Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Every year, the concept of Earth Day feels more and more bonkers to me. Our species is hurtling toward an ever-more-unlivable world, and on this of all days, it’s as if we’re collectively saying to our loved ones, “Quick, honey! Let’s clean up some trash at the neighborhood park and then eat veggie burgers for lunch. Or maybe we could wear a catchy T-shirt and post about it on social media! Tomorrow? We’ll just go back to doing what we’ve been doing.”
As a practicing psychotherapist focused on climate issues, I see just how frustrating and fruitless this disconnect is for so many people. I can also offer some tools to help folks move from inertia to action.
To start, we have to get real about what privilege means in the climate-scape. We humans live on unequal playing fields, some buffered by advantages, others devastated by impacts. People in the Global South are at greatest risk for climate chaos, in its many forms. And in the Global North, the people enduring the worst impacts of climate change are (not by coincidence) the most vulnerable and historically marginalized populations, primarily Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
Climate anxiety, though, is a predominantly white phenomenon, according to environmental studies professor Sarah Jaquette Ray. Many people who don’t have to deal with the impacts of our changing climate on a day-to-day basis are growing evermore jaded, disconnected, and despairing. Psychological grappling with existential matters like climate catastrophes requires space and time—and white folks are systemically advantaged for this task.
So while climate anxiety feels uncomfortable, it’s a healthy response to what is happening. That anxiety is also an emotional opportunity to wake up and act.
Why are so many people avoidant, immobilized, or falsely optimistic about the climate in the first place? It’s only natural. Watching disturbing news footage or hearing stories about human and more-than-human loss and destruction can send people reeling into one of three inconvenient (yet automatic) stress responses: panic, numbing, or collapse. In these states, people cannot think clearly, let alone problem-solve or act mindfully.
The key to overcoming this autopilot is learning to respond to these states with some awareness and self-regulation. That way, instead of overwhelming you, these stress responses can become catalysts for action.
Turn the Key of Self-awareness in the Lock of Collective Stuck-ness
I’m more convinced than ever that saving plants and animals, ecosystems, and ourselves has much to do with our ability to break out of traumatic responses. Canadian physician Gabor Maté has exposed the pervasiveness of trauma within Western culture, and how toxic it is for everyone’s physical and mental health. This means that at baseline, most people feel emotionally dysregulated, burned-out, under-resourced, or oppressed.
Further eroding our collective mental health is the virtual crap that clamors for our attention these days: frenzied social media feeds, splashy clickbait, unrelenting spam, and endless group chats. Consciously directing our attention and mental energy is within our control; it’s a power we all possess. But to do that, we must clear dedicated space to focus, learn to say no to some of the noise, and break unhealthy habits and addictions.
Here are a few ways to get started:
Come Home to Calm
If you are feeling dysregulated—panicked, numb, spacey, or stuck—rebalance your nervous system. This is essential to thinking straight. Invite your nervous system to settle by playing soft music, dimming the lights, stretching, cuddling a pet, taking some fresh air, laughing, hugging a loved one, or exercising.
In order to do the harder work ahead, it’s critical to first arrive home in our bodies.
Embrace and Communicate Your Emotions
Imagine putting out a welcome mat for all of your emotions, to be with them, feel them, and let them move through you.
Writing a poem or song, journaling, drawing, or painting are valuable forms of emotional inquiry and expression. Be it grief, fear, worry, loss, or joy, the creative process pours out our deepest, rawest emotions through our body and our senses. Everyday defense mechanisms don’t operate in the same way, which makes the experience hugely freeing. Allow yourself to feel more. And as you do, lean on community groups, neighbors, friends, or family for support.
Art is also a climate-communication ally. When words or feelings are difficult or complex, art offers a tangible alternative to share, make meaning of, and conceptualize new possibilities.
Own Your Privilege
Consider your privilege: Do you live in a resilient locale? Can you afford to rebuild, relocate, or prepare in the case of an extreme weather event? Is it a choice to disavow, or ignore, what is happening? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then consider the notion that with privilege comes a moral responsibility to stand up for other humans and nonhumans. Choosing to attend a rally, call a congressional leader, or join an advocacy group are ways to build a culture of care rather than a culture of despair.
Ground Yourself in Climate Accountability
Set up a weekly or bimonthly climate date with yourself or a designated climate buddy. Try out a vegan recipe, listen to a climate podcast, or talk to a friend about the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. As little as 20 minutes counts; all that matters is that you engage. Let the activities change over time, and stick with it.
Replant Your Values
From time to time, we can all use a values reboot. It’s easy to feel pulled in many different directions or deviate from our core beliefs. Here’s an exercise to try out:
First, make a list of your values. Second, circle any that are aligned with the more-than-human world (e.g., ecology, altruism, compassion). Third, consider these questions: How am I living according to, or in opposition to, my values? Is it possible to course correct?
With intention, we can stage an intervention in our own lives. When so much is beyond our control, this can feel empowering!
Branch Out Into Community
Creating connections with others is perhaps our best climate solution. In the book My Grandmother’s Hands, author Resmaa Menakem reminds us that resilience is not a one-person show. He uses this analogy: A runner is collapsing from exhaustion, about to quit just before the finish line of a marathon. Suddenly they hear words of encouragement from friends and family on the sidelines, and they are motivated to keep going. Resilience is very much alive in the collective, as well as the individual. That is good news for all of us as we stumble, fail, numb out, and revive in the face of climate change.
At the end of the day, we all have roles to play. Like mycelium—underground networks of fungi that nourish the health of a forest—people can work together to reverse the damage done and regenerate life.
Systemic change is a slow-and-steady grind—more tortoise than hare. In recent years, there’s been a shift away from focusing on individual behaviors toward pressuring institutions and businesses. As I see it, both are imperative. Not only is engaging in individual action a steppingstone to joining the larger fight, but it counters feelings of helplessness and despair with a sense of agency and hope. This helps people stay in the game, rather than tune out. Plus others are inspired by example.
While the idea of Earth Day is well-intentioned, it’s also misleading. As long as we consider ourselves separate from the living Earth, we perpetuate an illusion of otherness that reinforces our inaction. As a colleague of mine recently pointed out, Earth Day could just as easily be called “Life Day.” We are all part of the planet’s living web, after all, deeply and profoundly interconnected.
To see the progress that the vast majority of us are hoping for on the climate and environmental fronts is possible. But it requires a commitment that lasts beyond one calendar day each year. This April 22, let’s not forget that, through our sustained communal engagement, we have the power to convert lip service into just action once and for all.
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a licensed therapist, art therapist, and writer based in Berkeley, California. She writes at the intersection of climate, parenting, and mental health. Ariella chairs the creative arts & climate committee at Climate Psychology Alliance North America.