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Twenty years ago, I read The Road Less Travelled by Scott Peck. With his first sentence, “Life is difficult,” Peck (psychologist and bestselling author) captured my interest. “Once we truly understand and accept it, then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters,” wrote Peck. I would refer to this book over and over in the next decades of living on and off with depression.

Climate Activism has Emotional Consequences, Below2C

Climate Activism

So if life is already difficult, why then become a climate activist? Why not just leave it alone? Why not avoid all those negative emotions – fear, pain, strife, despair – that come with being an activist? Surely someone else would deal with climate change. So why me?

Simply put, the stakes are just too high and the consequences of failure too unimaginable to net get involved. I could not escape my responsibility. Once I knew that, there was no looking back. I jumped in knowing that I was headed straight towards my deepest fears and concerns. I must do this for my grandchildren I told myself.

Since the birth of my four grandchildren, I’ve been deeply troubled by the level of environmental degradation caused by our civilization. I see all the obvious distress signals – warming of the planet, ocean acidification, soil erosion, pollution, desertification, extreme weather.

I was a recent guest on GDGD Radio discussing the emotional consequences of climate activism.

After attending the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Chicago in 2013, I was convinced that nothing else mattered more than tackling climate change. The full-day presentation by Al Gore truly inspired me, bringing my activism to the next level. There was no going back.

As a climate activist, I spend my days on climate action. I’m the editor of Below2C (my website focused on climate change), a blogger on several online sites, the writer of letters to newspapers, a member of Climate Reality, 350.Org and Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Spending my days on climate action is more emotionally demanding than any work I have ever done. However, knowing more about the science of climate and the impacts of global warming is not without emotional consequences. I often feel overwhelmed; I come face to face with existential angst and despair. I keep asking myself how did we get here? Where was I when all this was happening?  How could I not see this coming? So I take comfort and solace by trying to do something about it.

Emotional Consequences

“But this work has emotional consequences,” says Dahr Jamail (Truthout staff reporter). He recently wrote Mourning Our Planet: Climate Scientists Share Their Grieving Process in Truthout.

 I’ve struggled with depression, anger and fear. I’ve watched myself shift through some of the five stages of grief proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I’ve grieved for the planet and all the species who live here, and continue to do so as I work today.

I can relate to Jamail’s struggle with the reality of climate change. But we are not alone. Climatologists, researchers, scientists, journalists and activists like me are struggling with the grief of witnessing the ongoing onslaught on our planet. Whether you call it eco-anxiety, climate depression, eco-fatigue or apocalypse fatigue, the emotional stress suffered by climate activists and environmentalists can cause long-term anxieties and mental health issues.

Jamail quotes from several sources:

I feel like nobody’s listening….I feel both exasperation and despair in equal measure, that perhaps there really is nothing I can do. I feel vulnerable. Dr. Helen McGregor (Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences)

I find the current situation is highly distressing, in that the facts regarding global warming have been known for many decades…And I ask myself, what did we do (scientists and activists and concerned citizens of the planet), how did we get here, so close to the midnight? (Dr. Jennie Mallela with the Research Schools of Biology and Earth Sciences at the Australian National University).

As a human-being, and especially as a parent, I feel concerned that we are doing damage to the planet….I don’t want to leave a mess for my children, or anyone else’s children, to clear-up. (Professor Peter Cox, of the University of Exeter).

Like many others I feel frustrated with the current state of public discourse and I’m dismayed by those who, seemingly motivated by their own short-term self interest, have chosen to hijack that discussion. (Dr. John Fasullo, a climate scientist, the National Centre for Atmospheric Research).

Psychologists are just now beginning to take note of the profound impact of climate change on human psychology. The American Psychological Association released Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change in June 2014. The report “chronicles the likely psychological impacts of climate change, from stress, anxiety and depression, to loss of community identity, to increases in violence and aggression.”

Anticipatory Anxiety

Our future climate reality will be one of uncertainty, unpredictability, instability and volatility. Joanna Macy  believes that  “the loss of certainty that there will be a future is the pivotal psychological reality of our time.” And the psychological damage is not only over what is happening now, but what is likely going to happen in the future.

The psychological toll of climate change is expected to become a global crisis. As featured in LiveScience, the 2012 report (National Wildlife Federation’s Climate Education Program and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) predicted a steep rise in mental and social disorders as a result of climate change in the coming years, including depression and anxiety, substance abuse, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder – an estimate of 200 million Americans exposed to serious psychological distress from climate-related events. Even scientists are getting depressed over our lack of progress.

For the first time ever, humanity is questioning how long we have left on planet earth. Ten years? 20 years? 50 years? The end of this century? As Dahr Jamail observes:

When we allow our hearts to be shattered – broken completely open – by these stark, cold realities, we allow our perspectives to be opened up to vistas we’ve never known. When we allow ourselves to fully experience the crisis in this way, we are then able to truly see it through new eyes.

Like reaching new heights on a mountain, we can see things we’ve never seen before. Our thinking, attitudes, and outlook on life changes dramatically. It is a new consciousness, one in which we realize the pivotal stage in history we find ourselves in.

Perhaps, within this new consciousness, we can live in this time with grace, dignity, and caring. Perhaps, here, we can find ways to save habitat for a few more species, while we share our precious lives and this precious time with loved ones, in the wild places we love so much, on this rare and precious world.

First Image: Arman Zhenikeyev/Corbis
Second Image:

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    • Danny – I’ve just read the article re Mr. Right’s emotional disorder. Wow! Quite the expose. Although I can understand the path you have chosen, it is not my path. I have remained part of mainstream society to do my climate activism. There are times I have felt withdrawn because of my strong views but I’ve made a lot of new climate friends in the process. Being surrounded by like-minded people has been quite rewarding.

      Thank you for your comments. Hang in there.

  1. Thank you for all you do Rolly. I am hoping to get accepted into the Climate Reality Training session in Toronto in July. I seem to be having difficulty applying for that. If you can offer any suggestions I would love to hear about what I need to do. Thanks. Also I am scared about the Bill C-51 that Harper is about to pass that can have us thrown in jail for climate activism.

  2. Well yes, Rolly. Of course you are right. It does actually seem to be only those people who care about the planet who get depressed about the state that humanity has left it in. If there were other intelligent life forms in the universe, they would be sure to not make contact with us. After all, viewing our species as a ‘whole,’ we kill all other lifeforms and even our own. We can hardly be seen as caring (or intelligent) lifeforms that populate this planet.

    Depression is really another term for looking at life as a futile exercise in existence ( in its worst manifestation), and really depends a lot on one’s own thoughts. If one looks for bad things – there are plenty to be found. They occupy every facet of human life. But there are good things too, and when the inevitability of climate change events leaves us feeling low in spirit and powerless to stop, we must instead prepare ourselves, our neighbours and friends for best outcomes.

    We do seem to have a world full of tyrants, ready to rob the earth for personal gain but we have good people too, who love every animal, insect and leaf that this planet naturally propagates! We must find them and unite our minds to find solutions.

    The world is polarising…the good and the bad, I for one want to be in the good camp. I know you do too Rolly. When life looks dark, look at something positive.

    I did something very insignificant today that may mean nothing to anyone, but small acts are so important too. I picked up about a dozen drowning wild bees in a swimming pool. They could have stung me if they had wanted to, but not one did. Each crawled thankfully on to my hand, sat wriggling to dry out, then flew away to the nearby nest. In the big scheme of life, it doesn’t sound like a big thing to do, but even the smallest creatures have a role in our biodiversity. Each tiny good thing we do makes the world a better place.

    You may not change the world all by yourself Rolly, but your actions get spread far and wide through the thinking of everyone who has contact with you. Hero’s are nearly always hidden from view. Keep thinking positive, and step back for some rest when it all
    becomes overwhelming. You are appreciated by lots of people including me.

    • Hi Colette – nice to see you’re back. Are you still in Thailand?

      I’m making some necessary changes to my climate activism. I will be cutting back somewhat on my online stuff and making room for more personal time. Your suggestions could not arrive at a better time. And I do believe that our actions do spread more widely than we think – the butterfly effect. Your beautiful act of kindness to save the bees touches my heart, a tiny thing for you, but for the bees, it was huge. You saved their lives. Very touching.

      I’m just back from an intense weekend of training at Berkeley University in California – a 350.Org Convergence – where the theme of Climate Justice was discussed. Climate change is not affecting all of us equally. As usual, the poor and the disadvantaged are most adversely affected. It’s the new movement going forward on dealing with climate.

      Thanks again for your kind support.

      • Hi Rolly – Yes still in Thailand. Its hot 40°C to 45°C daytime highs and 30°C lows amidst a continuing drought.

        Life here is very challenging for its people, but we have seen some positives here too… The recent forest fires and pollution have triggered the ruling military Junta to address the problem of land grabs amongst a host of other problems like people trafficking, mafia-like controlled prostitution, begging, and drug crime rings. There are always positives in every bad situation… Hopefully Thailand will find greener, more honest solutions to age-old problems – time will tell!

        If I were to look at things through the Dalai Lama’s eyes here, I’d be concerned about the military dictatorship, but wait to see whether it will be a dictatorship for improvements for the people and the environment. That is the promise…and they have to be given the chance to prove or disprove themselves. The Dalai Lama is a very patient man, but he quietly works to improve (at least spiritually), the lives of others. His public persona of the laughing and giddy man is disarming to his worst critics. In private, he is a serious, thoughtful man who provides great weight to his words. He operates much as we all do, tolerating that which annoys him greatly, while working away behind the scenes to change things to the betterment of all. It is a thankless task, but without him and others who try to improve the human condition, we would be in a much worse world.

        • I envy you for the vast experience of travelling the world at the level of the everyday person. You can see the daily struggles of various cultures as they adapt to their environment. I have one of the Dalai Lama’s books. I will go back to it for inspiration. I quote from your text – “tolerating that which annoys him greatly, while working away behind the scenes to change things to the betterment of all”

          Be well.

  3. Danny, have read your blog and thanks for the link. It is certainly a dilemma to know one thing and to have to actually practice something totally contradictory because of family, friends, work, etc. It certainly affects us all to some degree. We can’t just walk away because we suddenly find life becomes really difficult.

    Some time ago I met a woman who was facing this same dilemma with some really bad consequences. She had been referred to me for visceral massage because a ‘phsychic’ had told her she was suffering organ failure. She wasn’t. And other than being a bit underweight, she seemed quite physically healthy to me but not emotionally…There she seemed suicidal. We had a cup of tea afterwards, and she shared her most intimate thoughts with me. ,(Massage often releases emotional issues that have been locked up in the body tissues – usually muscles).

    As I listened to her unfolding story of finding some enlightenment from an introduction to Buddhism, and trying to find balance in an increasingly unbalanced world, I watched her emotions. She had been trying to live a good life, no waste, kindness, and not to do negative things. She was a poverty stricken lady living alone – no family, not highly educated, and had taken whatever jobs she could do to survive. She was in the unhappy position of being almost a pensioner, but having to work in a bakery full of young, foul-mouthed workers who made fun of her. Her conflict was evident and it was making her emotionally ill.

    Now, I could have suggested counselling, but she seemed unable to connect with anything other than Buddhism and she refused to see a doctor. She seemed ready to die for her convictions. Our teatime lasted two hours while she poured her heart out.

    Finally, I said to her that in order to do the best we can on a spiritual level, to follow our convictions, and to implement change in others, we must remain in the world we dislike,but want to change. We must set examples but cannot force them on to others. I said to her “What would the Dalai Lama do if he were in your position?” She thought about this and said “Of course! Why didn”‘t I think of that before. She found the answer herself.

    The person who referred this lady to me, was her friend and she reported back to me that she had stabilised her life and also seen a doctor to make sure she was OK physically (she was). Months later she was still doing well and in the same bakery job. The young people no longer swore at her. I was really happy for her. A simple resolution of the conflict allowed her to put herself into the Dalai Lamas position and act as if she were him. She began to see all the negatives as challenges instead. A lesson for us all!

    • This is what I retain from your response to Danny. “in order to do the best we can on a spiritual level, to follow our convictions, and to implement change in others, we must remain in the world we dislike,but want to change. We must set examples but cannot force them on to others”.

      Indeed, what would the Dalai Lama do if he were in my position, or Danny’s or yours Colette?

  4. Thanks Rolly,

    For discussing a difficult subject that for those of us working on climate change every day, need to face and to know that we aren’t alone in acknowledging and expressing our grief and concern. The reality that scientists tell us we face if we continue on our current path is one that while we know to be true, and it is so difficult a burden to carry, that even those of us who understand, often have to shut our eyes, or in my case, personally continue to believe, as you so clearly state at the end of your wonderful post, that understanding and knowing “these stark, cold realities, allow our perspectives to be opened up to vistas we’ve never known” Every morning,just before I wake my children, this hope is renewed in me..for them, I must believe that we will find a way to create a future that includes the human species in a hopeful and positive way…..thank you for helping us have a space and place to share our feelings..

    • Harriet,

      Yes, the burden of knowledge is heavy. But waking as you do to greet your children in the morning is pure hope. I have 4 grandkids. They are so precious. Their innocence and naivety drive me to do more. To them, I can do no wrong. What a joy they are, and as I write these lines, I have a smile on my face. Two of them are with me this Easter weekend at the lake. Life can be beautiful.

      Happy Easter.

    • Anthony – there are so many of us who ride that roller-coaster you speak of. I remember reading about Winston Churchill’s struggles with emotional instability and yet he was such a great leader. (There is no intention to compare myself to Winston Churchill).

      Nice to hear from you Anthony.

  5. This is excellent work, Rolly – and thank you for your vulnerability and authenticity in sharing with us. Ho!

    Quick note – I have been using the Kübler-Ross stages as push back against climate deniers. Stage 1? Denial. Welcome to the path to acceptance. I congratulate them on their joining in the fight to save human civilization and the ecosystems of our planet.

    The very idea is psycho-active and once they understand the stages , they WILL inexorably be moved along the stages. Then I give them examples of others who have gone through the 5 stages and come across from non-belief or misinformation, and/or misunderstanding (unconscious incompetence ~ blindness) into denial (conscious incompetence ~ duality) and finally to join us fin fighting climate change.

  6. Happy Easter Rolly, and to all of you! A day for remembering what great sacrifice has gone before us. Be well and enjoy this beautiful day!

    PS – Rolly, I think I judge Winston Churchill a little more harshly. He took a great many people to inevitable (and calculated) deaths in support of defeating the Germans.

    Gallipoli was a British and Australian bloodbath perpetrated by Churchill as war minister in World War One…I have been there and Turkey honours the dead of both sides. In World war Two, Churchill actually turned on the Greek Resistance Groups who aided Britain in the defeat of Mussolini and the Germans. As they celebrated the end of the war in Athens square, Churchill ordered their slaughter( gunned down in cold-blood) because he felt they might have communistic tendencies…it is part of the history that has led to the mess in Greece today. Churchill was likely haunted by his own cold-hearted approach to war strategy (as most leaders of nations tend to be). I visited Churchill’s home and felt somewhat chilled by the accumulation of wealth and ‘bling’ on display. The most macarbre thing I saw was a stuffed fox head – a tortured death grimace still on its face. It reflected the psychopathic nature of Churchill to me. Harsh words, yes, but I think with some truth. It is only recently that papers are being released that show a much ‘blacker’ side to this great leader.

    Many warmongers are only hero’s because they won the battles. The defeated enemy is always the protaganist, evil tyrant.

    Ultimately, we must always try to keep our negative emotions in check and do the best we can in such situations. The truly great leaders led only with example, never striking out, never hurting! Jesus, Mohammed, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and so on… We will never be able to sort out any of our other problems until we stop ‘fighting.’

    If we apply that premise to environmental degradation and the resultant global warming, we can see that we must actively encourage change through example, making it socially unacceptable to destroy the planet. It can be done. I’m sure of it.

    • Obviously you’re in a better position to understand the real Churchill. Perhaps I should be a lot less generous with my praise of Churchill. As you say, making it socially unacceptable to destroy the planet is the way to go. That is happening but really only at a snail’s pace.

  7. Rolly Your writing is a breath of fresh wisdom! I have been worried about the ultimate demise of our world for probably 15 years or more. Have followed Carolyn Baker for some time and read her material every day. Sorry I haven’t found you sooner.
    I too was impacted by Scott Peck – actually had the opportunity to hear him speak to a meeting here in Vancouver probably 20 years ago.
    I am writing to you tell you what I have been involved in here. I am a member of the Suzuki Elders who are loosely attached to the David Suzuki Foundation, and who are working at education of self and the community about the environment.
    I am introducing to them the vision that we elders (and I see you fit into that boat!) have a responsibility to be aware of the emotional impacts that knowing about the state of the world has, and to begin to be available to those in the community who may need emotional support.
    I found several of the references in your article to be very helpful, and I will endeavor to send you resources that you might find useful.
    Can we support each other in these troubling times? Actually, I would invite you to join the Suzuki Elders, even though there is no actual organization in your area. (
    I hope that you and I can be in contact in the future.
    Respectfully, Don Marshall

  8. “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not – the only question we have a right to ask is: What’s the right thing to do? What does this Earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?” Wendell Berry

  9. My emotion comes from no matter how much I support the need to fix the bad effects of climate change. There is no way to protect my love ones in time the discussion and education is great. But it is fast becoming to late for action if it is not already too late.

    • Joselyn – Thank you for reading the article and commenting.

      Although you may be right about it being “too late” to save our love ones, we must continue to insist that our leaders Act On Climate. I attended the Quebec Act on Climate march last Saturday. Quebec is much smaller than New York where over 400,000 marched last September – Peoples Climate March. That event rekindled the climate movement. The Quebec march is doing the same in Canada.

      Never, never quit!


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