Environmental Destruction is Earth-Shattering News: What We Can Do about It?

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Climate insecurity is one of the great crises of our times, yet many people seem to have their heads in the sand about it. Psychology gives us reasons why some are in denial, and it also provides solutions for how to combat it.

The last few weeks, I’ve been really suffering from general headaches and migraines. Although I’ve had a few serious migraines in the past (the kind where you can do little beyond lie in bed and pray for relief from the pain), they were never as frequent as they’ve been recently. Consequently, I was very puzzled as to why they were cropping up, until my doctor mentioned that it was probably due to the fluctuating barometric pressure. In the last few weeks here in Texas, our temperatures have swung quickly from lows in the 30s to highs in the 80s. Apparently, my body is slow to adjust. Thus, I am suffering because of climate insecurity.

Climate insecurity is the new phrase for ‘global warming’ and the newer expression for ‘climate change.’ Essentially, what this means is that, because of human activity like the burning of fossil fuels and the increased destruction of the natural feedback loops that keep us safe (like trees), Mother Earth is changing how she responds to the sun. As a result, one of the most visible outcomes is that our weather changes faster and with more intensity than ever before. That is why ‘climate insecurity’ is a much more accurate description of what is happening. It is one we should all pay attention to, yet I find it odd that we don’t, especially here in the United States.

It isn’t a problem of being uninformed. It seems like most people are aware of the increasing rates of cancer and other environmentally related illnesses, the destruction of natural habitats, the warming of the oceans and subsequent melting of the glaciers, the varied kinds of pollution, and even overpopulation. Yet there has not been a mass uprising of people determined to end our over-reliance on fossil fuels or halt the exceedingly dangerous processes of mountaintop removal, fracking and transnational oil pipelines. In fact, whenever I lace my refusal to use plastic bags at the store with a casual, “I’m trying to save the environment,” I am met with odd stares instead of understanding nods. This is very puzzling to me. With our very planet (and thus our lives) in jeopardy, why is there not a louder outcry of protest and a flurry of environmental activism?

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I think a great deal of the problem is caused by something known as ‘well-informed futility.’ In 1973, psychologist Gerhart Wiebe coined the phrase as a way to explain the response of television viewers to the news about the Vietnam War. The more people learned about the devastating complexity of the problems to be solved in Vietnam, the more they felt paralyzed by a sense of ineffectiveness, or futility. People started thinking, “How can I be part of the solution? It’s too big for me to do anything!” As such, instead of becoming active, people slid into denial, because we intuitively avoid information that provokes uncomfortable feelings. And that is probably what’s driving the relative silence on environmental issues. That’s why I get the blank stares at the grocery store. People do not want to be reminded of the environmental crisis we’re facing. They’d rather believe either that it doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t as dire as climate scientists make it sound. After all, if things are as bad as they say, why are the only solutions they put forth trivial things like recycling aluminum cans or buying new light bulbs?

Thus, many people prefer to deny the seriousness of our situation; they actually work to prevent change, instead of making the small changes they can on a daily basis, and promoting the larger changes that require a group effort. And this inaction serves only to increase the problem, much like how ignoring depression makes it that much worse. However, there are ways to change this.

First, social psychologists found that when you warn people about a danger, then you must also give them a way they can combat it. Otherwise people get paralyzed with fear and do nothing. That’s why when we are informed about the dangers of lung cancer, we’re simultaneously told not to smoke. It’s why the dangers of skin cancer are linked with limiting exposure to the sun and putting on sunscreen. Unfortunately, the environmental movement hasn’t done a good job of telling people how to save the earth, so people have been tuning out. Sure, the acts of recycling and eating locally have both gained momentum, but as far as fracking and the Keystone Pipeline go, no one is really sure what to do. So we need to start giving people ideas about activism.

The best way to do that is to start looking around to discover what other people are already doing and, fortunately, there are many examples. Of course, there are the major environmental groups like The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, but there are smaller and more local groups doing activism as well. There are the small bands of Appalachian residents and regional environmental groups that have been fighting for preservation of delicate ecosystems in Appalachia and who recently won a legal victory when Patriot Coal agreed to halt all mountaintop removals. There are many local citizen groups (like New Yorkers Against Fracking) that have banded together to wage battle in city halls, state legislatures and courts to stop the exploitation of their land and water. There are groups of people who are working to achieve a ‘net zero-energy community’ — one that has greatly reduced their energy needs, so that balance is maintained by renewable energy. Fort Bliss in El Paso (yes, Texas!!), the nation’s largest Army post, is one such group. They have already placed a solar array and rooftop solar panels on all base housing in order to generate energy, and the troops there have planted nearly 15,000 trees. They’re also encouraging the use of bicycles and other energy-efficient vehicles; are planning on converting their waste into energy; and are involved in wind turbines, geothermal wells, and other conservation projects. Then there is the Church of Stop Shopping (led by Reverend Billy), that shows how consumerism has turned the earth into a commodity instead of our home. And those are just a few of many examples.

Second, as any narrative therapist will tell you, it’s all about the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves that we are insignificant and can do nothing, then that is exactly what will happen. But if we tell ourselves that we can make a difference, then that is what we will do. We will be willing to bear the difficulties because we are able to do so. Thus, we need to change our current narrative from helpless victim to hero. Everyone loves a great hero story, which is why characters like Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are so popular. We delight in hearing how they overcome difficult obstacles and manage to do the impossible. Consequently, we need to tell ourselves that we can be Environmental Heroes. As biologist, author and environmental activist Sandra Steingraber says, “And so at this point in our history, it is the environmental crisis that is the great moral crisis of our age. And in that, I don’t want to be a good German. I don’t want to be so paralyzed by well-informed futility syndrome that I don’t look around me and see the signs of harm. I want to be one of the French resistance. One of the people who stand up and say, ‘This is not right. No matter how difficult this is to change, we’re going to have to change it.'”

If we are to save the planet and ourselves, we must fight against the well-informed futility, tell ourselves that we are our own heroes, and get to work. To paraphrase Hillel the Elder: If not me, then who? If not now, when? That is why, when I received an email from the Center for Biological Diversity saying that they are designating May as a month of action designed to stop the disastrous tar-sands pipeline from going forward, I knew I had to step up. Not only do I want to make a difference, but I also don’t want to have to tell my son that I fiddled while Rome burned. My story arc is better than that! I hope yours is too.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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