Tuesday, May 13, 2008

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


  1. The anger does take one by surprise, doesn't it? I really admire what you've done with the negativity that came your way.

    Earlier posts of yours really helped keep me on an even keel when I experienced that same anger in response to what I thought was a relatively playful, tongue-in-cheek post on my blog: a form-letter "apology" for use by those who have just woken up to the hazard and wanted to re-connect with people who are working towards a better future.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. Thanks, Robert, I am glad you found my earlier posts helpful. Sorry though to be so late in responding to you. I understand how surprising it is to get really extreme reactions to things are meant in a caring way. It seems to be a part of the times we're going through when what has been familar and expected is changing so rapidly.
    Wishing you the best.

  3. With the bell curve of distribution, the larger the population or group of considerations the more extreme the fringes. Any issue whatsoever would produce a loud response from the fringes which disagree.

    This is normal and natural, and completely insignificant. If you are going to step out into the public light, you have to expect it.

    As an opinion columnist in a small newspaper in Nashville, The Eastern Horizon, years ago, I spoke out against the first gulf war. I got death threats, which were not significant, although alarming at first. I knew they were the frienges and they would likely not do anything. And besides, there is no safety or security in life. The main results, however, was that the advertisers in the newspaper stopped paying for their ads and the newspaper went out of business. The middle of the bell curve had spoken.

    You can expect that kind of rejection of anything unpopular. Now, in this current bloody mess, I daresay that newspaper would thrive. What I said, btw, was that this mess would occur if we continued the first war and went into Iraq. I think Emperor Bush the First knew this also, which is why he didn't go into Iraq.

    What counts as to the denial of any opinion is where the center of the bell curve is, but that is also what the crusader is trying to change. That's why it is necessary to not take anything personal and never let the inital response, if negative, change your behavior. As long as you are not trying to hurt anyone, but help them, your behavior is worth carrying on with.

    If you are truly trying to help, then other's reactions to your efforts should not affect you. You spoke your peace and they didn't have to listen to it.

    I do not get mad. I do not take offense. If someone gets mad, they will not transmit it to me neither as anger nor hurt feeling within me. They do it to themselves, and they will have to live with the karma of that anger.

    I am not responsible for how they feel. That's their problem. I might try to make peace with them, out of compassion, but I will never cut my message down or retract it. It's too important. Quick success is not necessary for me, nor does it cause any hesitation to speak my message.

    Rejection does not bother me anymore. When I am rejected, I just think about why I am trying to change things, the children and children's children that will suffer if I quit trying to move that bell curve.

    I think you are great, and doing great. If something is real, embrace it. If it is not, give it up immediately. Only you can decide that.

    I know you know all this, but it's always good to get some positive feedback.

    Roan Carratu (worldmind@yahoo.com)
    Exquisite Synergy

  4. Thank you, Roan, for sharing your experience and for your kind words. Indeed you fully understand the consequences of taking a position that is unpopular with an active segment of the population whose world view is threatened.
    We can't take it personally and certainly it serves no purpose to get angry about such reactions or the feel rejected, as that only diverts our attention away from the work we need to be doing.
    You touch on one of the key reasons I wanted to write up my analysis of the Fox experience. Not only to further elaborate on the syndrome Linda Buzzell-Saltman and I have identified, but also to provide some contextual structure for how people can better protect themselves should they too inadvertently step on a hornet's nest in the course of their work or even casual conversation.
    Wishing you well,

  5. Hello!!!! how you doing!?
    i found your blog very interesting and well done let me tell you,
    it's amazing how you write about that kind of things, can't wait to see another one from you!!!

    Thanks for share........