We hurt when we watch the news and read the papers. We see children's bodies drifting down a street flooded by a hurricane, penguin bones stacked where they've been trapped and starved by shifting ice, polar bears drowning, children sorting trash while all around them industrial stacks rain deadly dusts. Media and governments consider commitment to action on global warming to be optional. As Canadians, we wonder how our environment minister can block actions at international meetings, and we are embarrassed that Canada has won more 'fossil of the week' awards than any other country.
Often, we do not know what to do. The bombardment of information - daily, relentless, negative, urgent - can leave us feeling despair and fear. It may make us turn away from the news. And when we are sad or feel helpless to do anything about big environment issues, we are unlikely to talk with friends, family or fellow activists.
Clive Hamilton (professor of ethics) and Tim Kasser (psychology) attended a conference back in September that looked at what it might be like in a world with a temperature 4 degrees warmer. Their presentation noted that there is little research on the possible social and psychological effects of the disruption expected in such a world - it is, after all, hard to assess what has not yet happened. However, they review the solid body of research into people's reactions to loss and grief and discuss the merits or problems associated with the level of information we receive, and how it is presented. The paper is well worth reading.
Further in regards to grief and despair, Joanna Macy's work about feelings and activism is important to know about. Macy is a scholar of deep ecology, Buddhism and general systems theory. Part of her activism for peace and environment has been to help people recognize the deep feelings they have concerning the future of the Earth and their connection to the Earth. She acknowledges that as we are confronted by one environmental disaster after another our strongest feelings are the ones we usually believe are negative ones: anger, loss, hopelessness. While these emotions may be strong - and scary - they are natural feelings. They are probably even sensible reactions in a thinking feeling person.
Macy believes that a profound issue underlies our feelings:
"With isolated exceptions, every generation prior to ours lived with the assumption that other generations would follow. It has become an integral part of human experience to take it for granted that the work of our hands and heads and hearts could live on through those who came after us, walking the same earth beneath the same sky. Plagues, wars, and personal death have always taken place within that wider context, the assurance of continuity. Now we have lost the certainty that there will be a future for humans. I believe that this loss, felt at some level of consciousness by everyone, regardless of political orientation, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time."
In Macy' view, when we allow ourselves to experience our own joy, grief, hope or fear we can understand why we act the way we do - or why we do not act. We let go of judging whether we do 'enough'. The energy freed up by letting go of the judging will probably go toward an action for practical good. Her work is worth a look.
Knowing one's Self and feelings is not a one afternoon, one essay or one conversation undertaking. The conversations can take a while, and feelings and actions will change over time. Stay connected with others. And, take to heart a message within Elin Kelsey's article about not overburdening children with too much information before they are ready. She believes that the most important gift we can give chidren is the gift of feeling connected to nature - that it is actual, joyous experience with the natural world that shows them it is real and worth caring about. I believe we adults need to give ourselves a connection with nature too. From this comes a healthier spirit, and an important step on the path to finding 'ananda' - the inner joy that is our interface with the joyous universe.
If some practical activism comes along with that ... bonus.
"The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world - we've actually been on the way for quite a while. it is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other." Joanna Macy
Hamilton, Clive and Tim Kasser. Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and Stresses of a Four Degree World. A paper for the 'Four Degrees and Beyond' conference Oxford University, Sept. 2009.
Joanna Macy's website: http://joannamacy.net/index.html
Macy quotations from book: World as Lover, World as Self.
Elin Kelsey's paper, Climate Change and the Need for Responsible Education Reform. WorldChanging Team, Sept. 2008. www.worldchanging.com/archives/008732.html