How Not to Explode with Anxiety in a Time of Ecological Disaster

I was born in 1990, bare months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first news story I remember is watching reports of the Oklahoma City bombings, which someone had left on the TV where five-year-old me could see. Like other Nineties kids I grew up with a slew of environmentalist entertainment, from recycling episodes of Barney which I apparently watched with religious fervor, to Captain Planet and FernGully, to that weird Rocko’s Modern Life recycling song I still somehow remember a quarter of a century later. I attended a magnet school with an environmental theme that threw a giant day long festival every Earth Day, that had us digging through gardens and an impressive greenhouse to learn about plant life cycles and rates of decomposition for trash, that offered field trips to aquariums and botanical gardens or even just the woods outside our back door. Growing up in Appalachian Virginia meant the mountains and forests were literally just a step away. I never had to go far to have that ‘lost in the woods’ feeling, even if in reality I wasn’t that far from a busy street.

I’m sure a great deal of it has to do with nostalgia and the rose-tinted glasses we all use looking at the past, but I remember that environmental activism didn’t used to fill me with dread and paralyzing anxiety. Things were bad – we knew about endangered animals and threatened ecosystems, massive pollution that was affecting the oceans and ozone layer – but everyone and everything around me said we could make a difference as long as we acted. Things were bad, but we could change things. It was going to be okay.

It’s surreal looking back at things now. I’m turning 29 next week and telling the next generation of kids the same things I learned at their age about the environment – only, I know that things haven’t gotten better. Or perhaps I just realize now the enormity of the problems eating away at our fragile biosphere. Is it going to get better? How many endangered animals did I learn about as a child in the 1990s that are now extinct? Is it better or worse to remember what environmental policy was like before the current administration? Is it a relief or a burden to know I can pay to offset my carbon footprint, or that my dietary and other consumption choices are inimically tied into the systemic abuse of nature? Is it reassuring to live with an asthmatic partner near the premier pulmonology centers in the nation, or vaguely terrifying to think that said centers are here because our neighborhood has one of the highest asthma rates in the country due to air pollution?

There’s a lot of talk about Pagan paths often being earth-centered, finding divinity immanent within nature (or at least, not viewing nature as a fallen, material creation). I haven’t always known what to do with this expectation about my religion. It’s been a struggle finding a nature based theology (ecothology? Theocology? someone else has a word for this right?) that wasn’t some woefully inadequate love-and-light magical (cishet, ablebodied, and skinny) Mother Earth worship that seemed more interested in distancing itself from Christianity than actually taking any ecological stances. If nature should be so important to my faiths, then I feel that the logical conclusion is to wind up in a state of constant panic. We’ve been on the brink of ecological collapse as long as I can remember. There’s a reason Millennial and younger generations’ nihilistic senses of humor joke about not needing to pay off student loans because of rising sea levels and dead bees.

It’s easier for me to frame my spirituality-based ethics and virtues around issues of social justice than environmental justice (though of course the two are intertwined – I just don’t know enough to comment at length about it). My goddess Brighid is a champion of the poor and downtrodden. Hospitality is the core virtue She embodies and wishes for us to embody. We invite all of humanity into our homes to feed and clothe and shelter them, because it’s right to do so. We give freely of our material goods because St. Brigit of Kildare gave away her father’s treasures to the poor. We look to Her as an example of challenging unjust systems that would punish women and other gender minorities simply for existing. There are so many massive social and economic problems in the world and I certainly despair at the thought of changing things, but at the same time I honestly believe we can change the world and I can do my part by helping spread hospitality and justice and love in this little corner of mine. Yet, to consider the same from an environmental standpoint…

Time is constantly running out, it seems. Seeking solutions leads to the discovery of new problems I cannot unknow. I miss the days of elementary school when it felt that just giving enough fucks was enough to move mountains, to feel that success was predetermined so long as we showed up and cared. Now I find myself feeling hopeless about so many things and I don’t know where that leaves me.

All of which is a very rambling prologue to the start of a new series on ecological resilience, or… well. How not to explode with anxiety in a time of ecological disaster. If you were expecting a well thought out how-to article, surprise! I’m still trying to figure this out for myself. But I’ll be part of a blogging project collected at Deepening Resilience and I invite all curious readers to read and maybe even write responses to the prompts there.

Resilience is the ability not to explode with anxiety. Not the ability to never be anxious ever – no, that would require a degree of removal from the world that I can’t possibly comprehend. Of course we’re anxious, and afraid, and unsure, and angry when faced with the enormity of the world’s problems. But somehow, faced with ambiguous choices, we have to act anyway. We have to decide to do something, because being frozen with indecision is itself a choice, and not one we can afford to make. How do we navigate that? What does it mean for me that I’m part of an earth-centered tradition – even though I haven’t always felt that way about my Paganism? How am I part of the solution, and what can I bring to my communities – whether it’s immediate friends, or the Clann Bhride fellowship at large, or the library work I do affecting literally thousands of patrons a year? What does that look like in my practice, and how can my practice inform this desire to nurture ecological resilience within me and within the world?

I think the first step is something like this post – actually verbalizing fears, explaining to myself and others why it’s been hard to engage, letting myself sit with despair and ecological grief and understand that wow, yeah, things are fucked. It’s scary, and you know what? I bet the gods and spirits are scared too. We aren’t alone in our fear and grief, but keeping those emotions bottled up is a good way to feel isolated. I’m not writing about this topic because I think I’m an expert, but because this is what I want to cultivate within myself, my practice, and my communities. I look forward to what other folks have to say and the solutions we can come up with together.

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