Brenda Clarke (via Flickr)On the top of my bookshelf sits a set of books pronouncing catastrophe: a half-read copy of Eaarth (Bill McKibben, 2010) next to the never-even-touched Hell and High Water (Alastair McIntosh, 2008). I’ve been avoiding them vicariously. Paul Gilding’s new book The Great Disruption (2011) would probably make a splendid addition.

I’m avoiding these books for fear that they would kindle my despair about the sustainability crisis and the fate of humanity. The science is so overwhelming, the need for drastic change so urgent and the strategies to make progress so uncertain that readings like this are a sure way to make me feel hopeless and powerless. Before I know, I unconsciously reach for the closest pot of chocolate fudge ice cream.

I don’t want to feel hopeless and powerless. I have work to do.

As environmentalists, we want to ground our arguments in the science of climate change and planetary boundaries. As communicators, we know that gloom and doom aren’t working to motivate people to take action. As human beings engaged in the business of change, we get so worked up in the urgency of things that we don’t stop to acknowledge the magnitude of our challenge and the fear that maybe, possibly, we don’t know how to overcome it.

“We live in an extraordinary moment on Earth. We possess more technical prowess and knowledge than our ancestors could have dreamt of. […] At the same time we witness destruction of life in dimensions that confronted no previous generation in recorded history.”
Coming Back to Life (Joanna Macy, 1998)

I know that whenever I read books that describe the sustainability crisis, I need space to deal with the despair and the hopelessness they stir up. I need to be gentle.

Can we be gentle with ourselves in the face of imminent environmental disaster?

I believe we must. We do our best work when we’re rested, when we’re connected to the purpose of what we do and when we relate to others with compassion. Deep social change takes decades. How else can I ensure that I have the energy for the long haul?

Everyone’s path will be different, and maybe the point of this post is simply to remind myself (and encourage you) to notice when we feel overwhelmed by the scale of this work. Is there space to re-connect with purpose, maybe go for a walk? Can we connect with others that share the feeling? Or do we avoid the thought and bury ourselves in work?

Whatever you do: Please take care of yourself.
[Here’s the R-rated version of this message, courtesy of Marianne Elliott]

Overwhelm and the environmental crisis
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