of the species on earth have happened before, and it's naive to think won't happen again, with or without help from us humans
posted by zachawry at 5:11 PM on June 23, 2010

1. nthing action - on a real, practical level. National/international politics are a lost cause in my experience. Make change in your community: create alternative structures like community gardens and cooperatives. Work to change laws and systems in your neighborhood. Retrofit your home to be zero carbon and zero waste, and turn your backyard into a combination wildlife habitat/organic garden.

"Direct action is the antidote to despair" -Ed Abbey.

2. Also, read some Ran Prieur, Dave Pollard, and Derrick Jensen. If you don't like their style, they could surely point you to some other authors who are grappling with the same things.

3. Turn off the news. Stop reading it. Stop looking at pictures of oil soaked animals. Concentrate on what's immediately around you, and don't worry about the things you can't change.
posted by natteringnabob at 5:32 PM on June 23, 2010

I hear ya. I second some perspective, but from a different angle. So for example, I worry about global warming. I think we're not doing nearly enough to address it, and it's going to bite us in the ass in a ways we haven't even imagined. What really bothers me about it (and I assume you're on a similar wavelength), is the irreversible ecological damage (ala coral bleaching, desertification, etc) that's going on. Future generations may live in a world without polar bears, without rainforest frogs, without whales, whatever. I do not want to live in that world, and it's unbelievable to me that this is the world we're setting ourselves up for. Yet...

We are not the first people to willingly alter our environment. Europe has now been inhabited for millenia. Do we even know what a pre-human English ecosystem looks like? It was probably amazing, but do you mourn that loss? England's not such a horrible place today. In America we spent only a century or so plowing under our tallgrass prairies, and logging many of our old-growth forests out of existance. I think it would be awesome if Iowa was still covered with prairie instead of corn, but...it's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. We already live in a world without passenger pigeons, without dodos, without thousands of plant and animal species I've never even heard of, and even more that went extinct before anybody thought to take note of them in a book. But the world is still an awesome place.

So, take comfort in the facts that (1) we're not actually close to running out of nature, however grim the outlook is these days, and (2) humans are adaptive. We can imagine that our great-great-grandchildren, in their veritable wasteland of an earth would read about our 2010 natural world with great jealousy and sadness. But honestly, I don't believe they'll worry about it too much...it will be just another page in the history of civilization.
posted by gueneverey at 8:13 PM on June 23, 2010

The bumper sticker is really true: Think globally, but act locally. Me, I'm becoming my city's go-to bike advocate, and just getting out there and selling the message a few times is truly energizing. The motto I'm toying with is How many lives can you change this year? with the answer (in certain circumstances) being One. This is building my own social capital ("networking") and building for myself what Erik Erikson termed generativity. Loosely, this corresponds to Thomas Fuller's aphorism, "He that plants a tree loves others than himself."

I like doing things at the community level, because I can see the effects more quickly. Mass action is necessary on some things, but it's harder to see the result or the return on one's own particular investment (like the shoes I wore out for Kerry). I also like doing tangible things at a very human level, like working on my own yard or house. I want to get to the point of rehabbing one rental property for LEED certification, for instance. I can't make every house in America start using less energy, but I can do it with this one.
posted by dhartung at 9:06 PM on June 23, 2010

I think enjoying innocent nature helps with this. If you live in New York, it's hard, but most cities in the US, you can drive an hour away and find large swaths of land that don't show any signs of human intervention.

I just came back from Canada, and it's so easy to end up somewhere, knowing that there's not another human being for miles.
posted by philosophistry at 9:52 PM on June 23, 2010

Oh gosh, I think you've just summed up liberal anguish. Whether it's environment, feminism or any other Big Issue that personally affects you, the problem is that you're one person living in a big world made up of 6.8 billion persons, all of whom have various cultures, languages and social forces acting upon us. The environment affects everyone but it is not most people's priority - whether because they don't realize how it affects them (education problem), or they realize it but don't care (nihilism problem), or other personal ideologies (greed, for instance) are getting in their way (selfishness problem). Or, like you, they too feel small and incapable of affecting real change.

In my (and most idealistic people's) opinion the state of things is certainly worth grieving over, but also... tears change nothing. So - is it the environment or the feeling that you're incapable of changing it that's causing you so much anguish? I mean are you crying for our general fate or the fact that you're tangled up in it and have so little control over it? Maybe explore that with your therapist.

No matter what you care about, there's no end of things you Should Do, which can be overwhelming and add to the general feeling of defeat. The key is to find some kind of positive balance between what you need to do to feel better about your own situation and what you can do to affect change:

*Give meaning to your actions. Don't be a perfectionist. Don't think of your actions as investments. Contributing is a better approach, sharing is the best.

*Think big. Educate yourself about the environment but also the larger problems at work here: globalization, capitalism, modern democracy, civil rights... it's kind of endless, but do it to the point where you can get some kind of broader understanding of this particular problem, get inspired and strengthened by people in all walks of life who're trying to bring about positive change (no matter how small) and update your idea of what positive change is and requires.

*Do small. Most of the avoidable crap in the world is the result of our ambitions, not our limitations. So don't feel bad about being small or doing small actions. Small is doable. Small is less prone to corruption. Small is not arrogant. Small is good!

*Don't dwell on the negative, especially in people. Avoid cynicism. Time is all you have to spend / share, so don't waste it on things that chip away at your hope. Don't feel bad or stupid or guilty for feeling good.

Basically, we are each other's only hope... so be hopeful and find / create reasons to be hopeful, for your sake and everyone else's.
posted by mondaygreens at 6:26 AM on June 24, 2010

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