Caring About Nature is… Depressing

In reading reviews submitted by students in the Field Ecology course I teach, it is humbling yet somewhat euphoric to discover how much they enjoy the class and their instructor. One remark oft-repeated is how they appreciate my enthusiasm for the material. Motivating students has to be a top priority for any teacher and the best way to do that is to have passion for your work. But some days (even weeks) can be so difficult, at least for me. Perhaps I’ve become too connected to the natural world? Its “pain” becomes my pain.

Oil Sands mining at Ft. McMurray, Alberta (Associated Press)

Oil Sands mining at Ft. McMurray, Alberta (AP)

In isolation, watching only the “wild” beings, there is such wisdom imparted. I hesitate to put the human good/bad spin on Nature, but even in the most “difficult” moments, like predation, enormous sagacity is imparted as we gain understanding of the processes at play. These important perspectives have allowed me to abandon many fears, particularly that of death, because Nature clearly demonstrates all is cyclical – nothing ends, it simply changes form.

However, one of the most significant lessons Nature shares is, for me, the most burdensome to internalize – living in the moment. All the wild creatures have this innate skill. Even the most socialized recognize and experience grief but, at the same time, let go of it enough to continue on. Elephants are an excellent example of this behavior. But the continual exposure to humankind’s assault on Nature and the inevitable helplessness one can experience in combating the onslaught often can be overwhelming. Concern about the future of the planet and all its wild inhabitants is inevitable for those of us who live in close relationship with the natural world.

Consider these headlines from just the past year:

“Snipers” in Britain Target Fox
Most Americans Support Keystone Pipeline
Bill to Force Intelligent Design Instruction
Governor Devotes $2 Million to Kill 500 Wolves
Invertebrate Species Populations Plummet
Wildlife Devastated by Sudanese War

Photo courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Photo courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Ugh… But one must trudge on, particularly with students who look up to you for guidance and knowledge.

So how does one cope with the seemingly endless parade of travesties perpetuated by humans? I’ve no firm answers other than to continue to practice a lifestyle as sustainable as possible (dietary choices are most profound), teach these concepts to all who will heed the message, and spend more time in Nature if for nothing else than its ability to heal. Also, distancing oneself from social media might be helpful, particularly those hot button issues where derogatory commentary from both the pro and con sides can be quite demoralizing.

Please feel free to share your coping mechanisms in the comments below. As the adage says, misery loves company!

16 thoughts on “Caring About Nature is… Depressing

  1. I teared when I saw that turtle. Like you I am too invested in nature and need to step back sometimes. We cannot change a lot of what others do and how they think. Like you noted with the headlines, the issues are on such grand scale and not many think of the suffering to animals and earth.

    • Donna, so true how so many do not think about the results of their actions; a very disturbing human characteristic, indeed. Hope you are doing well. Have been enjoying all the posts from your various travels. Such lovely gardens, vistas and, of course, photographs – as always :).. Take care!

  2. I often find myself wishing that I didn’t know all that I know. One thing that helps is having a spouse who also cares deeply. (Watch out, though, when we’re both feeling the sadness at the same time. It ain’t pretty!) Another thing that works — and this is silly — is that a climate change activist girlfriend and I call each other names … all the names that we imagine the deniers, skeptics, ignorers and delayers are calling us for our activism. And finally, I just remind myself sometimes about whom I’m doing this for … all the children, of all species, for all time. That’s a get-back-on-the-horse sobering thought that spurs me to keep going.

  3. I agree with your reflection. It’s a catch 22 if we didn’t care we wouldn’t be motivated and passionate to share. I find piece in nature; simply walking/sitting/praying in nature – it’s calming and restorative. Celebrating the seasons and all natures gifts with like minded friends, gardening and wholesome food and similar company. Every year nature rests in the darkness of winter, follow her cycles and align yours can bring much peace and enable us to stand back and see how best to use our gifts. Being over stretched or emotionally off balance I don’t find makes me effective or able to live in the moment. Thanks for starting this post.

  4. MJ,

    That plastic-deformed turtle picture will stick with me forever.

    Feeling the pain of how we humans harm our world is often what inspires us. The pain moves us to seek change. As for “distancing oneself from social media”, I agree that reading and contributing to heated arguments online serves little purpose. But if the nature nuts like us abandon social media, how will we make a change in that arena?

    Blogs like yours (which I count as social media) can make a difference in our society, just as you make a difference in your classrooms. As our culture communicates more and more online, I hope that many more of us will be there to be a change within the system.

    More people need to see that deformed turtle picture, and remember it when they throw their trash away.

  5. As a social scientist, my latest recognition (or is it resignation?) is considering the diversity of human behaviors and activities and their positive and negative impacts on the environment. Perhaps the greatest problem (or is it opportunity?) of the human race is the way we impose our culture (technology, especially) and social relationships on the natural world locally and globally.

    The intricate web of individual activities within social and cultural processes is often depressing because we propagate a culture of insatiable needs and wants in the face of very real environmental limits that we constantly stave off with technology. To make matters worse, key natural and political resources that could be conserved and used more sustainably are controlled by powerful interests driven by profits and power.

    Yet, many individuals do care about the environment and each other. They continue a struggle toward sustainability in their daily lives in the face of often overwhelming negativity. The larger sociocultural system is constantly in environmental crisis (and has always been if you think of life as a struggle for survival). We continue to make technological advances and other adaptations that stave off the worst that could happen for now. But the negative impacts of our activities on the Earth are approaching, at, or even past the breaking point for life as we know it. Nature is having and will have its way because it is far more powerful than human culture and social relationships.

    I carry few illusions about my own ability to sway people or change the diversity of the human condition. Individually, I am powerless. My conscience is salved because at least I speak out for what I think is right. The true strength comes when my paltry efforts are joined with the works of others.

    Some days I do want to resign from the human race. Not really an option, is it?

    • I respectfully disagree with your statement that “Individually, I am powerless.” This is absolutely not true. Here is a quote from Margaret Mead that I like to keep in mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

      When I was an adolescent, my family lived in a rural area, and my dad would kill any snakes he would find on our property. Slowly but consistently I taught him about the value of snakes as predators in the ecosystem. Of course it didn’t hurt to remind him that the snakes were likely helping balance the population of mice that were inevitably infesting the giant wood pile outside the house. Now he does not kill any snakes, and he has a respect for all of the wildlife he encounters (and especially seems to have woken up to the beauty of these creatures) on the property. A minor example, of course, and I didn’t “change the world” or anything. But my point is that I changed things with a minor amount of effort on my part. And I know my dad carries the message forward to others…and on and on it goes.

      If you don’t believe you can change things, try it. Start small. Start with children, where your efforts will have the biggest payoff in the long term.

    • Some days I, also want, to resign from the human race. We are supposed to be such superior, intelligent creatures but what do we do with that intelligence? Use it to destroy the very environment that sustains us.

      I do believe though that things are changing. Very slowly…but it is turning…like a big ship. Whether it will turn on time I do not know I also am so connected to the natural environment that I live with, that I also feel physical pain when I watch ecosystems or habitat being destroyed around me or another species goes extinct. I sometimes feel like I am dying with them

      I used to despair that I am powerless to change things. By myself…yes. So I have made it my mission to start speaking up more and getting more involved in groups that are working towards preservation and just utilization of our natural resources.

      Humans have to have some motivation to change. I think that with temperatures rising, and as floods/fires continue to increase each year people may finally have the motivation to stop denying and do something.

      There are a lot of good things happening with Conservation/Natural Resource issues. You just have to look for them instead of focusing on the hype of the rarely occurring sensationalized issues. For instance, yes, the recent mine spill into the Colorado River was a terrible thing, but did you know that in Montana, the Clark Fork coalition has been very successful in removing a Dam that had many years of accumulated mine waste in the sediment behind it. They removed the contaminated sediment and restored that portion of the Clark Fork River with all its meanders and such and built a park around the area that can serve as an flood plain when needed. Wildlife has returned, native plants are flourishing.

      I challenge you that for every bad situation you can think of, I could find a success story along the same trajectory. What are you looking for? Successes or failures? Keep talking, keep teaching, keep doing anything you can. As one person, we may be able to accomplish nothing more than being the drop that starts the ripples flowing outward. But its a start, a step. Together we can do even more.

  6. One thing that helped me get over my depression about caring about nature is to remember that some day, the earth will shake off this plague called Homo sapiens. And the things I care about (nature as a whole) will continue on in some form, even if it’s not the particular species I know and care about at this point. New species will evolve, and things will go on, beautifully, without us. Maybe that sounds even more depressing to some, but honestly, it helps me.

  7. One thing I have learnt over the years as an Outdoor Educator is to continue caring with a passion yet also understand our limitations along with our dedications.
    It has taken me a long time to accept that ‘tending your own garden’ really is the most important thing. People are then often enthused by your dedication and passion and that metaphoric ripple that you begin through action starts it’s wholesome journey around the globe.

  8. Pingback: Caring About Nature is… Depressing | Allison Hanes

  9. We do this work because it calls to us, because we do care, because we are incapable of turning a blind eye. We see where this train is heading and that is a painful and overwhelming knowledge to behold. I am a paragliding pilot, one of the first things I learned is that if you fixate on the thing you are afraid of (such as power lines) then you will move toward it. A pilot must focus on where s/he intends to go not on the hazards. In order for those of us to get through the day we must focus on where we need to go. We must find solace in others who also strive to make a difference and of course take time to admire and be present with the very things we are fighting for. Stay wild.

  10. Teaching people how to survive in or remove resources from the natural landscape is not environmental education. In the US most outside nature education focuses on how people can survive both as a community and as an individual. Americans are very selfish people. If there is not something in it for young people they bolt. Their eyes glaze over and they walk away. In the Species’ Forest, Conway, MA which we oversee I have encountered at least one “nature” class using “our” forest, but teaching all the wrong things. He was teaching resources and survival. When I said to the kids that the forest was the species’ forest and actually occupied by all the species he gathered up the class and they were gone.

    However, I am amazed when I talk to American home schooled kids. They actually listen. Unfortunately, because I am not a certified teacher I can’t actually get groups of kids to go into nature.

    http://wslfconwaymausa.blogspot.com/

    http://speciesforest.blogspot.com/

    • Richard – I believe there is a place in Environmental Education for both survival skills and use of natural resources so long as sustainability and environmental ethics are part of the package. Humans are part of the landscape and will always be drawn to wild places. And just like any other organism on the planet, we rely upon Nature in order to survive. As a species, however, we are far too myopic and fail to understand that our own survival depends upon the survival of Earth’s other organisms; also, we need to understand how the abiotic systems of the planet work and how human behaviors can interfere and/or compromise these important functions. This is what I teach my students when we study both field herbalism and wilderness survival. If you review previous postings in this blog you will see how environmental ethics is a strong theme throughout most topics.

  11. I am greatful for your article on the emotional cost of environmentalism. I do three things that help me when I experience these emotions. The first is to acknowledge that I have no control over anyone but myself. And when I look at the cosmos and my relationship to it, I can only laugh. It seriously is funny. The secon is to act. If I feel an angst about a particular issue, i either write a letter to a key decision maker or make a donation to a group working on that particular issue. Either is a form of action. The fiinal thing I do is make a committment to tell so many people about the particular issue. In my case it is beavers. I made a committment to talk to 100 people about the importance of beaver in our watershed. This is not just facebook or social media, but anyone, even a person at a party or social event. It need not be a long explanation about the issue or the horrors, just a simple, “Did you know…….?” When we engage in person, even if the person does not agree with my assessment, he or she has heard a new viewpont. The weight of these comments are inversely proportional to the age of the person we are speaking to.

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