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


  1. I received a comment that included a long list of citations on global warming. Regretfully length precludes me from adding its entirity, but it begins as follows:

    "Perhaps the greatest alleviation from ecoanxiety might come from the latest science, which is predicting global COOLING. For example, last week's Nature (among the world's most prestigious journals) featured an article that indicated that best projections now are that, at least for the next 15 years, average global temps will decline."

    First, thank you for sharing your comment. It's important for us as professionals to understand that the concerns people are experiencing about today's environmental issues and their economic consequences arise from a constellation of forces that include climate changes, dwindling natural resources (particularly oil), population pressure, environmental degradation (including unhealthful air and water pollution), species loss, and disappearing natural habitats.

    Therefore it's important that we not try to reassure our clients that there is no reason for the concerns they see before their eyes and feel in their pocketbooks. Doing so may seem caring, but anxiety levels will only increase if those they turn to for help deny the very things that are already impacting their daily lives.

    Finally, regarding the article in Nature, I understand there has been considerable confusion about this article, which I believe spoke of a "pause." For readers who would like to know more about the IPCC 4th Assessment report the article is based on, I refer you to http://www.realclimate.org/ where there is an extensive analysis of this report and what it means.

    For those interested in learning more about what's involved in the many issues underlying eco-concerns, see the Resources listed on the right of this page.

  2. Thank you for working on the adaptation side of this issue. Since the 70's it was clear to me that we were charging headlong into the walls of our "bottle", but no one would hear of it. As you have suggested, our challenge is about how we re-organize our sensibilities, and bring people along. For them, imagining limits is no less incredible than imaging visits from aliens.

    I believe what you are doing is more important than what is being done to actually solve the environmental problems. The bottleneck to meaningful change is set first behaviorally. The aggregate sensibilities of our species must make the move to acceptance, and then to action. Not enough attention has been given to these matters in contemporary change planning.

    I would recast this as adaptation coaching, perhaps the semantics would be less threatening. Therapy to many implies inadequacy or illness. But my bottom line is results. I generally try to frame questions and discuss "frames". Working inside hypothetical futures seems to depersonalize the discussions. People are unsettled now, and there is opportunity for change to occur in their core sensibilities. How well you, I and others who are concerned about these issues may well determine if we achieve meaningful change.

    Keep up this work, it is very important. Most important really. This is the issue of our age, for our species. Only time will tell if we are up to it.

    Compton, AR

  3. Thank you very much for your comment, Michael. It is encouraging and exciting to meet others who understand the importance of this work.
    I LOVE your framing of this as "adaptation coaching." I too believe that the word "therapy" falls into the trap of implying that there is some kind of illness involved. If our concerns are responded to appropriately no "illness" will need to develop.

    Illnesses (depression, obsessions, etc.) are more likely to develop when others tell us our concerns are not real and that we should just "have a positive attitude." All the while we see the problems intensifying and find ourselve on our own with issues outside our customary world view and far beyond the scope of what any one of us can handle fully alone.

    The more professionals we can reach with this message the better so they will respond appropriately and not make matters worse. That is my goal here with the blog and with the Insitute's CEU courses.

    I hope we can stay in touch. Soon I will be sharing my thoughts on some of the aspects of a new world view I think will help us live more comfortably with limits and not seem them as so alien.

  4. Thanks for your kind remarks. I do ponder this issue a lot and would like to contribute any way I can.

    If you would like to knock around some concepts or would like a sounding board, I like to think about these things. Dialog between people who care about these matters improves our prospects for success I would imagine.

    I am deeply concerned about the human prospect. The stakes in this battle are daunting. Will this be the end game, or commencement? Our fate is in our hands to shape, but first we must make effective choices about how to think about our challenges. We need new frames for our new times.


  5. I so agree that dalog between people who care about these matters improves our prospects for success. I have a number of colleagues who feel the same way. My husband and I are about to take a cross-country trip for my mother's 90th birthday, but I'm wondering if after I get back in mid June we might set up a teleconference at which several of us could share our experiences and ideas with one another. If you'd be interested you can e-mail me through the Institute. Or leave a message here. I'll be checking in from the road and with the Institute.
    Cheers, Sarah