Environmental depression
July 13, 2014 7:03 AM   Subscribe

I need help dealing with my anxiety over climate change. I need help figuring out how I can help. It's a bit more complex than that, but not much.

I'm a lifelong environmentalist and and former science educator. Within the next few years, I intend to go back to science education/writing/communication. I have a small child, who is under a year old. I already willingly live as low-impact a life as I can possibly live in my circumstances. If I go back into my field, I believe I can make a bit of a difference. When I was doing science education before, I think I made a difference then. (FYI it was informal education. I do not have a teaching degree.)

I'm fully aware of how awful the problems are. So I don't need anyone to respond, "Sorry, but we're doomed." That is, emphatically, the least helpful response possible. (I also am not looking for climate denialism.) As bad as the situation is, I do think there is hope. But I need help identifying the forms that hope comes in, and hanging on to that hope. I am an anxious, apocalyptic thinker in the best of circumstances. Stuff like this makes me melt down, sometimes. To the point where I can't eat, can't sleep, etc. (Yes, I am in therapy.)

It kind of helps that many of my friends are actively involved in the battle. One of them started a sustainable clothing nonprofit. One of them went back to school to help with the Bee Issue. One of them is back at school doing permaculture studies. One of them works building/designing "green" cars. That's all very inspirational. Several of them are a lot smarter than I am, so I respect their beliefs that they can really help the world.

Before I had my baby, I was intensely into this issue, and had been since I was a very small child. Now, I am willing to hand my life over for any chance that I can help. I have no intention of giving up, but I really need to know that anything is worth doing. I need to know who are the people who are really getting things done. I need to know how to help them. I need to know what conservation/mitigation/adaptation strategies appear to be doing some good, and how I can support or promote them.

Thanks for any advice.
posted by anonymous to Science & Nature (31 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
IMO science education is an excellent way to make a difference -- to make sure that the next generations are not as hopelessly stupid as this one. Given your background, I think it will be more beneficial in both the long and short term than going back to school to focus on a specific issue.
posted by Behemoth at 7:19 AM on July 13, 2014

Why don't you write a book and website about such inspirational examples of sustainable initiatives? It sounds like it would be good for you. It would also be good for people like you, and give other people ideas and encouragement to pursue them.
posted by michaelh at 7:23 AM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

But I need help identifying the forms that hope comes in, and hanging on to that hope.

"If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room." ~Anita Roddick

And seconding Behemoth regarding education - I don't know how old you are, but we have come really far in regard to our environment and how we treat it. I remember a time when no one recycled, and we all used CFCs, styrofoam, and leaded gas. Look to the past to see how things used to be and when you see the progress we have made, it will give you hope for the future. It may not seem like it, but really, things have changed and a lot of it is due to education of each new generation. Being a part of that change will always make a difference.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:26 AM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Group Representing Half A Billion Christians Says It Will No Longer Support Fossil Fuels
A large umbrella group of churches representing more than half a billion Christians worldwide announced Thursday that it would pull all of its investments in fossil fuels, saying it had determined the investments were no longer ethical.

The World Council of Churches, a global coalition of 345 churches, made the decision to no longer fund oil, gas, or coal at its central committee meeting in Geneva, and recommended that its members do the same. “The committee discussed the ethical investment criteria, and considered that the list of sectors in which the WCC does not invest should be extended to include fossil fuels,” read the finance policy committee report.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:27 AM on July 13, 2014 [10 favorites]

A list of members of the World Council of Churches, which I looked up after seeing Room 641-A's comment. Awesome.
posted by bunderful at 7:35 AM on July 13, 2014

My field is different but has similar issues. I tend to think, "Even if we are all doomed as a species, it's better to work toward the best possible outcome and make even one small change than to do nothing."

Something is obviously inspiring you to go back into this work. I assume you paused because of your child, but you could easily have decided you didn't want to go back again. So something's pushing you toward believing it's important. Even if that push is the feeling that you couldn't live with yourself if you didn't try -- hold on to your personal motivation.

In terms of environmental writing, I really love reading pieces by Chris Clarke (and on his personal blog). He's writing about the California desert, so fairly specific in terms of his area of expertise, but he writes very well about the issues and is often very open about the emotional toll the work can take.
posted by jaguar at 8:20 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a wonderful mission to care passionately about! IT's not bad to, as ironmouth suggested, sort through what of your passion is a cover for other issues you don't want to deal with and what of those urges are truly focused on achieving a sustainable way of life this planet.

So, you have a baby, remember that if you literally give up your life for the sake of this issue that could be a sacrifice you are making not only for yourself but also for you child. Passionate devoted parents can be great mentors to their kids, but exhausted, depleted, over worked and anxious parents won't have a lot left for the kids.

What's more, to serve the cause, you will need to learn the value of relaxing time, of truly letting yourself relish support and laughter with family and friends, of growing strength and joy of the heart even in dire times- for those gifts will serve you and all around in being strong enough to meet difficult challenges.

If you sacrifice yourself for the cause, there will be no one there to serve the cause, so taking very good care of yourself and allowing yourself to relax a bit is in fact in the service of your goals.

Other than that, I think this is a cause every human should be concerned about and actively working toward DRASTIC and immediate changes to address. The sense this is urgent is accurate and not of itself a sign that you are simply seeking escape from facing your life issues. It is however always true that we bring our past issues into dealing with what we face in the present and being too overwhelmed doesn't usually help us unless we cultivate that overwhelm into a healthy strong passion to do what is needed, to sort through what is needed with a clear mind, and to respect our limitations and needs as we work on intense projects like this.

I was going to help you search for answers to the questions you asked but I'll start with some ideas I have about pooling together the best people and organizations already working on this.

You're going to want a multifaceted approach for inducing change that will include policy changes, regulations on corporations, public education campaigns, and assistance with helping communities and individuals implement the changes they are being educated about making. Change is hard and at every level people and social structures will resist change, so understanding that force of resistance and finding gentle but firm ways of inspiring and guiding people and systems toward change will have more of an impact than approaching that resistance with anger and judgement (which has it's place but is better as a last resort than a first line action).

To help you overcome human resistance to change, it help you to both know EVERY SINGE THING individuals and corporations can do to shift the level of damage, then through through what challenges and difficulties businesses and individuals will have making the changes- including listening to people who tell you the changes are too hard, and approach that with curiosity and understanding, ready to find solutions and support to help the process of change be more possible for people to accomplish.

So what I would do if I were you, is start with creating a framework of what changes need to happen so you know what you're trying to accomplish. I can think of things that I think should become the norm rather than the exception (I'm adding the first link I see that looks cool on these topics but not reading them well so do your own research! You likely know more about these things than I do with your background anyway but I'll share since you asked for more ideas):

Native edible wild plant gardens

Sustainable homes that come with grey water systems, natural air conditioning methods such as geothermal.

Other issues worth exploring is changing our relationship to household items, encouraging production using biodegradeable and sustainable materials, shifting our vision from temporary disposable goods to high quality and long lasting items that are built to last and that the parts can easily be reused without a highly toxic recycling process. Look into efforts into green technology for building cars and computers out of materials that are much less toxic once the car or computer is thrown in the trash, and that will not require a highly toxic recycling process. Encourage the use of locally made goods when possible, and goods that are traded from farther away when those products add a capacity for more sustainable production that makes it worth the transport issues. Shift away from plastics, in production as much as possible, encourage the use of glass, wood, and other storage items in packaging and encourage more companies and grocery stores to incentivize bulk goods and reusing storage containers. Consider the use of toxic materials in building materials and all aspects of production that are often not only toxic to "the environment" but the human beings who use them directly.

Then you need to think through, why have people rejected these ideas? Know the ins and outs of all the arguments you hear about why people are resistant to making these changes. Cost and inconvenience are probably the first and foremost difficulties that people describe, but there are also some ideological problems that people have. There has been a huge push in a lot of cultures that it's more ethical to go with the flow, not challenge the status quo and to buy as cheaply as possible because spending too much money makes you snobby. The reality is that paying people well for their work, and to give them enough money to do that work ethically and sustainable, is a more ethical choice, but for some people that's a hard thing to shift in their thinking about ethics and spending, both on the level of businesses and individual spending.

So I suggest you tap into all green technology blogs and websites and orgs that you can, get to know intimately the people working on sustainability and community planning efforts to bring more green life into cities, encourage a closer relationship between people and nature in our city planning and designs.

Once you've done that, I would suggest you get to know your local political leaders. My father who has not even gotten a high school degree but is stubborn-- he has negotiated with the city for resources and land to work on commercial real estate projects and you may be surprised at what you can accomplish if you present a well thought out and scientifically and economically sound idea/s. Find out who in your state and city are already working on sustainability and take note of what their stumbling blocks are, not with acceptance of those blocks but with a spirit you may bring some fresh ideas some direction to work around those road blocks.

Network with people who aren't even involved in sustainability but have strong skills in technology, politics, business, art and advertising. Their strengths combined with your knowledge of sustainability and vision and passion for change could create some really powerful projects for public good. You'd be surprised how many people DEEPLY want the change you're talking about but feel emotionally and financially too overwhelmed to know where to start, if you take that initiative you could open up doors that a lot of people you might be surprised actually WANT opened.

What's more consider changes you want businesses and people to make as things you're willing to propose with funding and incentives to make the changes. Unfunded mandates will be protested against much more than well thought out strategies that include funding and structural supports to implement. If you want people to use public transit more, find out why they aren't using now. Is the system not very well designed? Too expensive? Are there high crime rates people are concerned about safety? Be willing to work on THOSE obstacles and not just shout at people to change but listen to difficulties people are having making such changes and be prepared to offer support.
posted by xarnop at 8:29 AM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

You know how smoking isn't cool anymore, and the cultural response to seeing someone smoking outside a building has become a mix of contempt and pity? That's because of a concerted effort to shift cultural perception around the behavior of smoking, and it's worked in a remarkably short time. See also: littering, marriage equality, premarital sex.

As a writer and communicator, one of the biggest things you can do is change that cultural narrative. There are groups working on this kind of thing right now -- lobbying films to include recycling bins in their set dressing, for example. But the more you can do to show as totally normal and unremarkable various green behaviors like biking, planting gardens instead of lawns, buying used goods or repairing rather than replacing, and so on; and the more you can to to stigmatize more wasteful behaviors like buying single-use or disposable objects, leaving the car idling for the baby's nap, or dumping your old electronics in the garbage instead of recycling them... the better. I dunno, insert your preferred consumer-behaviors here.

I try to do this in fiction, where I can (though mostly I'm pushing human rights and economic ideas). Story is a very powerful way of changing peoples' opinions, because we internalize what we see or read as normal without thinking about it. It's just a human process to try to maintain and increase status in the eyes of the other monkeys. And to do that we're always subconsciously keeping an eye out for what are higher-status behaviors. There's also the matter of reach. With fiction, you can influence people who might not be the audience for a journalistic expose of the damage caused by fracking, say, and don't quite agree with you to begin with.

Even if making stories that happen to normalize green behaviors isn't for you, you can start reaching out to writers, filmmakers, and showrunners to ask them to include these things in their work. It's the sort of thing many of them won't have thought about before, it doesn't cost them a lot of money to work in, they get the feeling of being more virtuous, and slowly the cultural narrative about how-we-all-act changes.

It's an idea, at least.
posted by Andrhia at 8:30 AM on July 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

Take heart from this advice to environmentalists by Edward Abbey. I try to read it often.

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast... a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 9:00 AM on July 13, 2014 [20 favorites]

As Andrhia pointed out, look at polling on marriage equality in the US: a decade ago, 60% opposed and only 31% supported gay marriage. This year, 39% oppose and 54% support it. Significant, rapid changes in societal attitudes are possible.
posted by JackBurden at 9:06 AM on July 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have the same problem with anxiety about this issue. Earlier this year, I was actually occasionally waking up in the middle of the night worried about it. The UN just put out a report that outlines what needs to happen on a country scale, which I find very useful...I think the global response has been extremely unorganized thus far, but this report is much clearer. Note that the scientists who prepared the report believe that it is not too late to transition to a low-carbon economy. Please feel free to Memail me if you want to talk more.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:23 AM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

This is fundamentally about your state of mind. I've seen people who were in panic over climate change just largely get over it when they got help for anxiety.

I'd put as much effort into solving your inner world as you do into the outer world. Your mental health will impact your kid and your resilience in the event of any kind of disaster. Do NOT "hand over your life," because that won't solve the situation nearly enough to counterbalance the intense impact that losing you (even just metaphorically, losing you to a complete focus on this issue) would have on your kid. Do what you can, but after that, staying in panic mode weakens you rather than helping.

Think of the people who built nuclear bomb shelters in their yard - yes, nuclear war was not an imaginary possibility, but some people spent all their savings on a bomb shelter while others did not. I'm sure there are differences between the threat of nuclear war and climate change, but my point is that any threat is felt more intensely by some people in a group, and being one of those people isn't always to your advantage. After you've done what you can (without totally draining your savings or making investments that will be useless if you're wrong), your best bet for a healthy life for you and your kids is to find a way to relax.

I personally get hope by looking at the long timescale, by reminding myself that even in apocalyptic fiction, it's less that "everyone dies" and more that "everything changes," and by trying to make my life as resilient as possible. On the political front, I remind myself of instances of fast political change, e.g., gay marriage.
posted by salvia at 10:04 AM on July 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

Do you have an anxiety disorder? I see you say you're in therapy, but the degree of distress you describe makes me think that you might need something more intense (very focused CBT, medication) to help you frame this issue in a way that lets you live your life and do your best work. I also wonder how much stress you're under due to parenting and whether that might be affecting your coping skills.

I'm not disagreeing that it's a terrible issue and it keeps me up at night too, and the more I learn the worse it gets. But you are helping, you are doing as much as you can, and I wouldn't want to see your contribution to the world reduced by your suffering (since one of the aims of mitigation is to prevent future suffering, right?).

Also, to answer your question in another way than the excellent suggestions upthread: raising ecologically aware children is a major win for the future, and you have a child, so that's a great opportunity! I am inspired to see better education about ecological issues spreading, such as through the efforts of the Farm to School Network. At my local university there is a full sustainability curriculum with courses in business, economics, food science, education, etc, and a permaculture garden that the dining services uses for the on-campus meal plans. Every time I see that garden I remember that many young people at this school are learning about food systems and making new and better choices because of it.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:04 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some great advice above and I so empathize with how you are feeling. I would just like to bring up the possibility of your anxiety being postpartum related. Even though it is a really serious issue worthy of anxiety, but if you can't eat, sleep, etc., postpartum issues may be a part of it. Was your anxiety level this high before pregnancy and birth? I am postpartum myself and experience a lot of anxiety around climate change (and so so many other things) and sometimes it helps me to separate things out in my head. Like, "Yes, climate change is a real significant thing, and it is reasonable to feel anxiety about it. However, the anxiety I am feeling is not just about this thing, but also is a result of postpartum anxiety." I need to put some trust in the perspective of the person I was before I had my babies, who was a person who could feel some anxiety about climate change, but who could also function and put those concerns aside when they weren't helping me or solving the problem. Feel free to Mefimail me if you want to talk further.
posted by mirabythelake at 10:04 AM on July 13, 2014

I just finished reading The Infinite Resource, which is an optimistic take on all this, arguing that fundamentally there's more than enough incoming solar energy to let everyone plus population growth live at current Western levels of wealth if we make it work. Also has a lot of historical examples of crises humanity mastered through coordinated action and/or innovation.
posted by themel at 10:07 AM on July 13, 2014

I really feel you on this one. I'm 35, and presuming you're maybe in the 25-40 age group...our generation been taught since childhood, basically, that the planet is on a crash course toward destruction and everything we're doing is too little, too late to really fix it. It seems like the news is worse and worse every year. It's enough to make anyone anxious!

I've worked under and/or been partnered with people before who had this tendency to structure their environmentalism around framework of "eco-sin," and their sense of self-righteousness was tied to how much they deprived themselves in support of The Cause, or how conspicuously they didn't consume ('cuz yeah, that's a thing), or how vegan, whole-local-foods, anti-carbon-footprint they were. It's a common attitude and it doesn't really do much to inspire solidarity, it just makes them feel better for being a martyr and better than you, and you feel bad when you don't measure up in some way. I think that anyone with basic science or enviro education and an understanding of ecology understands how critical of a point we're at right now, globally. Based on that, it's logical to look at these massively interlocked problems and clam up in panic, because it is overwhelming. It can become a type of apocalyptic anxiety as well as induce a sort of existential, consuming guilt (or feeling of helplessness) for just being on this planet and taking up resources, and I imagine it's also a concern with how to be the best parent you can for your child. If you are aware of the problem, you have a moral obligation to do something about it, but what can one person do, and where can you begin?

I got to a point where I realized that my anxiety and eco-guilt weren't going to change anything and literally wouldn't do ANYTHING except to keep me feeling paralyzed and hopeless. (And yes, as a fellow person with anxiety problems, it can exacerbate a lot of these feelings. So treatment for the anxiety is a good thing to follow-up on.) The world's hope of recovery does not solely depend on you or on me, sans anyone else, although it may sometimes feel like it does! No one person can hope to solve these massively systemic environmental problems that we're facing. You personally cannot take down capitalism, global poverty, forest destruction, carbon pollution, etc.

I find great comfort in the Margaret Mead quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." It's true! I also like to remind myself of this Arthur Ashe quote, "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." We can address our own house, first. You said that you are already living as low-impact as you can, and that's great! That takes a lot of work and dedication, and don't discount this choice as having no impact. Is there anything else you think you could do that you haven't yet that's within reach? That's one place to start.

Once your home is as aligned with your environmental goals as possible, move outward from there, think of how and when and where you can personally make an impact, and think of it like a concentric-ring pattern. That's how I stopped myself from feeling so paralyzed...acting helps break that feeling of analysis-paralysis. You know, "think globally, act locally" - for example, can you personally do anything to improve the water crisis in southern Africa? Maybe not right now, depending on where you're located, and maybe all you can do is send a few dollars toward an organization that can help. But what can you do locally? Who in your area is working on urban greening, tree planting, combatting invasive species (whose spread and destructive possibilities are very much tied to climate change), improving air pollution, improving access to biodiesel fuels or clean-er energy, advocating for improved public transit, divest from fossil fuels, stuff like that?

Do you feel comfortable picking a more narrow-band subject, and devoting your life's work to just that one particular thing? Or maybe, two things, tops?

I got to a point in my life where I was so exhausted by similar anxieties and feelings of moral failure that I just had to recognize my limits and say, okay, I can't solve this whole thing by myself. But by God, I can do something about something! You know?

My last recommendation would be to look into the Transition Town movement. If you're not involved with that already, I think that would be right up your alley. Your enviro education and media background would be a boon to any org doing that kind of work. There is always a need for people who are skilled in outreach and education.
posted by cardinality at 10:11 AM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

There is one thing that I've been convinced of in this discussion that I would go to the grave thinking is true. People are rarely won over on something like this over a sense of duty. Even if it means saving the next generation or being a good community participant. The mountain looks so huge at times that we individually feel like an insignificant bug. And the effort that is needed to build momentum to appeal to everyone else's sense of duty seems impossible.

However, there is a predictable way that social change happens when it comes to technological/behavioral issues, and that is by appealing to people's sense of wonder in ways in which the barrier to entry is not super high. The times that I have been actively involved in stuff that is better for the climate is in ways that appeal to my sense of wonder or nostalgia. For example, we recently got a hybrid car, and while I wasn't looking to be socially conscious, I get a big kick out of paying half of what I used to for gas, or watching the display in my car that shows how the engine and the battery work together. As I'm driving, I like thinking that our horrendous smog issues might be a thing of the past if more people drove more fuel efficient cars. I see pictures of what Los Angeles used to look like, when you could see the mountains, and people used to move here in droves because it used to be beautiful, too. I get motivated to participate in something that has a bit of technological or aesthetic selfishness built in, especially if I know that it has a good end, as well. Most good things in the world actually work like this, so I don't think it's ethically dubious to appeal to people's sense of wonder while encouraging them to do good.

It needs to tap into the same thing that motivates people to change the cell phone industry in just a few years because holy cow I can now carry a computer in my shirt pocket. Work with wonder, winsomeness, and nostalgia for most people, and you can literally change an industry overnight. What we do has to feel oh-so much better than the status quo that it's almost as if the future has arrived in ways that are immediately compelling. How to effectively tap into those things in affordable ways is the primary problem to be solved, I think, and it could tear through social structures at every level, and also spheres of political influence. But the ideal should be (I think) to build an awesomely compelling product as a prior step before appealing to a sense of duty.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:18 AM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

About the feelings of desperate intensity-
I don't know how reassuring you will find this - but you are very much not alone in feeling this way. Many questions have been asked here over the years about how to deal with overwhelming feelings of anxiety or sadness over the world's environmental situations. We especially see questions from people who have young children, who find that for example news of disasters is just impossibly depressing in a way it wasn't before they had kids.

I think this is just something we face now, and maybe it helps to know that many, many other people are facing the same feelings, sometimes feeling overwhelmed but also finding a way to keep them in check so they can continue living their lives, raising their kids, caring for their other family members and friends, working in their communities, seeking ways to help improve the situation where possible.

Here are a few, but take my word for it that there are many more, stretching back ten years: 1, 2, 3, 4

(Similar strategy may be useful on the practical question of what to do, too - check out the climatechange and globalwarming tags for more posts with suggestions on different avenues of approach, and to be heartened by how many people also feel like they want to work on solutions.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:58 AM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Depending on where you live it could be useful to try to help specific politicians get elected, or to join (or create) a group/organization that puts pressure on local politicians to act.
posted by trig at 11:07 AM on July 13, 2014

I think science education is really important, especially with younger demographics. This is just a personal anecdote, but I will say one thing that actually had a big impact on me when I was growing up was the animated series Captain Planet. It may seem kind of silly, but exposing kids at a young age to these issues and raising their awareness can make a huge difference. For example, after watching that show, I would walk around getting annoyed at anyone who I saw littering. (Actually, I still get angry about litter, or people who don't recycle.) I also will forever remember to never throw away the plastic that holds together six packs of soda bottles without cutting it apart first because of sea turtles possibly getting stuck in them, which I first heard about through that show.

Thanks for devoting yourself to this really important cause!
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:35 AM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I share a lot of your feelings, and I'm also a new mom. I joined a group of mothers fighting climate change recently, and although I haven't done a whole lot of actual activism yet (kid doesn't sleep!) it makes me feel better to be part of a group of smart, focused women who want to leave the planet safer for our children. Maybe such a group would be a good place for you, too.
posted by Cygnet at 12:19 PM on July 13, 2014

This is fundamentally about your state of mind. I've seen people who were in panic over climate change just largely get over it when they got help for anxiety.

This. You read like someone with an anxiety disorder and the environment is your enabling focus.
posted by rr at 12:29 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do want to support you in seeing this as a valid goal regardless of what other issues you may or may not have, as I think sometimes our culture has an unhealthy view of the purpose of anxiety as purely a pathology when pain, fear, and anger are often very helpful emotions that tell us something is wrong and getting over it such that you no longer care is probably even deeper pathology. It's exactly that mentality of being "at peace" with the status quo and NOT seeing action as urgent and necessary or acknowledging the depth of the problem that has allowed us to get this disconnected from what is really happening and that makes it that much harder to get people on board with the level of change we need (and CAN) achieve in the very immediate present and near future.

If people are taking a paxil when they get stressed about climate change AND ALSO doing the work of change, that's fine, but if people are treating their concern for our current practices as a "disease" so that they no longer feel a deep concern about changing the way we're doing things, then we're going further INTO disease and not out of it. I would say that a lack of capacity to understand and act on long term wellness of a species in a sustainable relationship with their environment and resources is a cultural disease or it's own form of cultural intellectual impairment/ignorance. Sometimes the ability to accurately assess risks in one's situation brings up anxiety as we are designed to sense and respond to potential or current dangers with actions. There is nothing about that process that is innately a disease. The question is whether you're able to use the emotions and energy toward positive change, or they lead you to collapse (which is definitely not helpful.)
posted by xarnop at 12:45 PM on July 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

but if people are treating their concern for our current practices as a "disease"

I know several people with obsessive disorders.

The problem with this approach to things is that yes, for example, HIV is real, but worrying about getting HIV from all manner of public interactions is not. Hantavirus is real, but that doesn't mean that obsessive washing and avoidance of non-paved surfaces and worry about hantavirus is legitimate.

Environmental issues are real. But this is an anxiety disorder:

But I need help identifying the forms that hope comes in, and hanging on to that hope. I am an anxious, apocalyptic thinker in the best of circumstances. Stuff like this makes me melt down, sometimes. To the point where I can't eat, can't sleep, etc.

The environment has become for many people the equivalent of the rapture for devout Christians - imminent doom, even the language is often full of the same apocalyptic beats. This is not a denialist observation - the environment really is fucked and bad things are happening all over - but rather an observation about the kind of language, discussion and thinking that for some people become a kind of obsessive thought that really has nothing to do with reality.
posted by rr at 1:09 PM on July 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Stop watching the "News." It basically isn't news unless it is bad news. From a previous comment of mine:
When Saddam Hussein assholishly lit oil wells on his way out of the country during The Gulf War, initial dire predictions were months of burning, large scale (global) eco-catastrophe, etc. When crack teams from around the world converged on the burning oil wells and then invented new techniques on the spot to put the fires out in record time, that miraculous feat got almost no air time. When, in the aftermath of being inundated with smoke and water from the fires and firefighting, the desert bloomed like no one had seen in at least twenty years, if ever, that also was not announced with fanfare. It was sort of a footnote mentioned in passing in articles that focused on something else containing more drama.
I am an environmental studies major. Life got in the way and I never managed to complete my degree. But something my life has taught me in spades: People are really, really terrible about not doing a good job of counting what is going right or problems that have been prevented. In the above example given, the oil wells were expected to burn for years. That would have been a big catastrophe. It wasn't and we aren't going around saying "Whoo! What a relief! Imagine how much worse life would be if that had not been fixed rapidly!"

Life expectancy is generally up. We now take it so for granted that we are supposed to cavalierly survive serious infections that we are having conniptions about the rise of anti-biotic resistant infections. Is that a real problem? Sure it is. But it still largely dismissed the fact that it wasn't that many decades ago that we did not have antibiotics at all and people routinely died from infections that, today, would not be considered that serious.

Humans have a tendency to focus on the negative. We do that because it helps keep us alive. But focusing overly much on that becomes a problem.

One of my favorite cartoons from one of my environmental studies books showed a bunch of microbes creating oxygen back in the early stages of earth's evolution and some of the microbes protesting the way they were poisoning the atmosphere with all this oxygen they were producing.

Yes, we are undergoing environmental change. That does not mean it necessarily will end catastrophically. The earth has been undergoing environmental change since long before there were humans.

Some other thoughts:

When some presidential administration succeeded in keeping people out of public lands to preserve them better, the ultimate result was the worst fires this country had seen in many years (or ever) due to the build-up of dry wood and underbrush not being culled for firewood.

Some forests cannot reproduce without fire opening the pine cones of the local trees. So preventing forest fires for too long can result, ultimately in the death of the forest.

Life is complex. "Bad" things are not always as one-sidedly bad as we think they are. You can make a difference. In fact, you do a make difference, whether you see it or not. (You could watch "It's a wonderful life" for a mental model for how the world could be different if you took one person out of the equation -- one person who does not seem important.) That difference is more likely to be positive and constructive if you can keep calm and level headed in spite of the stress around you.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:26 PM on July 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

So the thing is, even if someone is dealing with only an anxiety disorder and not at all an actual interest in a subject, using cognitive reframing is going to help with the anxiety. Which means that even if the OP is anxious 100% because of an anxiety disorder, she will benefit from the answers that assume she is sincere and help her reframe her thoughts about the issue.
posted by jaguar at 9:47 PM on July 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stewart Brand is a can-do upbeat kind of guy, even in the face of possible catastrophe, and you might take comfort from reading his 2009 book Whole Earth Discipline. He specifically discusses the tendency of environmentalists to feel that problems cannot be fixed, and lays out in detail a different way of framing things.
posted by kadonoishi at 11:35 PM on July 13, 2014

Mod note: A few comments removed; this isn't the place to debate climate change. Also, please stick to advice or suggestions about dealing with anxiety related to this, or actions that OP can take, rather than arguments that climate change doesn't exist/is/isn't that bad. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:21 AM on July 14, 2014

and here's a shout-out to Bill McKibben, who has been doing amazing work to change the cultural narrative, and give people paths for action.
Also - I've read somewhere, maybe in the book "Hot," that the outcome by mid-21st century will be a return to the standard of living that prevailed in the mid-19th century, albeit (silver lining here) with cutting-edge knowledge base intact. I do find that to be a comforting thought, that our world might become more locality-based even as it becomes more virtually connected (and there were many fine aspects of mid-19th century life, eg attention to detail, and work ethics/methods, that I for one would welcome back.). Imagine, for instance, a database of integrated, up-to-date locally detailed environmental data, presented in such a user-friendly format that residents of a locality would pull together and come up with innovative ways to use it to sustain and improve their physical place.
And finally - plant more trees! work with a group that does. They're popping up everywhere.
posted by mmiddle at 6:58 AM on July 14, 2014

Like demonstrated by the blatant ignorance and naivete of some commentators here, making knowledge accessible to the average person is a grand task. The knowledge is there, the situation is an emergency and we need to state it in those terms. What we are facing is unprecedented and it is laughable that people compare it to glaciation, war (threats) or diseases.

Good on you OP to go into edu/awareness raising to promote a zero/low carbon lifestyle and debunk all those misconceptions people have. The more pressure you/we can put on politicians to push for radical lifestyle changes, a strict cap of industrial greenhouse gas emissions and to finally introduce carbon taxes, the better. To avoid dangerous climate change, which means stabilizing at 2 degrees Celsius increase, it is necessary to reduce emissions in the US and the EU by 90% in the next 15 years (numbers based on the conservative projections of AR5). We need massive governmental action on a global scale, but we won't get that without pressure. Fundamental changes in society are possible, and it takes people with radical ideas to drive them.

OP, I hope you seek help for your anxiety because despite the seriousness of the situation, it should not disrupt your functioning (can't eat, can't sleep).
Think of it this way: If one wants to be taken seriously, one has to appear like one has their shit together. One needs to be credible and believable to get inconvenient information heard. Someone who is riddled with anxiety faces possibly more resistance and might not be seen as a credible source of knowledge. Do whatever you can to make yourself strong so you have more energy to help the cause.

You ask who the good people are, and I say: Look in the mirror.
posted by travelwithcats at 10:30 AM on July 14, 2014

Oddly prescient question... When Climate Change Floods Your Heart (NYTimes, 16July)
posted by pjenks at 7:28 PM on July 15, 2014

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