Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: Exploitation and Other Misconceptions

"What about the perception that therapists and green activists who deal with eco-anxiety are exploiting people's fears?" I was asked this question by two reporters this week. I also received a blog claiming eco-anxiety is a "new fabulous fear that is milked by... ruthless profiteers."

Have you encountered such accusations? Do you find these to be odd perceptions? I do. I'm not aware that we as therapists are accused of exploiting those who come to us suffering from other psychic wounds such as depression, alcoholism, addictions, stress from chronic overworking, loss of a loved one and so forth. What is the difference here and how should we best respond?

It would seem one difference is that there are those who think this is a manufactured concern, whipped up by the media and greedy practitioners. My respsonse has been to explain that I certainly hope no fears were being exploited, but instead that the therapists I know are responding to real concerns brought to them by clients who come to them, just as they would when clients come to them with other concerns and problems to us.

Another misconception seems to be that eco-therapists work stricktly with eco-anxiety. Reporters often point out that there are 600 listed eco-therapists and assume we are all specializing in treating eco-anxiety. I've written here previously about the role of ecopsychology, pointing out 1st that it's not a new field and 2nd that eco-therapists work with many different social, psychological and educational concerns. I also explain as I have in the previous article why it is also helpful modality to address eco-anxiety.

Have you been encountering such misconceptions? Are the other misperceptions you're runing into? How are you responding? How would you respond. Let's compare notes. Read more!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: A Time to Grow-Up

A New Worldview – Leaving Fantasy Land, Entering Pioneer Land

“As someone who is studying to be a psychologist,” the young man asked when Howard Knustler spoke at the University of California Bakersfield campus about the implications of peak oil, “what can we in this field do to help people deal with what we’re facing?” Without a moment’s hesitation Knustler replied, “Help them grow up.”

I was reminded of Knustler’s reply recently when I saw an article on Peak Oil Parenting by Annie the Nanny entitled “What Happens When the Reality of ‘No’ becomes Clear to Middle-Class America?” Annie points out that as parents we say “no” a lot, because we know our children need to learn about boundaries. Like it or not they can’t have and do everything they want whenever they want. But as adults we in the US hate boundaries. We don’t like to hear the word “no.” Instead …

Over the past energy-rich half-century, the two-year old developmental task of learning to accept and live within boundaries and the four-year old task of learning to differentiate between make-believe and reality, have flown out the window. We’ve grown accustomed to a world of “Yes.

As Annie extols, ‘No’ has become “a minor inconvenience, which has rarely popped up. Yes, you can have a mortgage with no money down. Yes, you can afford that new truck. Have that trip to the Bahamas because guess what…you’re worth it! Yes…yes, you can.”

In recent years the limited possibilities of past generations appeared to disappear. Most Americans define themselves as part of a comfortable middle-class, enjoying, taking for granted, and feeling entitled to a life filled with luxuries once reserved for and others never even dreamt of by royalty.

In this Fantasy Land of limitless energy and perpetual growth, one never really has to grow up. We can savor a womb-like, climate-controlled environment and be bottle-fed every form of comfort and convenience we can afford, living in a kind of perpetual toy-land of shopping and playing in an ever-larger sandbox of entertaining and high-tech toys.

We’ve enjoyed a sense of omnipotence once reserved for spoiled two-year olds and the unlimited magical beliefs of spoiled four-year olds, thinking that with the right education, good job, family heritage, or a winning lottery ticket our dreams, whatever they might be, can come true. Somewhere out there, we can wish upon a star and find a free lunch waiting.

In his book The Dumbest Generation Mark Bauerlein of Emery University reports that “two-thirds of US undergraduates now score above average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.” (See the LA Times review “Speeding to stupidity – or not.” July 5th) But this self-absorbed you-can-have-it-all, everything-is-possible, build-it-and-they-will-come, whatever-you-believe-you-can-achieve world of prosperity thinking has been built upon cheap energy, and, of course, working longer and harder to pay for our toys and a place to keep them.

Now Here Comes Mother Nature

We’ve been bombarded with this fantasyland worldview through decades of advertising campaigns that have enticed to spend our way into massive personal debt. But a burgeoning world population, dwindling natural resources, and dramatic climate changes are bursting the fantasy. The rising price of energy has put us on an unavoidably rough and very bumpy long road ahead.

Like every young child, we’re discovering that in the natural world – the real world – neither we nor our technology are omnipotent. There are limits to our power to define reality, not matter what we believe, wish, or pray for. Also, like most children, we don’t like facing the grown-up world where not all dreams can come true. Nature is imposing some big “no’s” on us leaving us eco-nomic anxious and eco-angry at the very real prospect of being banished from Fantasyland.

As helping professionals even though we may be having some of our own issues adjusting to today’s new reality of “No,” we nonetheless need to guide our clients in cultivating a new worldview that’s compatible with a grown-up realty. Of course they’re not children so we cannot treat them as such. We can’t stand them in the corner until they wake-up or give them a swat on the tush. But we can offer a grown-up worldview that will serve and sustain us. We can assume the simultaneously firm and caring attitude good parents use to help their children learn about limits.

Yes, that may make us seem like the “mean bad guys.” But the alternative is for stark reality to be the teacher and it reality can be a mean and ruthless parent if we don’t pay attention to it. Unless we voluntarily adopt a grown-up worldview, economic realities will force us to do so kicking and screaming. That will be much harder than beginning to learn we need to learn now while we still have the resources to make the changes we need to make.

Another Familiar but Near-Forgotten Worldview Is Standing By

Fortunately there is a readily available grown-up worldview we can turn to. Having been stowed away in the cold-storage for decades, it’s a familiar story with deep roots in our national heritage. Wash off the romantized wrapping we’ve stored it in and you find not a Fantasy Toy Land, but a New World Pioneer Land of many frontiers.

Life in the “New World” our ancestors pioneered on the frontiers of yesterday was rough. Sometimes really rough. But our ancestor were tough. They lived through many hardships, yet they savored newfound freedoms from the burdens and constraints they’d suffered in the countries or cities they were fleeing. Like us today, many of them headed into the unknown because they realized that’s what they had to do if they wanted to survive.

As they stepped into unknown territories they didn’t ask, “What all do I want?” They asked, “What do I need?” They didn’t insist on comforts. Nor did they hire others to do anything they could learn to do themselves. Usually that meant they had a lot much to learn, just as we do if we are to survive the today’s new world.

They didn’t want more than they needed. They learned how to make do and how get by with what was available nearby. They relied on themselves, their families and the small communities where they settled. They helped each other, and, as the story goes, prided themselves on developing courage, ingenuity, patience, strength, and endurance. All traits of grown-up human beings.

They didn’t they toss away anything that still worked for a new one at the slightest ding or word of the latest model. They took good care of what they had, including the land, because “just get another one” or “buy some more” wasn’t usually an option. Those who survived had the greatest respect in particular for nature because they knew nature was not to be ignored. Their survival depended on understanding and accounting for its limits and boundaries. They also knew too well that, as Henry David Thoreau discovered on this trip to Mt. Kadaan, “there is a force in nature not bound to be kind to man.”

The men and women pioneers of yesterday also did many things they didn’t particularly like doing and endured many discomforts, but even at the most difficult, so the story is told, they maintained a sense of excitement, hope, and promise on their journeys, taking great deal of pride in their endurance, ingenuity, and tenacity.

This is the spirit and worldview we need to foster today. Not one of doom and gloom. Not one of denial. Not one of hedonistic fatalism or an endless search for easy substitutes. But one of hope for a new world composed of grown-ups who learn, innovate, solve problems, fend for themselves together and take on their journey with the determination and enthusiasm that a child brings to learning to walk, riding a bike, and mastering the other tasks of growing up.

There are still elders among us who remember elements of this old story. They remember times when grandparents passed on treasured, well-cared-for belongings to their grown children who welcomed and treasured them in turn. They remember times when folks were proud to make their own clothes, can their own food for winter, bake their own bread, and save for a rainy day.

We can encourage folks to reach out to this older generation and listen to their memories of the far different, nearly forgotten stories that sustained our ancestors. As permaculturist Marty Falkenstein of Falcon Ecological Design in Eureka Springs, AR, urges her clients, “Let’s return to our roots. Let’s tap into our DNA! We ‘re the descendants of survivors!

Coming soon - Helpful Mantras for Pioneering This New World
Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008

Read more!