If You’re Feeling Despair

If your faith in our country and our people is shaken, if you see this terrible reversal as a catastrophe about which you can do nothing, please remember: now you are needed in a way you would never have been needed if nothing had gone wrong. We need your good efforts, your willingness to work to uphold what is right and what is compassionate. We need your good sense, to point the way when many compasses will be spinning and useless. We need your patience, to wait until this has passed so that we can pick up the pieces and move on, but we also need your stubbornness, your unwillingness to be plowed under by ignorance and hate, your best ideas and strongest convictions, your anxieties made into understanding, your hopelessness made into acceptance.

Thank you for being willing to hold fast onto the things you can protect and to make those small gains that may be possible. I know you may want to crawl under a rock for four years and come back out when this is over. I would love to join you there. But we can’t, because now we have work to do, and it is time to get started.


PS – If you’re having a really bad day and could use some ideas on how to turn it around, here are some suggestions gleaned from psychological research: How to Stop Having a Bad Day.

Perfect Is the Enemy

I have a hard time with imperfection. I think a lot of people do. For example, at our house, we have these fabric drawersthat we got to give a home to all of the miscellaneous stuff that was spreading over our kitchen and dining room. Maybe I can find a picture … yes, here we go. This is how those are supposed to look.

fabric drawer cube system

Ours are a little overflowing with materials we haven’t found time to put away, but they would make the whole area look more or less presentable except for the cats. To the cats, fabric drawers are not an organizational system: they are a scratching post. The drawers we got a year or 18 months ago look like they lost a fight with a cheese grater. I can’t tell you how much they cry out to be thrown away and replaced.

And yet … what’s really wrong with them? We don’t notice them on a day-to-day basis, although it’s true there’s probably a certain sense of disheveledness that lurks in the backs of our minds. No, really the main thing about them is that when people come into our house, they see them, and the drawers look kind of cruddy, which feels like it reflects badly on me. I imagine visitors have thoughts like

  • “Don’t these people care that those drawers look like crap?”
  • “Can’t they control their animals?”
  • “Do they even notice this, or do they live as blissfully ignorant pigs?”
  • “Are they so poor they can’t afford new fabric drawers?”
  • etc.

Replacing the drawers would be mainly for appearances, in other words. I do like things to look beautiful. I’d like things to look beautiful even if I knew no one else was ever going to see them. But I think that in middle income American homes like ours (probably even more so in high income homes) we share a sense that things should look nice, and that at best things that don’t look nice should only be kept around until we can afford replacements. It’s unremarkable for a college student to drive a beat-up, rusty-out car, but it’s unseemly for a 35-year-old or 45-year-old with a good income to do that, even if the car is comfortable and safe and gets terrific gas mileage. Appearances feel important.

Yet the difference between having decent, functional things and having things that look practically new is a huge one. If our family had money to burn and we really wanted our couch to look nice, we’d probably have to replace it every few years, between the cats and the kids. How much of our consumption is because we want to buy new, not used; or to replace the old, working thing with a newer, better one; or to rebuy rather than repair? How much is because we don’t want to be seem dragging a scratched-up old wardrobe out of a recycle store instead of getting a nice-looking new one at Ikea or Ethan Allen?

This is the bottom line on looking perfect: If I’m really committed to fighting climate change, I’m going to need to be increasingly willing to let things be a little frayed, worn, scratched, or outdated. I’m going to need to get over feeling like people are judging me a failure if my car or my clothes or my house doesn’t look shiny and recent. And I think I’m going to have to be not only comfortable with this imperfect, aging, blemished stuff, but also to be a proponent for it. This is hard, because following the social norms is a way to get along more easily with people, to make interactions smoother, to make people feel more comfortable or more confident about us. We don’t want people to question our abilities or intelligence, to undervalue us. Yet if we drive ugly cars and wear threadbare clothing, they will.

Society as a whole isn’t going to change rapidly unless or until utter disaster strikes, so I don’t expect living shabby will get easier in terms of how other people react–not any time soon. What we’re left with, I think, is making it comfortable from the inside. Our emotional imperfections, at least, we can afford to replace.

The Easy Way to Fight Climate Change? Not Likely


The kind of lifestyle that would save us from climate change disaster might not be too hard to picture. I picture drastically reduced car usage and drastically increased mass transit options, heavy dependence on local food, gardens in most backyards, solar panels on roofs (for electricity, hot water, and heating), forests of wind turbines, a huge push for energy efficiency and conservation, completely revamped industrial processes, a change in entertainment from electronic and passive to social and engaged, and more than any of that, embracing a much less luxurious–but incontrovertibly happier–lifestyle.

To life so that we’re really fighting climate change, I believe we have to give up a lot of the assumptions and expectations we currently have, but that the things we’re giving up are the kinds of things that research seems to show are not nearly as important to us as they seem. Our culture is heavily focused on electronic entertainment, on heavy use of travel, and on consumption, consumption, consumption. None of that really makes us happy. Sure, it might provide some temporary pleasure, but it doesn’t address any of the basic human needs that contribute to happiness. (If you’re interested, take a look at my article “The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness.”)

So far, so good: living that kind of lifestyle doesn’t worry me at all if it’s according to that mental picture, everyone changing the way they live together, understanding and responsibility spreading throughout the culture.

As if.

That would be the easy way to deal with the problem–“easy” in terms of the toll it would take on us individually, not in terms of the cost or amount of effort involved, which of course would be huge, though manageable if we were all to pitch in together. In truth, though, I don’t think there’s much chance we’re going to take the easy way. People are used to living the lifestyles they have now, and people who have the most privileged lifestyle–and therefore who have the most impact–have the least motivation to wake up and smell the catastrophe.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

― Margaret Mead

So if it’s not going to be the easy way, what are the hard ways? I believe there are three of them.

Choice number one is nobody doing anything until it’s much too late. Many of us die; the rest of us are subjected, almost every one, to lifelong suffering as we scrabble to feed ourselves, maintain homes that won’t be destroyed by weather, fight off disease of spreading pest populations, and make our peace with all of the suffering and death we see in the lives of our loved ones.

Choice number two is a little better, though not much: choice number two is our culture waking up to the problem when it’s late, but not too late. In this situation, the poorest and least powerful people will have to give things up first, and the most privileged people will give things up last. We’ll be dragged, kicking and screaming, into some half-baked semblance of sustainability. It might be enough to save us, though not to shield us from all of the trouble we will have bought already. Food will be scarce, energy will be too expensive to afford, and infrastructure will breaks down in many places where nobody’s able to pay to keep it working. Dark Ages, here we come.

Choice number three is still hard, but as you can probably guess from choices one and two, it’s my favorite of the “hard ways.” In choice number three, some of us push very hard now to model how a sustainable lifestyle looks. We figure out in our own lives how to live sustainably and throw ourselves energetically into doing so even though almost everybody else will just go on partying as usual. We would need to be able to look around us at people who are still driving SUVs and blasting the air conditioning with the window open and chowing down on McDonald’s and to continue living with care and consciousness even when nobody else is required to.

"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

― Albert Einstein

It doesn’t really seem fair. After all, apart from a sense of satisfaction and maybe a certain amount of preparedness, living sustainably doesn’t benefit the people who do it any more than it benefits their unsustainable neighbors.

Yet the unfair way is the way to go. If it were easy, or fair, or obvious, everyone would already be doing it. It’s not easy, and it’s unfair, and most people will look at that sustainable lifestyle and dismiss us a eco-freaks.

Here’s what I’ve been asking myself: How do we think about that in a way that drives us forward rather than holds us back? How do we think about what we’re creating instead of what we’re giving up?

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

― Barack Obama

(We can debate whether or not Mr. Obama has embraced this point of view himself yet, but either way, that statement is on the money.)

I think I have an answer for that, for how we can look at all of this work and begin to feel all “Bring it on!” about it. I’ll post about that soon. In the mean time … your thoughts?

Photo by Wonderlane

How Learning More Makes Bad News Easier to Hear

This morning I was listening to the news on the radio, and I heard a story about shellfish dying off as the ocean becomes more acidic. This is something I found out about only in the last week or two, as I’ve started paying more attention to climate change and learning more about it: the oceans naturally sucks up a lot of carbon that we release into the atmosphere, though we haven’t noticed it much because the world’s oceans are so vast. Unfortunately, absorbing all that carbon makes the water more acidic–30 percent more acidic since the start of the industrial revolution. Shellfish, whose shells are made of materials very vulnerable to acidity, are having trouble coping: they’re dying off faster than they can adapt.

This is really distressing news, and in the past I would have felt deeply worried to hear about it and would have probably tried to distract myself from this problem, considering how little I can do to directly affect it.

The difference lately is that I’ve been facing these problems more, so hearing the news story just made me think “Yup, I’m glad they’re covering that and helping tell people about it.” I haven’t lost any of my resolve to try to help fix the problem of climate change, yet hearing about the damage we’re doing didn’t bother me in the way it has before.

Based on what I’ve learned about emotional responses, I think there are two reasons for this.

First, I’d heard the news recently and was remembering it. In the past, I had probably heard about ocean acidification and not let myself dwell on it, so I hadn’t remembered, but now the news didn’t feel like anything new to me: it wasn’t a new problem to worry about. Confirmation of things we already think we know tends to have a confidence-building effect: it feels good to hear people confirm our knowledge or beliefs, even if the confirmation is about problems or dangers.

Second, while I’m just barely getting started and am hardly doing anything yet, I am taking action, both in terms of educating myself and in terms of trying to spread the word. Actually doing something about a problem, even if what we’re doing is pretty minor, tends to make us feel much better about those problems.

There’s a tricky distinction here: I want to feel better about the climate change catastrophe to the point where I’m not paralyzed by anxiety about it. We can act more intelligently and effectively when we aren’t dragged down by too many negative emotions. At the same time, I don’t want to become complacent–I don’t want to just relax about the whole thing. I need to be working on this problem, not distracting myself to feel good.

Yet I don’t think I need to worry: as long as my coping methods are things like learning more and taking action, I know my improved emotional state is based on facing the problem rather than blocking it from my mind.

You would think that after seven years studying human habits, motivation, and emotions, all of this would have been clear to me long since, that I would realize that if I’m worried about something, facing it is usually the best thing I could possibly do. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to be too hard on myself for being slow to pick up on this. After all, we’re programmed to fight or flee when something scary comes along. Stepping up and facing the danger is a skill we have to learn to assert, and that can take some time.

Photo by Boogies with Fish