When I Have Fears That Earth May Cease to Be: Dealing with Environmental Dread and Despair
After being fairly fearful as a child, I am happy to say that not much genuinely scares me nowadays. The list of things that make me want to hide under the covers at night is quite short: clowns, Teletubbies, Pee Wee Herman, SPAM (the kind in the can), Disco. Overall, then, I am a pretty happy and peaceful fellow–though like all humans I still have my moments of nervousness and anxiety.
Nevertheless, I have often experienced periods of serious dread and despair when it comes to the environment. Even when my green aura does not develop streaks of black, I frequently sense an underlying fear about the future state of the Earth and my life upon it. Sometimes, a specific cause will precipitate these fits of fear. Perhaps some scientific study or news report will declare some more grim data and dire predictions–the International Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, for example, or another attempt to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps a book or magazine article I read will draw my attention to the poor state of affairs and the bleak outlook they seem to foreshadow–Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0 or Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees come to mind. At other times, though, there will be no direct cause that I can point to…the fear just sits there gnawing at away my innards.
Earth Day 2007 was a particularly rough time for me. As the holiday approached, usually a joyous one for me, it seemed that all my usual natural delights caused sharp pangs of grief and concern instead. All I could feel was a sense of their fragility and impending destruction. Then, when the Virginia Tech shootings occurred, I nearly broke down and lost all hope in anything.
I wanted to write about these sorts of experiences because I think many other environmentalists, and even folks who simply care about some patch of Earth or appreciate a good sunset, likely have experienced similar moments of fear, despair, and hopelessness. This seems almost inevitable, since there is so much bad news coming at us left and right, with terrible predictions about food shortages and natural disasters and species loss, and with the period for reversing the downward spiral apparently getting shorter. Speaking for myself, I cannot help but be afraid when I think of what my own life will be like in the world to come, what unknown struggles and sacrifices I will be forced to suffer through.
So I am hoping here to open up a discussion about ways for coping with these Dark Nights of the Green. I have found a few things that seem to work pretty well, and I know other folks have similar approaches to loosening that knot of terror that often develops deep within your gut.
Probably my most important fear fighter is to get out in nature. When fear strikes and depression descends, it is far too easy to hide under the covers, to hole up inside and close the curtains and dwell in the darkness. But then the negative emotions find ample food to feed on and room to grow, like parasitical mold spores. Becoming an invalid keeps us separated from nature and from nature’s power both to sustain us and to restore us. Whenever I feel like total doom is imminent, I try as hard as I can to get outside and simply dwell amongst all the things I most enjoy (while I still can!). Slowly but surely, the birds and other animals and the Blue Ridge Mountains will infuse my spirit with life and peace. Slowly but surely, the fear and despair will shrink when exposed to the light of the sun and moon and stars.
Another way that I work with fear and depression is to seek out good news and happy or funny nature stories. I remember how profoundly encouraging was the rediscovery (at least we hope) of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas. That event seemed to show me that not everything thought lost forever has truly disappeared. It made me feel so happy to see that endangered species can endure even through the toughest odds. Other success stories with different animals have affected me similarly. Funny or cute stories and pictures are another good source of restoration; I think of the polar bear cub Flocke in the German zoo and the hoopla around her naming, or the seagull in Scotland who steals Doritos. Whenever I bring these to mind and feel the joyful laughter well up within my heart, it becomes hard to remain weighed down by the heavier negative feelings. Every day of my life I try to find at least one thing to smile about; in my lowest moments as an Earthling, I do my best to let smiles lift up the corners of my mouth and the center of my spirit.
Lastly, I fight dread and despair over the Earth’s welfare by doing something good. Whenever I feel worst about nature’s future, I make an extra effort to help ensure that nature’s future is a good one. I reexamine my life (for the umpteenth time) and see where I might make changes for greater sustainability and less harm. I get out and help someone or something (e.g., volunteering with an environmental non-profit organization) not only to get out of my Self and help another but also to be an active force for change. Even if it is a small thing, like putting out treats for wildlife, I try to make a positive difference. I also write, sort of like I am doing right now! Writing has been a constant source of joy for me throughout my life; now that I can share it with others so directly and lend my voice to the chorus singing in celebration of nature, I find it harder to remain blocked by negativity.
I think that, at bottom, being an environmentalist means being sensitive–not just to nature but to all things. That kind of sensitivity can be immensely powerful and positive, for oneself and for others.
But a heart that is wide open can let in the troublemakers as well. When Dread and Despair, those inevitable interlopers of environmentalism, sneak into your heart, I hope you will gather your own inner troops and call in reinforcements from the forces of Earth to round them up and exile them. And I hope you can trust that, come what may, life will carry on in whatever conditions come to be.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy.