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The MomShift

The MomShift

Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Having Children
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Mudgirls Manifesto


Where On Earth Are We Going?

In early 2015, I was on Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui. At just over ten thousand feet, it is Maui's tallest volcano. From the summit, the landscape below looked harsh and inhospitable. Black, bleak lava fields stretched into the distance and there was an almost complete lack of vegetation. A biting wind sliced through the layers of warm clothing I had put on earlier that morning. In this desolate place, my attention was drawn to an endangered nene goose walking slowly across the trail about fifty yards in front of me. A fellow visitor also noticed the inconspicuous grey-brown bird and we struck up a conversation. After talking about the nene and our surroundings, he told me he was a recently retired steel worker from the east coast and this trip to Hawaii had been on his bucket list for years. Then he asked me what I did. After I told him that I taught environmental studies and sustainability, he sighed deeply and looked away as his eyes filled with tears. In a soft and sorrowful voice, he proceeded to tell me about his only son and daughter-in-law who had lost their home to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The storm surge had destroyed their New Jersey shoreline house and although it had been re-built, the young couple had not fully recovered. They had become so alarmed about climate disruption they decided not to have any children, so he will never have grandchildren. This broke his heart.

A few months later, I was teaching a class at Antioch University Seattle. The students and I were talking about recent environmental changes they had noticed. A twenty-something year old talked about going to Alaska every summer and noticing how much the glaciers were receding from year to year. Another spoke about the decline in salmon and steelhead populations and what it meant for his tribe. Then someone else told about her Australian friends who had decided to immigrate to the Pacific Northwest because of the now unbearable summer heat in their home country. Gradually, the conversation lapsed into silence. Then a young woman quietly said, "It's all too much. I am terrified about what's happening and I don't know where it's all going. I don't have much hope for the future." Her words tailed off as she began to cry, tears coursing down her pretty face. Some of her colleagues looked away and shuffled their papers, embarrassed by her show of emotion. Others nodded their heads in agreement because she had given voice to their unspoken thoughts.

Retired steel workers, students and many others are beginning to express their feelings about the state of the environment. They know something is terribly wrong. Their experience is consistent with the scientific consensus that humankind is destroying the earth's ecosystems and threatening the future of life on the planet. Although scientists have been saying this for decades, what's happening now is different because ordinary people are witnessing the changes for themselves. Whether they are losing their homes to hurricanes, floods, wildfires or rising sea levels, enduring extreme heat or cold, living with drought or getting sick from pollution, what's happening now could be a game-changer. Even many who are only affected indirectly are becoming alarmed.

Indeed, concern about climate disruption has already led hundreds of thousands of people to protest. In September 2014, about 600,000 people in more than 160 countries around the world took to the streets, including about 400,000 in New York alone. A similar number voiced their concern just over a year later just ahead of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. And in April 2017, over 200,000 people turned out in Washington, D.C. and tens of thousands more took part at over 370 sister marches worldwide. Even though the truth is very inconvenient, it's beginning to change the way people think, feel and act.

The Global Eco-social Crisis and Its Impacts

It's only in the past few decades that humankind has woken up to the fact that there is an emerging global eco-social crisis. Before then, people thought about environmental problems as if they were separate from each other and contained within specific geographical boundaries. But now local issues tend to be seen in a larger context--a drought can remind us about climate disruption, the destruction of a wetland can remind us about worldwide habitat loss, dead fish in a lake can remind us about pollution's global scale. There's also a growing realization that action on any one issue won't be effective unless it is connected to actions on others. For example, you can't work on preserving biodiversity without working on habitat destruction, climate disruption, invasive species, pollution, human overpopulation and over-harvesting, and you can't work to prevent habitat destruction without working on food production, agricultural practices, lumber harvesting, housing and infrastructure development, water availability and pollution. Perhaps most significantly, there's an increasing recognition that environmental problems cannot be treated separately from their social, cultural and economic contexts. For instance, communities of color are often exposed to higher levels of toxic chemicals, and climate disruption affects vulnerable populations more than others. As John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, said "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

Because the scale of the crisis is still sinking in, there is not yet an agreed word or phrase to describe it. In this book, I use the expression 'global eco-social crisis' because it underscores the systemic and interconnected nature of our problems, as well as their urgency. When I use it, I include all environmental problems and their social, cultural and economic contexts. I believe that focusing exclusively on any single problem, even climate disruption, over-simplifies our predicament. In addition, I have chosen to use the phrase 'climate disruption' rather than the more neutral 'climate change' or the benign 'global warming.' This is because, to me, 'climate disruption' better describes the nature of the changes that we are beginning to witness.


Psychological Impacts

Although there is a lot of scientific information about the unfolding crisis and how it will affect human health and wellbeing, there is very little known about its psychological impacts. So far, few in-depth studies have been done on this important topic. One source of information is public opinion polling, even though it is a superficial and unreliable surrogate. Indicating significant levels of concern, it reveals that people around the world are worried. In China, about 80 percent of the population is concerned about the country's environmental problems. In Brazil, 87 percent believe that climate change is 'very serious.. In Australia, a survey of children reported that over half were worried about not having enough water, almost half said they were anxious about climate change and a similar proportion said they were concerned about air and water pollution.

But the psychological impacts of the global eco-social crisis go far beyond concern, worry and anxiety and include much more serious disorders. Three main types can be identified:

Direct and acute effects associated with living through extreme weather events and other environmental disasters. These include acute and post traumatic stress disorder, depression, despair, grief, place attachment disorder, apathy, fear, somatic disorders, drug and alcohol use and suicide;

Indirect or vicarious effects associated with observing these events combined with uncertainty about the future. These include fear, guilt, sadness, despair, depression, anger, grief and apathy; and

Community or large-scale psycho-social effects. These include decreased community cohesion, a disrupted sense of continuity and belonging, increased violence and crime, increased social instability, increased inter-personal and inter-group aggression and domestic abuse.

As conditions deteriorate, these impacts are likely to become more common. In the U.S., one recent study predicted that two hundred million Americans will experience serious psychological impacts from climate disruption and that in many instances the distress will be severe. Even the conservative American Psychological Association, the world's largest professional association of psychologists, is warning about the mental health consequences of climate disruption.

These psychological effects are to be expected. Like other animals, human beings get extremely frightened whenever their survival is threatened. However, this crisis isn't just about our individual survival, it's about our collective survival. Ecopsychologist Joanna Macy calls this realization "the pivotal psychological reality of our time." She says, "every generation throughout history lived with the tacit certainty that there would be generations to follow. Each assumed, without questioning, that its children and children's children would walk the same earth, under the same sky. Hardships, failures, and personal death were encompassed in that vaster assurance of continuity. That certainty is now lost to us, whatever our politics. That loss, unmeasured and immeasurable, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time."

This terrifying reality is more difficult to accept because we don't talk about it. When we fail to acknowledge our feelings about the future, they don't go away. Exactly the opposite happens - they fester in our unconscious and get worse. And the more we avoid talking about our feelings, the more isolated and alone we feel, and the more we can think that our feelings are abnormal or unfounded. But these emotions are very natural. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, they have been hard-wired into us as a survival mechanism. Constituting an internal early warning system, we ignore them at our peril. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls them "the bells of mindfulness." He says "(t)he bells of mindfulness are calling out to us, trying to wake us up, reminding us to look deeply at our impact on the planet." However unpleasant or unwanted, these feelings are telling us that we urgently need to change our ways. Indeed, unless we heed them and wake up, we may not survive.

We can hear Thich Nhat Hanh's "bells of mindfulness" and feel the earth's suffering because we are part of her. It's as if we are the cells of her body and can feel the trauma she is experiencing. No one is isolated or separate from her so it is only natural that everyone is affected by what's happening to the environment, whether we acknowledge it or not. If we see an oil-covered pelican struggling for its life, the raw stumps of a clear-cut forest, or a smoke stack belching pollution into the atmosphere, we feel sad. We experience these feelings because we are connected to the earth - not just physically but at the deepest levels of our humanity.


Uncovering and Nurturing Hope

This book is based on what I have learned about hope. Like my previous book, The Rise of the U.S. Environmental Health Movement (Rowman & Littlefield: 2013), it draws on my experience of working on environmental and related health and social issues over the past thirty-five years. Over that time, I have worked in several settings. In the early 1980s, I launched my career in the City of Toronto in Canada, where I established and later managed its Environmental Protection Office, the first local government environmental office in Canada. In the 1990s, I moved to Ottawa and ran a successful environmental policy consulting company, providing services to the Canadian federal government and international agencies. In 2000, I went back to school to do a masters' degree in cultural anthropology and social transformation focusing on eco-social issues, so that I could better understand how change happens in societies, organizations and groups. Then in 2002, I moved to the Pacific Northwest to teach at Antioch University Seattle in its Center for Creative Change. I left the University in 2016.

My work has often left me feeling afraid, angry and very, very sad. Because of this, I have thought a lot about hope. Supported by my Quaker and Buddhist faiths—yes, I am a Quaker and a Buddhist—I have studied what hope can mean in these troubled times and how it can be sustained. This book is the result.

In it, I propose the idea of 'intrinsic hope.' Intrinsic hope is different from conventional hope because it is not based on the expectation that life will give us what we hope for. Instead, intrinsic hope is a deep, abiding trust in whatever happens and in the human capacity to respond to it positively. It accepts life just as it is and works with it, whether or not it's what we want. As one of my students said, "it's about making the best of any situation and never, ever giving up."

In contrast, conventional hope—in this book I call it 'extrinsic hope' - is based on the naive expectation that life will give us whatever we hope for. In other words, extrinsic hope is about anticipating improvements in our external circumstances. But life doesn't always give us what we hope for, and when it doesn't we can feel disappointed, sad and angry. Intrinsic hope does not come with this limitation because it doesn't depend on the expectation that life will conform with our wishes.

Intrinsic hope is not something we need to find or create because it is already inside us. Indeed, it is inherent in all life. We may not experience it much in everyday life because our extrinsic hopes are so strong, but it is still there and we can uncover it and nurture it whenever we want.

Based on my experience, the first step in uncovering intrinsic hope is to name our feelings about the global eco-social crisis. Paradoxically, by acknowledging our fear, disappointment, anger, frustration, guilt, sadness, despair, grief and other similar feelings, the more hopeful we can become. Conversely, the more we ignore them, the more the more hopeless we will become. So in Chapter 1, I identify and explore some common feelings about the global eco-social crisis.

The second step is to develop a firm foundation for intrinsic hope that can replace the wishful thinking of extrinsic hope. Even though we are all born with intrinsic hope, we still need a rationale to keep going. So in Chapter 2, I outline ten reasons that have helped me to be hopeful. The third step, described in Chapter 3, is to understand the nature of intrinsic and extrinsic hope in more detail.

The second part of this book examines how intrinsic hope can be nurtured. Over my career, I have thought a lot about this and Chapters 4-9 outline what I have learned so far. In these chapters, I propose six 'habits of hope' - intentional practices that have helped me to foster intrinsic hope. They are: being present, expressing gratitude, loving the world, accepting what is, taking action, and persevering for the long haul. I have dedicated a chapter to each of these topics and at the end of each one I have included a few suggestions about how to nurture the habit in a text box called "Try This." To wrap up the book, I have written a short concluding chapter that draws on the myth of Pandora's box. Although she is widely blamed for releasing pain, suffering and evil into the world, could it be that Pandora also gave us the gift of intrinsic hope?

Although this book focuses on the global eco-social crisis, the ideas in it can be applied to anything. We all have extrinsic hopes and feel disappointment, sadness and anger when we don't get what we hope for, and we can all uncover and nurture intrinsic hope as a constructive alternative. So I encourage you not to limit your thinking about hope to the unfolding crisis, but to see it more broadly in the context of your entire life.

Although intrinsic and extrinsic hope may be new phrases, they are ways of thinking that have been around for millennia. Today, they can help us respond positively to the global eco-social crisis, just as they have helped humankind to respond to death, disasters and tragedies through the ages. It seems that the best wisdom for facing the global eco-social crisis is no different than the best wisdom for facing any other type of personal or collective crisis.

Uncovering and nurturing intrinsic hope is a journey that is both challenging and inspiring. It helps us to look at our fears about the future and enables us to keep going no matter what happens. It challenges our assumptions about ourselves and what we believe is possible. And it gives us a reason to live at a time of gathering darkness. Most of all, uncovering and nurturing intrinsic hope is an ongoing journey. It is not somewhere we arrive or something we can get and keep. Uncovering and nurturing intrinsic hope requires ongoing effort because it is constantly eroded by the harm that human beings continue to inflict on the environment and on each other. Indeed, as the global eco-social crisis worsens, I believe that the need for intrinsic hope will increase. With this in mind, I sincerely 'hope' that you find this book useful. May it restore your hope and help you to live courageously in these troubled times.

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Frazzled to Free

Frazzled to Free

The Soulful Momma's Guide To Finding Meaningful Work
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Navigating Life, Loss and the Road to Success
also available: Hardcover
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Beckoned by the Sea

Beckoned by the Sea

Women at Work on the Cascadia Coast
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