The steady drum beat of bad environmental news grows louder with each passing month and unusually hot year.
We’ve just come through another batch of devastating fires in the West. People in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico are still reeling after some of the worst hurricanes in living memory. Each year wins the award for “hottest year on record.”
All of us, regardless of where we live, can recognize the changes around us and feel the fear and stress this causes. My garden tells me the tale: no bees, less rain than usual, peas blooming into December, and it freaks me out.
If you are new to climate news and would like a great primer on the problem, check out this quick cartoon:
Regardless of your level of awareness and involvement with climate change, the sadness, frustration, and powerlessness sparked by the news can have a real deleterious effect. It is taxing to function in a culture which, while acknowledging the truth of climate change incrementally more, largely ignores the problem and continues with “business as usual.”
It is deeply troubling to follow some of this news to its logical conclusion: business as usual means rapidly approaching levels of carbon in our atmosphere that will cause changes in sea levels, in our weather and in our supplies of food and water so significant that large-scale civilization will no longer thrive. This is dire! It is scary stuff. It makes me sweat.
I sweat when I read a new piece of climate news, especially the kind that changes the stakes. Like this one, recently. The narrative of melting, warming, bleaching, and extinction is dizzying and relentless. A news story about the latest scary discovery can take my breath away and leave me feeling knocked down, hopeless. It feels like work to breathe in this new information, to assimilate it to my view of our world and where we are heading.
There are enormous changes to be made in the way that we operate our daily lives and our economies if we have any hope of keeping the carbon in the atmosphere at livable levels. The earth needs our attention; it needs our outrage. Our action is of utmost importance. We need our feet firmly on the ground, and a life rich with practices that help us stay well and strong to continue to face this problem that is not going away.
Here are 11 ways to keep yourself open-hearted, grounded, and energized for making change:
1. Have a regular centering practice of some kind. A daily walk, mindfulness meditation, journal writing, playing music, time alone with tea looking out the window—whatever personal, contemplative practice feeds you. For me, intentional daily time by myself (walking, writing, meditating) helps me sort through the ups and downs of normal life—without it, I wouldn’t have energy to even think about larger problems.
2. Seek community. We need companions on this journey. It is particularly painful to deal with an ecological crisis if you feel alone. I find it so disheartening to look around, feeling the emergency upon us, and watch others act like nothing is wrong. This is when I know I need to call a friend who shares my worries. You might find a like-minded group by seeking to connect with an established chapter of an environmental group in your area.
3. Spend time in nature. I would have been too cynical a decade ago to walk in the forest and pass by the trees, to touch their rough bark, look up at their spreading branches, and to let awe fill me. I’m so grateful that I have abandoned this jaded layer and can now allow myself the vulnerable, earnest practice of being in nature in this way. It turns out that time in nature is excellent for mental health. A Japanese practice called Forest Bathing invites us into the woods to truly breathe in the tonic of nature.
Time in the natural world boosts mood and decreases depression. Being among the trees, the leaf litter, and the creatures of the forest can also be a reminder of why you love the earth and why its protection is so urgent.
4. Feel your grief for the earth. On any given day, we may encounter reasons to grieve: a beloved stand of trees lost to wild fire, a pipeline spill, or the bleaching of coral reefs. Burying these feelings, dismissing them, or wishing them away does not serve us. Like any grief we carry, grief for the earth will remain stuck in our bodies, causing our hearts to close and our moods to feel heavy.
I was resistant to treating this kind of grief seriously at first. (Like when I felt shocked and embarrassed that I actually cried standing in front of a coral exhibit at the aquarium. A grown woman is not supposed to be so sentimental.) But if you open the door of your heart and allow your feelings to flow, I think you will find that there is a lot there—a lot of pent up pain at the injustices and wrongdoings of the world. Feel these, free them from their trapped place inside of you.
Cleaning out this closet of unfelt pain allows for more balance and emotional lightness. Learning to grieve as a practice sets you up to continue to face the pain of the world without fearing it might bring you down. And that is just what I was doing with the sea horses and the rainbow coral—refusing to accept our collective denial by really acknowledging the big, scary elephant in the room. This gave me resolve and grit for a phone call to my senator later that day.
5. Engage on a spiritual level with the earth and this crisis. Whatever your system of belief, make space to enlist your spiritual muscles on behalf of the earth. Bless our world. Visualize healing for taxed ecosystems and desecrated places. Pray for the earth. Hold the earth and her well-being in this open-heart space. Cultivate this sense of peace and connection without worrying about whether it will “work.”
The universe is so complex that it seems we can’t know for certain whether, or how, prayer, blessing, and visualization work. I do know that the peace and well-being I feel when I turn to these practices is tangible. Last week I drove through the Permian Basin of Texas. This place is marred with the scars of our extraction economy. All I could do was pray—for the workers, for Earth, and for myself, since my very home is likely warmed by gas from those wells.
6. Be with art. Whether you create your own art, or surround yourself with the paintings, poetry, or music of others, art gives voice to the complex feelings climate change stirs in us. Making art gives me an outlet for telling my truth, even if my creations are for my own eyes only (which is mostly always). Enjoying the art of others can decrease the sense of isolation and let us find beauty in this mess. Check out this poetry collection made by The United Kingdom’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. I loved the poet’s skill at turning calamity to beauty.
7. Practice Gratitude. Give thanks for the earth and the good it brings us. Thank the trees for their shade and oxygen. Thank the plants and animals and human laborers who provide the food on your plate. Remember the many things that are deeply good about our planet.
8. Remember that you belong to the earth. As Joanna Macy reminds us, we hurt along with the earth, and suffer as she suffers. Sometimes it can feel like humans only negatively impact the planet’s systems. We must remember that we are a part of the web of life—we belong. Damage to one part of the web damages us humans as well. Remembering this helps me lessen feelings of blame and guilt. Check out Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone’s wonderful book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.
9. Let go of guilt. Those of us who were born into consumption-heavy Western culture have a lot to reckon with as we look out across our environmental problems. It is the very comfort and consumerism that we swim in every day that has created this problem. And still, we belong to the earth. Here’s a pep talk I say to myself: “You have this one human life to make positive change, to help right what wrongs have been done. You must not let guilt freeze you into inaction.”
And, like me, dear reader, you would not have made it all the way to number 10 in this article if you were not passionate about making change. We are trying to untangle ourselves from the damaging parts of the system. Keep your eye on that goal, and when you feel guilt rising, breathe and investigate the feeling. Is your guilt guiding you to some change in behavior? In other worlds, is this guilt useful? If not, be gentle with yourself and speak to yourself like you would a frightened friend. “You are doing enough. This is the trouble we are all in. You are part of the solution.”
10. Keep your sights on hope, though what you hope for may change. We now know that climate change is already bringing devastating consequences, and we cannot hope those away. Our hope may shift to our work on a small, local project, or a long-term hope that humans find a way of living together without so much greed, violence, and waste. I am currently hoping for the courage and organizational skills to help my town pass a polystyrene ban. Work with your hope to find places where light can get in.
11. Seek balance. Pace yourself, and rest. This is not a sprint, and you must attend to all parts of your life to find balance and peace within. When you think about taking action for the environment, remember that the right steps for someone else might not be the right steps for you. Check out this fantastic quiz from The Story of Stuff to explore ways of helping that are suited to your personality. As always, if you are experiencing depression or anxiety that is getting in the way of your functioning, seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
The bottom line is: the world needs you! The world needs you to act from that space inside of you where wisdom and kindness and love reside. You will not have access to this place, and the good it will foster, without significant care and nurturing of the soul.
Go forth and do this good work!