Staying Sane

A long time ago, I learned to turn off the emotional half of my brain – can’t remember whether it’s right or left – when I read studies about climate change. I look at model results and projections from a purely analytical standpoint. I register how awful the scenarios are, but I don’t let it all the way in. I don’t let myself really think about the consequences. Instead, I think about how cool it is that we can study climate in this way, and how powerful math can be, so I find it quite easy to stay positive and not go completely insane.

I find this much more difficult when I read about climate change communication or policy. I think the analytical, math-loving side of my brain doesn’t have anything to do, so the full weight of the issue falls on the emotional half, and I go sort of nuts.

Take, for example, the bill that’s close to passing through the South Dakota government, requiring schools to teach climate change in a “balanced” fashion, framing it as a “largely speculative theory” that is disproven by astrology (?) Look at how US Senator James Inhofe, former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has decided to criminally investigate 17 climate scientists with no evidence of criminal activity. Or how misconceptions spread by several British journalists have even made it into the Globe and Mail. The only misinformation that doesn’t make me angry anymore is the writing of the Heartland Institute and S. Fred Singer, because it’s so ridiculous that it seems like satire, even if it’s intended to be serious.

How do you stand it? How do you stay sane? How do you walk around all day without feeling the heavy weight of the world’s future, tossed aside by people who won’t be around to care?

I find it easy to stay happy when I only look at the scientific side of this issue. But as public communication is becoming absolutely vital for climate scientists, we can’t submerge ourselves in math anymore. Just look at how many editorials Nature has written lately on the abysmal state of climate change journalism. Even the peer-reviewed literature can’t stay separate from public communication and policy.

Most of you have been at it longer than I have. How do you cope? We’re going to need to figure it out, because our sanity is needed now more than ever.

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18 thoughts on “Staying Sane

  1. How do you walk around all day without feeling the heavy weight of the world’s future, tossed aside by people who won’t be around to care?

    I’ve been fighting for a better world for decades now. Sometimes I see reason for hope when I see the changes in legislation and public awareness since the seventies. Other times I’m pretty sure we’re all screwed even without climate change exacerbating things.

    For myself, I have the following Edward Abbey quote printed out and stuck to my fridge, and any office or cubicle I am inhabiting at the time. Great advice and it helps. :-)

    One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.

  2. > the heavy weight of the world’s future, tossed aside by people who won’t be around to care?

    We need to reach the people who *do* have a stake in the future. The moms.

    Have you seen Katherine Hayhoe’s presentation? Lou Grinzo was raving about it; IMO he’s right.

  3. I look at this the same way I look at voting in the US. The system is essentially rigged but I do vote every election – typically voting against the worst person. I did actually vote for Obama because he gave me hope.

    Anyway, one must always do their part to improve the world around them. Education is the best means to do so and you are doing a great job, Kate. I am sure that your friends realize the importance of climate change just by seeing/hearing what you do. You may be suprised how you have affected people even when you do not see it with your own eyes. Domino effect sort of.

    You are a skilled communicator and are entering climate science just when we need people like you most. Carry the flag proudly. Do your part and you WILL inspire those around you. And always smile while doing so. :)

  4. Hi Kate,

    Clive Hamilton (you’re likely aware of him because of his recent 5-part series on the attack on climate science) made a presentation to the “Four Degrees and Beyond” conference at Oxford last fall: “Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and Stresses of a Four Degree World”.

    The paper is more about dealing with the awareness that we are potentially facing that kind of crisis rather than coping with it in real time. It’s also germane to note that the presentation was made to, primarily, climate scientists on the front lines.

    It’s only 8 pages long, but it is well-referenced so you can dig a little deeper.

    Here are some excerpts:

    “Extensive social scientific research into human reactions to threats provides some insights into the psychological strategies humans are likely to adopt in the face of the threat of global warming. As we shall see below, all of these “coping strategies” are designed to defend against or manage the unpleasant emotions associated with “waking up” to the dangers of a warming globe. The emotions include fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, anguish, sadness, depression and helplessness. These unpleasant emotions arise in part because the threat of warming may also destabilise an individual’s identity or sense of self—threatening one’s life plans, reminding one of the fact of eventual death, challenging the morality of ecologically destructive or apathetic behaviours, or subverting one’s internalised expectations of the future.”

    He suggests there are three broad strategies people adopt:
    1. Denial Strategies
    2. Maladaptive coping strategies.
    3. Adaptive coping strategies.

    “In short, denial strategies suppress both facts and emotions, maladaptive coping strategies admit some of the facts and allow some of the emotions, both often in distorted form, and adaptive coping strategies accept the facts and allow the emotions to be felt, thus promoting more positive behaviours.”

    Since you are obviously quite aware of the problems with the first two, I will just add another few bits from the 3rd.

    “Adaptive coping strategies are akin to later phases of mourning and involve acceptance of, rather than resistance to, some of the pain and distress that follows recognition of the facts of climate science and their meaning…

    Allowing oneself to feel one’s anger, depression and despair for a time may be a healthy response to anticipated climate change… These feelings are natural human responses to the situation humanity is encountering, and to encourage their suppression, by urging people not to worry or suggesting some solution will be found, may mean the energy behind them manifests in other, damaging or maladaptive, ways…

    …Remaining indefinitely within these feelings can, however, be debilitating, leading to apathy and resignation, so the objective is to manage or transcend the emotions by engaging with them. The cultivation of mindfulness—a calm and detached awareness of one’s own feelings and emotions— has been shown to assist this process…

    For many people, fear of the unknown is more frightening than fear of the known, so one healthy response to the prospect of a transformed and less friendly climate is to find out more about climate change… Although finding out more about anticipated climate change can generate more stress, understanding what to expect at least alleviates anxiety of the unknown and can help people plan more effectively for a different future…

    Problem-solving can itself be an effective strategy for reducing stress. For example, the adoption of problem-solving as a coping strategy might impel people to work with others so as to prepare for a changed climate, through political activism or joining local groups or councils that might develop mitigation and adaptation measures. It is well-known that taking action and thereby exerting some control over the situation is an effective response… The sense of shared purpose associated with working more collaboratively with others to protect the common interest can also reduce the ‘burden of knowing'”

    Anyway, have a look – there’s more. I thought it was quite good.

    By the way, it seems to me that you are already intuitively adopting some of those “adaptive coping” strategies. You also got some good advice upthread in the comments about keeping balanced, compartmentalizing the “mind-and-body time” you give over to this subject vs. family and friends and play, etc. And it never hurts to remind us all about the importance of good habits of exercise, diet, sleep, etc.

    Keep up the great work!

  5. The problem of staying well and active in the face of apathy, distrust and hostility is something that I think everyone concerned about climate change and other environmental issues has to deal with. And for me, it’s something I have to deal with often – come back and re-focus on it, work out new techniques to help. I think I feel a bit like you – I just want to work on my bit of research, and not worry about the politics of everything as well! But the wider context intrudes often, and painfully.

    A while ago I realised that I was throwing myself into climate change research and activism in a way that was personally unsustainable, and I was becoming very (clinically) depressed. The way I was doing things was bad for me partly because I always felt like I needed to read more, research more, take more action, so I kept working long after I should have been resting, and didn’t give myself enough time or positive information or experiences to recover from all the distressing and discouraging information and media.

    Once I had pulled myself out of the hole of depression, I had to re-evaluate my approach to environmentalism, so that I wouldn’t fall right back down.

    This new approach centers on recognition of the fact that if you’re not well, you can’t do anything to help. So, if we feel a responsibility to do the most we can for our world, the first part of that responsibility is to look after yourself, and keep well.

    It’s a simple realisation, but has been profound for me!

    And if requires constant work and development, but here are some of the things that I have found help me keep positive.

    Taking time off and time out, and NOT FEELING GUILTY ABOUT IT! If you start to re-engage and still feel dread, that’s not long enough of a break.

    Talking, often, to inspiring, positive people, who are caring, passionate and active about the issues. And if the work/situation is too sad, talk about something completely unrelated, to get out of the head-space. But if you can both manage it, talking through what was upsetting, working out why it was so. This puts you in a better place to make counter-arguments, because you can separate out and acknowledge your emotional reactions, before getting into logical mode, to refute nonsense. Because, unfortunately, getting angry and yelling doesn’t seem to help.

    And, taking then action! Writing letters to the editor, blog posts, op-eds. But not re-inventing the wheel, finding the evidence and arguments against what you have been reading that have already been made (and there are always lots – on Grist, or Climate Progress, and many other places), and working them into your letters (as long as you agree with their referencing and arguments, and acknowledge these).

    And, remembering that it’s not the people writing those articles that you want to influence, it’s all the people who might be reading their articles. There is no use trying to convince people who hold opinions with no evidence that their argument is wrong. Do not engage! It will just be upsetting! But definitely do engage with everyone else.

    I have lots more, but I think those are the main ones – taking time off, talking to others (in person, over tea is best for me), acknowleding emotions, and then taking action, without spending too much time!

    good luck!

  6. BTW one metaphor I have found helpful, is that of a doctor. It’s a doctor’s job to tell his patients to stop smoking, and why. It’s not his job to make them stop. It’s most certainly not his job to lie awake at night over his patients smoking.

    You can only do your best, not more.

  7. “It’s a doctor’s job to tell his patients to stop smoking, and why. It’s not his job to make them stop. It’s most certainly not his job to lie awake at night over his patients smoking.”

    Yeah, but what sinks me (and I’m NOT coping at all), is that in that model, I’m the doctor, and the patient’s smoking is killing MY children. Doesn’t make for a pleasant attitude toward humanity (or generic individuals).

    Just ask my wife. I’m just a barrel of giggles to live with. :-(

    [Greg, go and read the comments on this post, and count how many reference you as the real turning point for their interest in climate change. Nobody can fix this on their own, but you have done an incredible job. Think of all the ripples you’ve caused. -Kate]

  8. Greg, yep, nice. Sounds familiar.

    But… you can only do your best, not more. And you did already more than most. A lot more.

  9. “Most of you have been at it longer than I have. How do you cope?”

    With difficulty, I’m afraid. One thing that can be inspirational though is a clear, powerful – and not contrived – conception of what a better world would look like, at least in principle.

  10. The phrase “the work of despair” comes to mind.

    The idea being that on the other side of despair is hope. That can be true. What use there is in this knowledge?

    Recently I have been thinking of Raul Hiberg a historian who impresses me. He devoted his life to elucidating how the slaughter of millions was accomplished during the holocaust. D.D. Guttenplan had this to say in a 12 March 2001 article found in the Guardian Newspaper:

    Whatever we talked about, we seemed always to come back to numbers. “These numbers do matter,” Hilberg said. “They also matter for the very simple reason – call it religious if you like.” At this point he saw my gaze shift from the Teletubbies magnets on his refrigerator to the menorah balanced on top of his television set.

    “I’m an atheist,” he said. “All these things belong to my wife, not me. I am an atheist. But there is ultimately, if you don’t want to surrender to nihilism entirely, the matter of a record. Does the record matter? In my judgment it is not discussable, it is not arguable. It matters because it matters to me – it’s my life.”

    The sanctity of facts. As the trial wore on, I often found my mind returning to the afternoon I’d spent with Hilberg. After a lifetime of studying brutality, inhumanity, murder on an industrial scale, after personal tragedy and professional conflict, this is what he has to hold on to: the sanctity of facts. Was that enough?

    (end of excerpt)

    We can’t ask Raul Hilberg. It seems even if the sanctity of facts is not enough they are still necessary. They are not something we can do without.

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