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Climate Blues: How Environmentalists Chill Out in a Warming World

Image: Adelie penguins stand atop ice near the French station at Dumont d’Urville in East Antarctica

Adelie penguins stand atop ice near the French station at Dumont d’Urville in East Antarctica on Jan. 22, 2010. Pauline Askin / Reuters file

Studies warning of an Antarctic ice sheet collapse. A wildfire season that could shatter records. Shellfish eaten away by oceans turned more acidic due to greenhouse gases. U.N. and U.S. reports stating that climate change is advancing more quickly.

Everyone gets down about their work from time to time, but for environmentalists, they can sometimes quite literally be dealing with the end of the world as we know it. For some, the answer is obvious: work harder. For others, it's about accepting a radically different future and preparing for it. And, for a few, there's just no way people can make things better.

“It’s hard to stay perky when scientists conclude that tragedy, such as the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, is inevitable,” says Denis Hayes, a veteran activist who co-founded Earth Day in 1970.

“The scale of the mess we’re in, environmentally, is enough to push anyone to the edge of their sanity,” adds Dougald Hine, co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project, a group of activists fully expecting ecological, and social, collapse across the planet.

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While the two activists share some common ground, their coping strategies diverge from there.

Hayes remains an optimist, having survived a bad personal patch when his work with solar energy during the Carter administration was reversed by President Reagan. “When Reagan swiftly abandoned the solar goal, ‘trimmed’ my budget by 80 percent, fired most of my staff and all of my contractors -- two of whom went on later to win Nobel prizes -- I was absolutely crushed,” he says.

He cites two motivators that get him through such patches. One is a sense of obligation to “my daughter and granddaughter -- as well as elephants and polar bears.” If the time comes to do so, he says, “I’m happy to sit on the railway track to block a coal train because we have to stop this madness.”

Second is a “Darwinian belief that hope has far greater ‘survival value’ than helplessness,” says Hayes, who now runs the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based environmental nonprofit. That belief translates into seeing those patches as just individual battles “in a war in which humanity can still prevail.”

Hine, on the other hand, sees that optimism as a way to avoid thinking about an inevitable crash of civilization.

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“Some of us try to avoid it by denying that climate change is happening, others try to avoid it by convincing themselves that if they keep really busy campaigning, if they change enough lightbulbs, it will go away.”

So what’s Dark Mountain’s strategy? “To talk about the darkness we feel, rather than keep it to ourselves,” says Hine, whose group publishes essays and art, and organizes classes as well as “Uncivilization” festivals.

Like a good therapist, Dark Mountain gives its members a way to externalize their pain rather than keeping it inside, says Steve Thorp, a Britain-based therapist and Dark Mountain collaborator. Its “brand of un-hope is actually very hopeful,” he says. “It’s almost as if having somewhere they can look reality in the eye is a positive thing, psychologically.”

That sense of community is a needed coping strategy, adds Sarah Conn, co-director of the climate change program at Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

Based in Arlington, Mass., Conn has her own support groups, as well as her places in nature, to fall back on.

Stronger communities could even be a silver lining to environmental disasters, notes Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

“We might actually improve mental health” by creating strong community networks and taking up proactive steps like walking and biking more and driving less, he says.

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Unlike Dark Mountain, Conn and Frumkin don’t see collapse around the corner. “I’m not quite sure I’m optimistic,” says Conn, “but I do see the potential for a shift.”

Colin Bell, a researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, England, also straddles the line between hope and despair.

“I’m trying to hold onto both ends,” he says, “acknowledging and trying to come to terms with the fact things are going to be extremely bad, while trying to encourage positive action now to prevent it from being worse.”

In the category of “recovering depressed environmentalist,” Bell says he and others like him did have their views shaken by a recent essay titled “The Irreconcilable Acceptance of Near-Term Extinction” by Daniel Drumright of Portland, Oregon.

Drumright, who did not want to be interviewed for this story, envisions a day when those left in a collapsing civilization will see “suicide, not as a stigma of cowardice, or a failure of character, but as altruism in the last ethical act left us.”

Bell doesn't embrace that option, and his coping strategy includes working with teenagers, having them talk about their environmental hopes and fears.

He also seeks out “things which involve beauty” -– from biking in the woods, to art and classical music.

Those “remind me that humanity isn’t all about destruction,” he says, “but can be incredibly creative, too.”