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.

Image credit: Domenico Feti, Melancholy (Version 1) (c. 1620), via Andreagrossman at Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Steve Salmony

    Dear Justin Van Kleeck,

    Thanks for your steady and careful contributions to the work of this day, the work being ignored or else censored by most of my not-so-great, elder generation’s leaders. These “professional stonewallers” are readily identifiable: the talking heads in the mass media, the economic powerbrokers all of their minions and surrogates, and bought-and-paid-for politicians.

    Please do “keep soldiering on.” Given the potentially catastrophic circumstances looming before the family of humanity, our ‘soldiers’ will ultimately have to prevail, I suppose, because if ‘our side’ ahould somehow fail, then all is lost. That is to say, a colossal wreckage could occur on the surface of Earth, a unimaginable cataclysm the likes of which only the King of a thousand greedy little kings, Ozymandias, has seen.

    Perhaps leadership in our time is doing a disservice to the human community, to life as we know it and to Earth’s body by maniacally pursuing a course of unbridled and unrelenting global economic growth. This “biggest business is best” growth madness appears to be a particularly foolish and soon to be destructive form of frenzy that will likely become as serious a threat to the human family in the days ahead as the elective mutism of our leaders is today.

    Let’s keep going.

    All my best,


    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    establsihed 2001

  2. Bobby B.

    The whole Earth Day thing started getting me down back in the early 90’s while I was attending college. It was so depressing to hear all these green gurus making proclamations about the end of the world and the doom of mankind. They even had the audacity to lay the blame at my feet, simply because I was a caucasion male residing in the United States studying something other than the liberal arts or communist theory.

    So, to combat the depression I began having an annual EARTH DAY BARBECUE. Some 18 years later, I am happy to report that the tradition continues. To add an aura of protest to the celebration, I have always made it a point to use charcoal and lighter fluid – instead of clean burning gas – to sear whatever red meat is on the menu. No alcohol is consumed because that would numb the senses and possibly detract from the significance of the protest. The event has grown into a family affair now that I have children. We honor the barbecue to give thanks for the blessings that we enjoy and to educate my children in something other than the impending environmental doom that they hear about constantly.

    I would encourage others who fear the future to set aside some time to look at environmental issues from a point of view that differs from the consensus.

  3. Justin Van Kleeck

    This is totally, perfectly you, Bobby. 🙂 Yes, I suppose one way to deal with environmental despair is by simply seeing all the bad news as a big myth. I am glad, though, that you are doing some wholesome things with your family–even to give the fig to Earth Day.

  4. Bobby B.

    “I suppose one way to deal with environmental despair is by simply seeing all the bad news as a big myth”

    The problem I have with the “bad news” is that it is very old news. The environmental apocalyspe has been just over the horizon since Teddy Roosevelt began sequestering land for the government at the turn of the last century, and the drums of doom have been beating ever so loudly since the early 1960’s. Unlike the “christian” congregations that have erroneously predicted Christ’s return on several occasions, the environmental doomsdayers’ audiences continue to grow. I contribute much of the growth to the green movement’s uncanny ability to infiltrate the educational system and to indoctrinate the youth. Nonetheless, as much as you include self reflection in your writing, you should take a little time to reflect on the silver linings embedded within the “bad news”. With all that has been written, spoken, filmed, etc. about the coming environmental apocalypse, one can still take time to enjoy what the world has to offer. That’s the real purpose of the EARTH DAY BARBECUE. While the whole world is fretting about how to fix seemingly insurmountable problems, my family and I enjoy some simple fellowship; and that leaves little room for despair.

  5. Justin Van Kleeck

    All very good points, Bobby. You are definitely right that 1) the green movement has a knack for harnessing fear and gloom in order to initiate change (see my post on the Myths of Environmentalism), and 2) that there are some very shiny silver linings in the many clouds hovering over us. When you look at it all in perspective, the combination of bad news and good news and everything in between easily creates a context in which one’s emotions easily can swing and sway and be swayed. Especially when very definite, very clear, very personal losses occur.

    Whatever the case, I really honor you for cultivating a family fellowship as a way to focus on the positive things in life. That is priceless, and would that more children had such an environment to grow strong and happy in.

  6. Christina

    Thanks for this, I really need it. It’s hard to not get depressed when pretty much everyday you hear that the ice caps are melting and that it may already be too late.

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