Stop. Breathe. Think. Connect. Act

By Jen Farrell, Utah Recycling Alliance

Stop. Breathe. Think. Connect. Act

Through my own experiences and by talking with friends and colleagues, I know that caring about the environment, climate change, and even just our waste can cause anxiety, anger and depression.  If you have experienced this as well, I can tell you that we are not crazy and we are not alone.

Experts tell us that our feelings on this matter aren’t a pathology (whew!).  They are reasonable and healthy responses to an existential threat. As Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and researcher who studies attitudes towards climate change, puts it “I’d kind of wonder why somebody wasn’t feeling anxious.”(1)

When not properly addressed, these feelings of anxiety, frustration, and helplessness can lead to apathy, or worse. “We can become paralyzed by fear, or just tune out. We use various kinds of defense mechanisms to distract, to deflect, to numb out,” states Susan M Koger, a psychology professor who writes about psychology for sustainability. (1)  This kind of numbing or avoidance is unhelpful, both in dealing with the problems we are facing and more generally. 

Another common reaction is guilt, specifically environmental guilt.  Felt badly the last time you took a long road trip or flight for vacation?  Felt some guilty pangs when you had Thai take-out and it all came in Styrofoam packaging?  Well Koger also tells us “Guilt is not a useful emotion because guilt is not motivating.”(1)

So what can we do about this? 

  1. The first step is to acknowledge the validity of these feelings. There absolutely is cause for concern in what is happening in our environment. The lack of adequate action (or in some cases even acknowledgement) by individuals, companies, and governments is maddening. The devastation and losses of our natural resources and oceans, and the mind-boggling amount of waste that is created every day is heartbreaking.  It is okay to have these thoughts and reactions – as long as we don’t get stuck in them.  As for the guilt part, we can reframe it as responsibility (1).
  • Connect, band together, be part of a community.  I used to think ‘community’ was just one of those words that got thrown around a lot to sound nice, but more recently I have experienced and come to appreciate the value of connection within a community. I have been fortunate to be part of Salt Lake City’s sustainability community for just over 4 years now, but it really hit home for me when I also became a part of the recovery and mental health community about a year ago.  It was an accident – I joined a local nonprofit gym called Fit to Recover.  The idea there is that sobriety is not the opposite of addiction, connection is the opposite of addiction.  Research backs up this claim and it turns out our society has been approaching mental health and addiction problems all wrong for a long time (2); we have tried to isolate the problems instead of keeping our people connected to us, connected to society, connected to family and friends.   When we connect to each other, no one has to face the darkness alone and this is a powerful tool for recovery and well-being.  Seeing this philosophy in action has inspired me to feel the same way about the sustainability community.  The threats and problems we see and worry about are a darkness of their own kind and any individual facing that alone would be well justified to get lost in negative responses and just give up.  Knowing that we are in this together, that there is a network here and all over the world who stands in the same place gives me hope, inspires and empowers me. 

Get together and start connecting; continue building our community.  If you don’t know where to start let me give you a hint: you are reading the newsletter of one such wonderful community and there are others, many of which are linked to each other, forming a dynamic and strong network.  I am proud to be a leader in one of these associated communities – the SLC Master Recycler community.  This is a City-run program and I can tell you that the power is not in the curriculum; anyone can look up information on their own.  The power is in the people that commit to learn and grow together and the subsequent weaving of ideas and efforts. Helen Keller sums it up perfectly in her famous quote, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

  • Take action. Hickman (from the second paragraph of this article) states, “There’s less space for anxiety emotionally when you take practical steps.”(1)  I think we all know this to be true from other areas of our lives.  It is hard to be stressed about yardwork when raking; I know I don’t get stressed about my weight or my health when I am at the gym. The list goes on and also applies to sustainability and our environment.  When we take steps – like using reusable bags, taking leftovers from the restaurant using our own container, composting at home, biking/walking or using public transit or clean energy vehicles to get around, volunteering with a local organization, donating to a worthy cause, contacting our government representatives – we know we have represented what we believe and who we are to the best of our ability.  Along with the reduced waste, reduced emissions, and positive impacts in our community, these actions bring (much needed!) peace of mind. By exhibiting these eco-aware behaviors, we are also setting examples for our families, our friends, and our communities.  Take these actions with pride and know that you are not doing it alone.  I support you, the Utah Recycling Alliance supports you, and this community supports you!

My parting words to you are:  Stop. Breathe. Think. Connect. Act. (1)  “We may all have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Jen Farrell – Education & Permits Lead for SLC’s Waste and Recycling Division, Master Recycler Program Director, former URA Board member, daughter, sister, friend.

jennifer.farrell@slcgov.com, 801-209-3302

References:(1)https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191010-how-to-beat-anxiety-about-climate-change-and-eco-awareness; (2)https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong#t-202527

Images: https://www.istockphoto.com/stock-photos; https://pixabay.com/images/search/connect/