During a routine family dinner one night last week, my husband was clearly moved and agitated by a movie he had shown one of his biology classes earlier that day. The movie, Chasing Coral, is not a feel-good teen flick, but rather a harrowing documentary of the profound and drastic impacts climate change is having on the world’s coral reefs (stay tuned for a full review of the movie at thebiogeek.com). Our entire meal was taken up discussing the topic, and with each horrifying statistic after another, I could see the look on my kids’ faces drop and the mood plummet. They were sad, scared and overwhelmed. While I fully agree that our kids need to learn about the dire state of our global environment (they are, after all, the ones who will be left to clean up the mess), I also feel that we need to offer them more than doom and gloom. It is so, so easy to get mired in despair. It is so, so easy to become paralyzed by self-defeating thoughts, like: “I am only one person and the problems are so massive. What could I possible do?” I’ve heard the term “eco-anxiety” used to describe these feelings of hopelessness and chronic fear, and as with any type of anxiety, the impacts can be crippling. I don’t want my kids to fall under it’s spell.
“In their article “The Waking Up Syndrome,” Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell describe the process people typically go through as they become more aware of the ecological threats facing the planet today. In the first stage, denial, people avoid truly acknowledging that a problem exists. Then, as people become more consciously aware of the issue, they move on to Stage 2, semi-consciousness. Stage 3 is described as a moment of realization. Such a moment might occur when reading a compelling article or when personally experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, such as in the form of a natural disaster. Once people “wake up” to the threats that the earth is facing, and reach a so-called “point of no return,” or Stage 4, they typically experience feelings of despair, hopelessness, and guilt in Stage 5. This is followed by the final stage of acceptance and action, in which people take steps to help the environment and live a more sustainable lifestyle.” (excerpt taken from GoodTherapy.org)
So, the question is, how do we emerge from Stage 5 (crippling anxiety) to the final stage of acceptance and action? Here is what I told my kids:
- The Reality: You are one person out of approximately 7 billion. You cannot possibly solve all of the world’s problems by yourself. So, let that burden be lifted from your small shoulders. BUT, this does not let you off the hook. This does not mean you should do nothing.
- Pick Your Topic: Unfortunately, there are a seemingly infinite number of issues plaguing our world: rainforest destruction; melting of the polar icecaps; warming of the oceans; plastic pollution in the oceans; poaching in wildlife reserves; etc, etc, etc. What is the issue you are most passionate about? Make that issue your own and pour your heart into it, while leaving all the others behind (for now, see step 1).
- Start Small: If you have decided that plastics in the ocean is your topic, you can, again, get paralyzed by the enormity of the issue. Most likely, you are not a giant corporation with endless funds and resources at your disposal, so how will little-ol’ you possibly clean up all the plastic in the ocean? You won’t, but you sure can have a real, significant impact in your local community. Maybe you take-on recycling at your school, or getting local businesses to stop using disposable plastic straws or plastic bags. And then, maybe, the local newspaper runs a story on your efforts, and as a result, another person in the next town over decides to take on the issue in their town. You have just become the pebble that starts a ripple effect of action. Little-ol’ you just got a whole lot bigger!
- Identify Your Strengths/Determine Your Role: Here is another area with high potential for inaction due to confidence paralysis. When we read articles or watch videos about other people doing extraordinary things for the environment, it’s common to spiral into self-deprecating talk: “I hate public speaking. I could never give a powerful speech like that,” or “I don’t know the first thing about electronics/engineering/etc. How could I possible help?” So, we do nothing. Instead, trying asking yourself, “Well, what am I good at?”. Maybe you are a good writer or photographer and could raise awareness by reporting on the issue. Maybe, you are a great salesperson and could help fundraise for the cause or lobby your state government. Maybe your expertise is in marketing or graphic design and you could help with pamphlets or flyers. Or maybe, like my husband, you are a teacher and can spread awareness that way. Find your strength and let your action stem from there. But, most importantly DO SOMETHING! Cast that first pebble.
The chances of becoming the next Elon Musk are pretty slim (though not impossible!), so does that mean we are not destined to do great things and make a real difference? Absolutely not. But, it does take the pressure off of the “all-or-nothing” mentality many of us get caught up in (the “I’ll never be as influential or successful as XYZ, so why bother” mentality). I firmly believe, that in the end, real lasting change is going to come from the little guys, the grassroots. Politicians are too tied up in, well, politics, and are generally too polarizing for the masses. The great ideas will come from backyard garages or mood-lit studies supplied with paper and pen. They’ll come from educating ourselves about the issues instead of turning our heads away. They’ll come from saying “I can” instead of saying “I can’t”. In my experience, the most effective way of battling anxiety of any kind is to take back the power it has over the mind. To look it in the face and say “NO. You are not welcome here and this is what I am going to do about it.” Acknowledgement followed by concrete action. Baby steps. Pebbles. To start, I am putting fingers to keyboard. What will you do?