Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Eco-Anger: A Worldview Under Threat, Part 1

An Eye-Opening Personal Experience

I always wondered why professionals reading my eco-anxiety blog often prefer to e-mail their experiences and comments privately instead to posting them on the site. After opening my e-mail the morning the Fox News Hornet’s Nest article I was interviewed for as an ecopsychologist (and grossly misrepresented in) broke, I think I understand why.

In The Waking-Up Syndrome, Linda Buzzell-Saltzman and I identify typical stages people going through in coming to grips with the environmental issues we’re facing and their impact on our way of life. These stages were part of what I shared with the Fox reporter. Although she didn’t mention them, the e-mail and blog posts I received once the article appeared provide an eye-opening snap-shot of where a considerable number of people in our society are in this process right now. You might be surprised.

In short, there’s a lot of eco-anger out there. Possibly as prevalent as eco-anxiety and, most likely, a defense against it. It’s surprisingly virulent, certainly enough so to explain why many professionals exploring this topic might be hesitant to say much about their views on it in a public.

Here, in their own words,* is a summary from the 19 pages of comments I received. Some of them may be directed toward the other therapists cited in the article, as I do not do eco-therapy myself; only offer coursework for professionals. The comments include most of the kind of reactions we find people have to information they’d rather not deal with but find increasing harder to avoid. (*Some basic spelling, grammar, and punctuation have been corrected.)

Stage One: Denial

With recent documentaries, widespread news reports, and nearly unanimous scientific consensus on the challenges arising from environmental issues, it has to be harder now to deny their existence or significance. This may account for why there were not too many outright denials and for the edgy tone of those striving to discount the significance of what they have acknowledged.

Not a problem:
· “There is no global warming problem. It’s been proven. Unfortunately it’s the minority that makes the biggest noise and the only reason it’s in the news is because it sells.”
· “You all go crazy over something that doesn’t exist.”
· “What causes an individual to disregard 50% of the scientific community and cling to the other half that causes you to become paranoid?”
· “Many scientists do not agree with the global warming theories. In fact this winter was one of the coldest on record in some places.”
· “… this anxiety arises from imagined causes … [by] the self-deluded sufferer.”
· “The Bible says that things will spiral out of control as the Last Days draw near. Things are NOT going to get better, they will get worse! … But for those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, we see these signs and are filled with excitement and hope, for we know that the end of all things draws near.”

Not a significance problem:
· “… global warming isn’t so much a threat as it is a phenomenon of social hysteria.”
· “Whale populations are devilishly difficult to estimate because they spend most of their time underwater.”
· “Fresh water [from melting ice caps] will reduce salinity … and start a new ice age … think how joyous this will be for the polar bears.”
· “Not nearly the issue it’s claimed to be …”
· “It’s really taking away from the real problems facing our society, such as pervasive premarital sex, pornography, divorce, hatred, and the overall moral degradation of society.”

Not a problem anything can be done about:
· ”[Global warming] is caused by the sun’s natural cycles and the earth’s natural orbital variation.”
· “Nothing mankind can do about it. Relax. Evolution is extinction”
· “You are not single-handedly responsible for the environment and there are many factors that are simply out of our control. If you have a Bible read the Genesis account of creation.”

Stage Two: Semi-Consciousness

Now that it’s harder to ignore either the existence or significance of our environmental challenges and the need to do something about them, the majority of the comments were the kind of offensive or defensive reactions typically seen in the second stage of the Waking-Up Syndrome.

This is a time in the process when doubts begin to creep in, but are staunchly defended against. Most likely the degree of anger expressed is correlated to the degree of effort required by the person to maintain his or her views in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

Although Al Gore was not mentioned in the article, he got a lot of the blame.
”Al Gore is a hypocrite … Those SUV’s he owns and how about that mansion …”
“You are unfortunately one of the many who have succumbed to Al Gore’s new way of making himself a lot of money.”
”Keep giving your money to Al Gore and car companies that make hybrid cars.”
”There is a lot of money to be made in this global warming thing. Just ask Al Gore.”
”He does the same [he] preaches against. He is a con man.”
”Try thinking for yourself. You’ve been duped [by A Gore].”

But Gore certainly didn’t get all the blame:
”Your anxiety is the result of too much education and not having a real job.”
“A PhD! All that money, all that time spend on ‘higher education’ – all wasted.”
“Just another way for you and others to be a victim.”
“[This is the result of] past gross negligence on the part of those claiming imminent dire consequences from human economic and recreational activities.”
”Your moving to [where you live] is part of the problem.”
“You must give up your politics … and conform to God.” (The article made no reference to politics or religion.)
”Give up Liberalism and instead. I encourage you to become an American once again.”
”You are using the issue to promote eco-psychology and earn a nice living off the unfounded fears of others.”
“What you’re doing is unethical; feeding into your clients’ anxiety to make a quick buck.”
”What she is really suffering is the experience of thinking she is able to make a difference in the world.”
”Here is the subliminal influence of the Marxist philosophhy.”
”You are riding the wave of mis- and dis-information provided by Global Warming scammers.”
”It’s a throught disorder created by insufficient rational (adult) investigation.”

“Oh my, thanks for the laugh. This is too funny.”
“You shouldn’t vote in the election because your vote wastes paper and would seriously damage the planet.”
”ROFLMAO 'Ecopsychologist'! LOL! That is the most ridiculous thing I have read all week! … Hilarious!”
”[You] need to have a talk with my old friend Johnny Walker--or another buddy Jack Daniels. Besides neither come in six packs so [you don’t] need to worry about some dolphin getting his nose caught in one of those plastic six pack rings and starving to death and when the bottle is empty you can shove used toilet paper in it and keep it as a prize.”

“I hope more and more of us get more extreme in our consumption.”
“I just bought a GMC 2500HD Xtreme … and I could care less how much it costs to fill it up or how much it uses.
”This is how I deal with the ever-increasing eco-stress of today: I use only materials made of entirely plastic and … throw them away by placing them in a large 55 gal.drum and burning them. I love to watch the thick black smoke rising high in the sky wondering if people in the next county can see it or I just toss the barrel in the river … Oh, I do try and hug a tree … when I cut down one for firewood.”

· “She’s just trying to sell her own ecotherapy by convincing others that their illness is real. Barnum would be proud.”
· “You should consider a hobby.”
· “Stop blaming everyone else for your situation.”
”Eco-therapy! Try something like real work and a belief in God.”
· “Way too many people overeact to the hype and exaggeration rampant within the environmental movement.”
· “Get a life. Get the facts.”
· ”Self-indulgent sufferer.”
· ”You eco-freaks”
· “You ignorant slut.”
· “Outright malpractice.”
· ”The whole stupid article was just an unpaid commercial … what a freakin’ scam artist.”


You might be wondering why I’ve didn’t include any examples from those who empathize with those quoted in the article and their concerns. That’s because there were none. Nor was there any anger expressed about the damage we’ve done to the environment that has led to the issues we face. Also missing were any comments expressing anger that the public has been purposely kept in the dark about these challenges until recently, despite their being foreseen long ago (see Everything’s Cool) when we could have more easily addressed them.

The absence of any such comments can probably be accounted for by the fact they arose from a tongue-in-cheek, make-fools-of article on Fox News. Anger about those things is more common in later stages of the Waking-Up Syndrome, specifically Stage Four (The Point of No Return), and Stage Five (Despair, Guilt, Depression and Powerlessness). Clearly those in this audience with strong opinions were not at any of other stages yet.

So these comments are by no means representative of the general US population, among whom polls show 62% either worry about the environment “a great deal” or a “fair amount.”

These comments represent the anger, beliefs, and coping strategies of a certain element of the population. The culprits behind eco-anxiety in their minds include Al Gore, people who want to make a buck, having too much education, a lack of morals, too little education, pursuing the wrong career, and misguided political or religious views.

In Eco-Anger Part 2 I will address why I believe there is so much eco-anger in these early stage among this population and how to we might best respond to it.

© Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008
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Eco-Anger: A Worldview under Threat, Part 2

Personal Insights into What’s Up

After receiving 19 pages of comments from the eco-angry in the two days following the Fox News Hornet’s Nest (summarized in Part I of this series), I to wanted to understand why I was so surprised with the degree and nature of the anger being expressed. Having identified the stages one goes through in Waking-Up Syndrome, I knew anger was part of the process, but why so early in the process, why so personal, and why toward such seemingly unrelated targets?

I have primarily been interacting with people who have already past their Moment of Realization and are already concerned or with people who weren’t aware enough yet to give anything more than a passing brush off of the topic. So I hadn’t realized just how difficult the transition from oblivious to get-out-of-my-face-with-this-stuff-I-don’t-want-to-see can be.

That so much anger was expressed in those two days with such intensity suggests to me how much more difficult it is to brush this topic off now. As evidence of the problems escalates throughout the global economy and in world-wide weather patterns, media has intensified. Scientists and other experts once marginalized are now in the spotlight. Now that it's harder to ignore what going on, we’re seeing a more escalated response than when these problems were either kept in the closet or less obvious in our daily life. Still … here’s how I’ve come to understand what’s behind the eco-anger I encountered.

Why So Much Eco-Anger?

As we fumble our way through childhood to emerge finally as adults, we get deeply attached to our worldview, or what neuro-linguistic programmers Richard Bandler and John Grinder call our “reality strategy.” We figure out as best we can how to understand life and how the world works. Our resulting worldview becomes the foundation for our definition of who we are, our relationship to others, what we are to do and not to do, what we value and what we don’t, and what it all means for our future.

Even an inkling that we might have to significantly revise our worldview is a threatening proposition. To challenge it destabilizes everything we’ve built our lives upon. We will go to great extremes to avoid having to suffer the shock, trauma, disillusion, and disorientation that come with discovering that the world is fundamentally not as we believe it to be. We know all at a visceral level that it’s literally not possible to function effectively without a workable worldview, but we can’t go out and buy a new one at the store or bid for one on E-Bay. You can’t even go pick one up in a weekend workshop or by watching a DVD, though such experiences could sometimes be a first step to rebuilding one.

Should there be any doubt how threatening a challenge to our wordview can be, just think of the reactions to Copernicus who escaped persecution only by his death when he asserted that the world was not flat. Or to Bruno, who was imprisoned and burned at the stake, and Galileo, whose works were prevented from distribution because their findings challenged such the prevailing view that the sun revolves around it. Think how the emotional reactions even to this day of Darwin’s demonstration that species evolve over time.

Hopefully the realities of environmental change will not engender reactions as extreme as these, but it is precisely that level of threat to our reality strategy Americans are being confronted with today. The scope of environmental changes and their economic impact are forcing us to realize that the view of reality that underlies our anything is possible, we can have it all, culture no longer jives with the reality we’re experiencing. That’s what going down the rabbit hole of The Waking-Up Syndrome is all about.

How Should We React?

As I pointed out in Why Eco-therapy? nature-based counseling or education is an effective, non-threatening way for people to voluntarily reconstruct a worldview with a workable relationship to the natural world. However, individuals who are in early-stage eco-anger are usually not seeking help to deal with their feelings. They see others as having a problem, not themselves. But unless we withdraw and hide our understanding of today’s realities, we will invariably run smack dab into eco-anger at times, just as I did.

So, here are a few of the conclusions I’ve reached about how to understand and respond to eco-anger when it comes our way. I’ll be interested to hear your ideas and thoughts.

1. Don’t tread where uninvited.

No one can force someone else to change his or her worldview. We can’t compel anyone into a Moment of Realization. In fact, research by Zachary Tormala of Stanford University and others shows that even when presented with good strong arguments, those who are intent on resisting a message may become even more entrenched, obdurate, and determined to hold on their viewpoints.

This was evident from the comments from Part I. Consider that these folks took time to step away from their lives to share their views and to attack someone they didn’t know who was concerned about the environment. There was no indication they were doing this as part of a job or a school assignment, so it seems they were feeling a fervent need to defend their worldview against something as insignificant the experience of someone else.

Chances are they’re not at all interested in either information or help, so I would say, let’s don’t mess uninvited with someone’s reality strategy, especially when even the simplest comments get them riled up.

Each person needs to come to his or her own Moment of Realization, or not, in their own time. Usually that only comes about after some dramatic experience that causes one to rethink all their preconceptions about life. Usually it involves some personally traumatic challenge, like a life-threatening situation, the tragic loss of loved loves, or an economic or natural catastrophe. Something that shatters a worldview ill-equipped to comprehend or guide through such circumstances.

Catastrophes of this magnitude loom on the horizon for most of us today. Just this week, for example, there have been an unusual numbers of fires in Florida, floods in the mid-Atlantic, and tornadoes in the Midwest, killing many and destroying whole towns. Homes in the northeast are facing what’s being called the “heat or eat crisis.” An April article in the Wall Street Journal urged Americans to start hoarding food. Last year 405,000 people lost their homes. Some then later lost their belongs when they defaulted on storage unit payments, a phenomena that’s up 50% in some Midwestern areas.

Occurrences such as these have not been in our picture of life in America, the land of abundance and opportunity. But now such catastrophes can occur at any moment and when they do, even the most resistant usually begin to seek a new way to understand and make sense of what is occurring.

2. Don’t take it personally.

While, as in the case of the comments summarized in Part I, eco-anger is often personalized and may be directed at us, our feelings, or our beliefs, it is only indirectly about us. By being who we are, thinking what we think, and feeling what we feel are reminders of what someone faces doesn’t want to deal with.

Admittedly some of the comments directed towards me were a bit difficult to take. For example, it didn’t feel good to have some one ask me to commit suicide, demean my profession, call me a scam artist, or label me a slut. But at the same time, since the people writing them don’t know me, these comments are not about me. They are assumptions and projections drawn with no basis in fact. When we consider objectively what is being expressed we can see them in the recitation of passé information; attributions of underhanded motives; name-calling; demeaning intelligence, education, or a profession; making fun of and mocking someone’s concerns.

There is no value in debating such points. No need to defend Al Gore or our own motives as professionals. Such charges are simply something to grasp onto, as way to negate what threatens someone’s worldview and leaves them feeling vulnerable.

We can only step back and get out the way of such anger. Acknowledge how desperate these individuals must feel and how the attacks they choose are coming from their worldview, one in which people rip each other off, do what they do simply for money, take unfair advantage of each other, or have distorted views because of their education, politics or religious differences. All that may have a lot to do with why we have the problems we do, but not much do with why we worry about their impact on our lives and what we can do the change them.

3. Patience and understanding, please.

Those of us dealing with today’s environment and economic issues have been through our own stages of denial and doubt. We know how unpleasant it is to come to grips with what’s happening to the planet and to our lives.

As I pointed out to the Fox reported, the leaders in this field talk openly about their on-going angst even as they come to acceptance. Johanna Macy, Carolyn Baker, Tim Bennett, Sally Erickson, Daniel Quinn, Derrick Jensen, Jerry Mander, Chellis Glendinning, Richard Heinberg, Thomas Berry, Bill McKibben, Ross Gelbspan, the list goes on. This is a difficult time, painful to come to grips with.

We know how shattering the loss of one’s entire worldview can be. We know it’s understandable to desperately cling to the worldview we’ve built over a lifetime that’s gotten us through to where we are and that we believe will to take us to where we want to go from here. Knowing and living with this challenge ourselves is a large part of why we can be of help to others.

Each person has their own reasons for resisting the issues we’re facing. Often it is religious beliefs. It may be financial. One’s career, health or way of life may be at stake. Most certainly, there’s something important to them they cannot fathom how to understand or protect themselves from if they abandon the worldview upon which it is based.

After all, for more than 50 years titans of government and industry remained in their own state of denial and discounting about issues such as global warming, resource depletion and population pressure. For example, in 1956 Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert was invited to give speech on the overall state of the world energy situation to the American Petroleum Institute. When transcripts of his now famous and well-documented prediction that oil reserves would be on the decline were pre-released, he was asked by panicked executives to “tone it down,” and take out parts that might be viewed as “sensational.” Hubbert’s, amazed reply: “Nothing sensational about it, just straightforward analysis.”

Later he found the tension level at Shell was very high. His speech, he reported, “caused a jolt… The first reaction was honest incredulity. Then the industry split. One side refused to accept the situation and started changing the figures. The other side, … found they could not change the figures.” (See Shell Execs Were Briefed on Peak Oil in 1956 – Tried to Silence Hubbert.)

Just this past Easter, over fifty years later, Shell Oil ran a full-page color ad explaining why we must reduce our use of fossil fuels. It took them a long time to get there. Can we expect more of others who are only now hearing such news?

So, as Kubler-Ross emphasizes in dealing with the anger often associated with grief, we can empathize with the feelings underlying the vitriol of eco-anger. We can acknowledge how frustrating it must be to be deluged with information we don’t want to hear. We can be patient and understanding. But then we must get on with the matters at hand.

4. Focus on what need doing that can be done.

There is much that needs doing in our own lives and in our communities in response to today’s challenges. There are many to reach out to who are eager for information, ideas, support. This is where our attention must be. We can’t let angry denials draw us away from the urgent tasks as hand, many of which I have written about in other blog posts.

One of the most important things we can do is to begin developing and setting forth a worldview and ways of living that provide for a workable relationship with the natural world. As we do this, the threat to others will lessen. They see there are other ways that actually work, not just in Al Gore’s presentations, not just in a text book or on a DVD, but good, maybe better, at least satisfactorily different, ways to see the world that will give us and our children a more secure future.


Neither eco-anxiety nor eco-anger is a mental illness. They are both natural reactions to real concerns about the limits of the environment that make it impossible for us to continue living as we have. The adjustments we face are concerning and it is natural not to want to face them. But reality has a way of imposing itself upon us whether we want to see it or not. That’s what the Waking Up Syndrome is about. It’s the process we go through as we come to accept an enormous change in our perception of reality.

Fortunately we are a marvelously adaptive and creative species. We can each move as best we can at our own pace through the process of accepting what is and what will be and the role we want to play in it. And allow others do the same.
© Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008
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