Those of us who work on environmental issues are bombarded on a daily basis with headlines repeating the message: “Time is up, our days are numbered.”
And, to tell the truth, rarely do they seem exaggerated: the IPCC reports, fires in Australia, the disillusionment of COP25, the mocking of the youth movement, assassinations and threats to environmental defenders.
During dinner parties and casual get-togethers, people who know I work on environmental issues ask me what they can do for our planet. We start by talking about garbage: produce less of it. This, although seemingly basic, leads to long and heated conversations.
Why? Because it questions our means of consumption, how we transport ourselves, feed ourselves, and dress. It makes us analyze our lifestyle and ask ourselves what “quality of life” means for us. Our garbage, after all, is the result of a long chain of emissions, which include the exploitation of land, species, and people.
The truth is, everything is connected and it’s impossible to detach ourselves from our impact on the Earth.
It’s through this chain of thoughts that many of us fall into episodes of “eco-anxiety.” It’s an increasingly common condition that, if left untreated, can be detrimental to our health. In 2017 the American Psychological Association (APA) described eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom… Watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children and later generations.”
The strange thing about this condition is that it can stop us from acting. We might begin to believe there’s nothing we can do and, then, stop paying attention. We might become more lax with our consumption habits and end up aggravating the problem.
So what can we do? From what I’ve gathered, our actions can be divided into three areas: the individual, the community, and the citizen-consumer.
A general rule for helping others is to first help yourself. The climate crisis affects our physical health, food security, human rights, and mental health.
According to the APA, emotional responses are normal and negative emotions are necessary for making decisions and living a full life. But extreme emotions and the lack of a plan to resolve the problem can interfere with our ability to think rationally and behave appropriately. Not to mention the fact that those suffering losses due to environmental catastrophes (hurricanes, droughts, and floods) may develop post-traumatic stress.
To confront these emotions, the APA suggests that we:
Individual actions do help, and people united for a cause can make a difference.
Rather than punish ourselves for everything that we can’t do, let’s begin to talk about what we can. How many emissions can we cut back on by riding a bicycle? How many plastic bags can we divert from the sea? How does our consumption help the local economy and our environment?
And always, always, take a daily dose of nature to inspire yourself.
Recently, single-use plastic bags were banned in Mexico City. More than one person said that it violated their right to shop as they please; others complained they didn’t know how to shop anymore.
I’ve used cloth bags for years. I could have just rejoiced in my own environmental righteousness and bragged on Twitter. Instead I asked myself, “Why not share some recommendations?” Practices that I had already applied to my house were well received by friends and neighbors because they were practical.
Building relationships, however brief, is a step toward strengthening our community. Also, it helps to maintain perspective and a sense of humor.
Get together with neighborhood groups, volunteer with organizations whose cause you support. Donating time, money, or materials is taking a step beyond your individual actions. Have a friend who wants to eat less meat? Offer them your best vegetarian recipes! Do you know how to program or do graphic design? Do you have a pick up truck? Surely there are groups who would appreciate your help.
At AIDA, for instance, we’re often looking for volunteers and interns.
The APA recognizes the impacts of the climate crisis on the mental health of certain communities; they are not the same in a city as they are in an area at risk of environmental disaster, or in an indigenous community.
Affected communities confront a loss of social cohesion and the loss of important spiritual or recreational places. They also witness an increase in violence, including racial violence, as certain groups become increasingly persecuted. Furthermore, a loss of identity ruptures the unity of these communities, as is happening with the Inuit of Greenland or as we at AIDA have seen in displaced indigenous and riverine populations in the Amazon.
This may be a subject you don’t particularly enjoy, but you’re needed here too.
The wastewater produced in your home is but a drop compared to untreated industrial waste being dumped into a river. You could ride your bike everyday, but you would still be living in a country that permits industries to emit volatile carcinogenic and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without accountability.
While our goodwill does matter, it just doesn’t have as large an impact as the will (and obligations) of governments and industries to do things right and work for the health of all living things.
In Latin America, the election of our local representatives may work differently than it does in the United States. But that doesn’t free us from the responsibility to elect representatives that will work for a cleaner and more resilient future. Indeed, we must demonstrate our interest in that future and demand that they work toward it.
Environmental writer Emma Marris explained it well in her New York Times column: “The climate crisis is not going to be solved by personal sacrifice. It will be solved by electing the right people, passing the right laws, drafting the right regulations, signing the right treaties—and respecting those treaties already signed, particularly with indigenous nations. It will be solved by holding the companies and people who have made billions off our shared atmosphere to account.”
We are proud to be an organization made up of professionals who are deeply passionate about the environment. On a personal level, we share our ideas with each other about how to create a better planet. On a community level, we all support the organization, and there are also those of us that organize civic and neighborhood events.
On the level of public policy and participation, AIDA works for environmental justice. We empower communities with the knowledge and tools they need to safeguard and monitor their rights. We take emblematic cases to court and before international bodies to ensure that companies and governments live up to their obligations.
We believe that a healthy and equitable future is possible.