How Emotional Intelligence and To-Do Lists Can Help Save the Planet
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Barn's burnt down --
I can see the moon.
This Zen poem is hanging on my cousin’s fridge. I read it every time I visit her, and I think about it a lot, especially these days, when there is so much that’s burning.
I was thinking about it this week in particular because I’ve been talking with a lot of folks about climate anxiety. I teach college students, and they, like many other people in their 20’s, are anxious about their futures, questioning everything from whether to have kids, to what kind of work and resources will be available to them when they’re my age.
A September 2021 survey of 10,000 young people found that more than half were “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate impacts. And it’s not in the least surprising that the places where people between 16 and 25 reported being most worried about climate change are the places where climate impacts are already hitting the hardest: the Philippines, India and Brazil. (The study, which is the largest of its kind, is still undergoing peer review).
It’s not just folks in their 20s. Younger kids in the U.S. are also experiencing the impacts of climate change, and feelings of fear and anxiety about it. I listened to an interview recently with Leslie Davenport, a psychotherapist and author of “All the Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal With Climate Change,” which is written for middle-school aged kids. They’re exhibiting climate anxiety too, she says, which can show up as a physical ailment, like having shortness of breath, or like sleeplessness, or just generalized worrying.
Her book weaves together trauma-informed therapy exercises with climate information, to try to increase kids’ resilience as they learn about the impacts of climate change.
But there’s a kind of funny moment in the interview where the interviewer says, “You don’t shy away from or sugarcoat the hard facts about climate disruption” – things like species loss, increased natural disasters, displacement – and she, herself, started to feel despair and grief while reading the book.
How do you talk to kids about climate, without terrifying them, she asks?
And Davenport, the author, kind of laughs and says, “I'm curious, as you read the book, if you did any of the exercises?”
To which the answer is, basically, no. (You can listen to the full interview here – this exchange happens at about 37 minutes in).
This seems so important to me: We can’t just consume terrifying information about the climate, without having a plan for how we’re going to deal with our terror.
Doomsday-thinking or just straight-up climate denial provide a kind of psychological relief, Davenport says, by getting us out of the “unsettled” psychological place that’s so uncomfortable to be in. But those ways of thinking won’t help in the long run.
Davenport recommends a set of tools to build emotional resilience, basically building emotional muscles for getting comfortable with uncertainty. She suggests, among other things, mindfulness practices like breathing, meditation, walks in nature. Also: Don’t judge the feelings, people! It’s reasonable to be scared about climate change!
Plus, kids are great BS detectors when it comes to watching parents’ reactions to climate change. So if you’re not dealing with your own issues, kids are going to pick up on it.
But here’s the thing: Mindful breathing doesn’t come that easily to me. And, to be honest, the pressure to be more mindful often stresses me out.
So I have been turning lately to another strategy: List-making. I love a good to-do list. Here are two tools that I’ve found pretty helpful.
1) The Venn Diagram of Climate Action. This is an idea from climate activist and marine biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and the How to Save a Planet podcast crew.
Mine looks something like this:
What brings me joy: Parties, chatting with new people, adequate childcare
What I am good at: Talking to strangers, teaching, serving and eating snacks (no action too small!)
What is the work that needs doing: Advocating for local climate legislation
What I should do: Hire a babysitter and host a party at a bar where my friends invite their friends to have snacks and drinks, and write letters to our city and state officials about climate policy.
Is this all I can do? No! But it’s what I could imagine myself actually doing. And it will probably bring me joy.
Here’s another format I came across for a climate to-do list.
1. What you’re doing right now for the climate
2. What you’re willing to start doing
3. What you’re not willing to do
Here’s my list:
What I’m doing now for the climate
Recycling and composting
Buying bar soap instead of soap in plastic dispenser bottles (A small thing! But something!)
Voting for green candidates
What I’m willing to start doing
Drive only for trips longer than three miles from home
Call my local, state and federal representatives once a month about climate legislation
Buy more used clothing and less fast fashion (especially for my kid)
What I’m not willing to do
Give up plane travel.
I like this format, because it validates that something is better than nothing, and gets me to be honest with myself about what’s not possible for me, yet.
There’s a word — “solistalgia” — that means the pain you feel about places you love being destroyed as a result of our climate negligence. It’s a very personal feeling: one that’s about connection to our homelands, our ancestries, our family and personal histories. As a parent, I feel the pain of future losses, for my kid and all the other kids, and the places so many kids have already lost.
So that’s the barn burning down. Where is the moon? It’s in these actions. The ones I’m doing and I’m willing to do. The ones that bring me joy.