We’ve all seen those photos. I’m talking about the photos of a skinny polar bear, a dead albatross chick with a stomach full of plastic, or a drone view of a deforested landscape. How do those photos make you feel? Sad? Helpless? Concerned?
I find that when I look at photos like those or read about environmental issue after environmental issue, I start to feel hopeless, scared, and just a general sense of overwhelmingness (which is a real word, I checked). Anyone else feel that way?
We are not alone in feeling like this. Ecophobia, eco-despair, eco-anxiety, or whatever you want to call it, are observed phenomena that we are seeing more and more. Ecophobia and its many synonyms convey that sense of overwhelmingness about all of the challenges the environment faces. Ecophobia can also encompass the sense that irreversible degradation of the planet is imminent and there is nothing we can do about it. My challenge to you is when you see photos like these or read articles about the habitat destruction and you start to hear that voice that says things like “What’s the point of trying? We’re all screwed anyway; good luck trying to find a wild whale in twenty years,” tell that voice to quiet down. Remind that voice that there are not only things already being done to help the environment in major ways but there are also so, so, so many things we can do individually to help, every day!
Look for the helpers
We should start helping by looking for people who are already doing great work on behalf of the planet’s health. You may be familiar with Mr. Roger’s quote, “Look for the helpers” and this quote from this illustrious man is applicable to many situations. There are so many people, both nationally and internationally, who are working hard every day and dedicating their lives to combating the overwhelmingness of environmental issues.
I was lucky to go to Borneo last year as part of my graduate school studies. I knew before I went that Borneo was struggling with deforestation due to palm oil but I didn’t quite grasp the scale of it until I went there. Even just flying into Borneo you can look out and see all of the palm oil plantations. As far as the eye can see there are neat rows of palm. Yes, it’s green but unsustainable palm oil plantations can wreak havoc like deforestation, heavy pesticide use, habitat destruction, the killing of native animals, and much more. Arriving in Borneo and learning about the multitude of issues that humans, animals, and the environment face made me feel helpless and pretty hopeless, too.
Then I met the people working in Borneo. Rangers, educators, scientists, and community members clearly knew the incredible value of the environment around them and I saw so many people working hard every single day to make it healthier for the benefit of both the people and the wildlife there. For example, one of the many incredibly conservationists I met in Borneo was Whapa, a member of a reforestation team. On her team were about 10 other women and together they spend 40 hours a week in the hot sun, replanting a variety of native fruiting trees on land that had once belonged to palm oil plantations. Each day this team planted hundreds of saplings and monitored those that they planted years ago. It was grueling work but Whapa and her team do it because they know and have seen for themselves the benefits that biodiversity provides to people, organisms, and environment.
People like the members of the reforestation team give me hope that change can happen. Improvements can be made. People are working hard to make the world a healthier, better place. Look for those helpers. And join them!
Choose one thing
So you want to help! That’s great! But you might not know where to start. That’s okay, too. Taking action on behalf of the planet can have many forms and not all actions are for everyone. For example, growing your own food is a super sustainable action to take. However, as I live in an apartment with no yard, that action does not work for me. Also, figuring which actions are the most valuable and most worth the effort of undertaking them is important, too! I recently decided I would try to unplug all of my electronic devices (phone chargers, computer chargers, etc.) every day when I left for work. I was fairly dedicated to this action until I read an article that informed me that because of energy efficient most smartphones and laptops are, unplugging my devices each day for a year would save the same amount of energy that it takes to heat up one bathtub’s worth of water. Lesson learned: make sure the effort you put into conservation action is worth it in terms of the environmental impact you’re making.
My main advice to you is this. If you’re just starting your environmental conservation action journey, start by choosing one thing. Just one. Deciding to air dry your clothes AND make your own laundry detergent AND take public transportation every day AND be a vegetarian would be too much and would not set you up for sustainable success. Choosing one new conservation action habit and sticking with that for a while is the way to go. After that first habit is an established part of your life, you can decide to take on another and so on.
Taking action and taking on a new habit is much easier when you do it with other people! For example, if you’re going to give up meat one day a week, challenge your spouse, roommates, or other family members to join you!
If you’re searching for inspiration as far as what conservation actions you can feasibly take one, look to your community! There are all kinds of ways to get involved in conservation action that you can be a part of every day. Ask organizations in your community about actions you can take to help your local environment. Look online! Comment below and share tips for how to get started! I also strongly recommend talking to your friends and family about what they’re doing to help the planet on a daily basis. I guarantee that they’ll have great ideas.
Taking on these new habits and making these changes may not seem significant on an individual level, but if everyone is doing those “small” actions, it makes a huge positive impact on the planet and its inhabitants.
My final piece of advice is to have hope when it comes to these environmental challenges. Not only remind yourself to continue to work and hope for improvements in the health of global ecosystems, but if and when you talk to others about issues like climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, etc. make sure you give them hope as well. Research illustrates that when people feel there is no hope that things will improve, they are unlikely to take any action, which of course makes the issues worse. Staying hopeful keeps us motivated, engaged, and dedicated to conservation actions and conservation programs and spreading a message of hope about the environment makes other people want to work to make positive changes too!
It’s easy to feel powerless and hopeless in the face of all kinds of environmental challenges. It’s completely understandable - there’s a lot going on to worry about!
However, we can channel that concern into positive change if we look for the helpers (and join them!), start by choosing one environment-focused action or habit to undertake, and continue to hope for and work for a better future for the planet.
GUEST BLOGGER AND TFUI OFFICER MARGARET HANZLICK-BURTON
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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