Advice columnists are like financial analysts. The overwhelming majority can’t beat the market — which, for the analyst, is an S&P index fund and, for the columnist, is your typical friend or relative.
And like your friend or relative, sometimes the advice is very good, and sometimes … not so much. As an instance of the latter, we have the ‘advice’ of Salon’s Cary Tennis in a column titled “How to protect my children?”
The letter writer, “Mom of Three,” is “a happily married woman in my mid-40s, with three children ranging in age from 8 to 15.” She has a good job and her life is great. She says, “I’m not sure what advice you can offer me, but I feel compelled to write”:
I love my family dearly, and my children bring me great joy. So what’s the problem then? I worry that I’ve brought them into a world whose future holds overpopulation (for which I myself feel a bit responsible) and global warming. My children have such bright futures ahead, which may be completely devastated by these global crises.
I feel guilt at having brought them into the world, and yet I can’t imagine not having them in my world. I feel so hopeless that I am unable to make the world a better place for them. My happiness in the present is marred by my heartache thinking of their future.
How do I cope with these feelings?
Fair enough question. And similar to questions I’ve thought a lot about both as a father and as someone who spends a lot of time speaking with college students.
The full response by Mr. Tennis is too long to repost, but you’ll get the painful gist of it here:
Dear Mom of Three,
Your heartache is the heartache of all parents. Let this heartache be with you and do not be unkind to yourself because of it. It is not only the heartache of all parents. It is the heartache of all humans.
All humans feel this same heartache as we see that those we love we cannot protect and that everything we know and love will one day be gone. We are all filled with occasional sorrow when we stop to glimpse the fact that all that is familiar and safe, all that is beautiful, all will be gone as we also will be gone and those we love will be gone, and all the torments also, all the things we are catching up on and taking care of, all the things we are dreading and disapproving of and wishing we didn’t have to deal with, all those things, too, will be gone, and all the evils we despair of and all the tragedies whose lessons we use as guideposts, all that will be gone, the lessons of politics and philosophy, the works of art, the music, the novels, everything will be gone. Everything. Nothing can outlast the ceaseless churning of idea and matter and time. And because everything will be gone none of this will matter, either, none of what I say or you say or what we feel, and that is the farther assumption, the one we often do not get to, that since we will die and everyone we know will die, none of this worrying will matter in the least, and so, if we accept that all this will be gone, we can accept that all our worrying is just the fretting away of precious moments, a vain and fruitless mental activity over which, indeed — and this is the important part — we have some measurable, demonstrable control!
… You will be forgotten. I will be forgotten. This whole thing will be gone. Yet I think that our consciousness will remain. This I have experienced firsthand. So I am not worried. Nor am I as crazy as I used to be. I am merely more certain that I can do nothing about anything….
… Meditate on these things. Just meditate. Just sit and let these things enter your consciousness, and if there is strife and conflict in your relationships with your husband and your kids, see what you can do to lower the conflict. Let them be. They are going to go. They are beyond your control already. You are just a passenger now.
I know what you’re thinking, “Dude, chill out!” Or, maybe, “Dude, you’ve chilled out so damn much you’re frozen.” Either way, you’re probably thinking he may not be cut out to be an advice columnist and indeed that he needs an advice columnist more than she does. But I digress.
For me, what’s of interest is that he completely missed the point of the question, treated her specific concern as if it were existential angst, and gave a not terribly germane reply.
But what if we actually tried to answer her question? What is a mother to do who feels certain responsibility, guilt, and heartache for bringing her children into a world that may be devastated by overpopulation and global warming, who feels hopeless about her ability to make the world a better place?
The first point is, I think, to acknowledge that these feelings are entirely reasonable in a world that is literally engineering its own self-destruction. I don’t, however, think the answer to a feeling of hopelessness is Tennis’s brand of disempowering fatalism.
Personally, I don’t share the feelings of this woman, but then I spend all my time trying to do something about this problem. I am quite certain that if I didn’t spend all my time trying to do something about it, I would want help coping with similar feelings. But everyone is different.
The question really has two parts, I think:
- What should the woman do to cope with her feelings?
- How can the woman help her children (and her entire family) best prepare for what is to come?
Not being a psychologist or psychiatrist, I can’t offer much help beyond the advice of “get involved” (in the climate action movement or something similar). Fortunately, however, I do know Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist and co-convenor of the 2009 NWF conference on the Psychological Aspects of Climate Change. I published some advice she gave 4 years ago in a post, “Dealing with climate trauma and global warming burnout.” I’ll repost that at the end.
I’d like to comment on the second part, however. As I say, I have spent a lot of time on colleges talking to students about this issue. My goal is not to alarm them or even to motivate them to become climate activists. No, I just try to describe as best I can — based on a review of hundreds of studies and interviews with dozens of the top climate experts in the country — the world as it is likely to be in the coming decades.
Knowledge is power. And while there can be little doubt that future generations will be cursing our names if we keep on the do-little path and destroy a livable climate, there is equally little doubt that within about two decades the humanity will become desperate to slash emissions and adapt to what we can’t stop. Then, say, over the course of 2025 to 2050 — the period I called “Planetary Purgatory” in my book Hell and High Water – the nation and the world will be increasingly focus its talent and resources (trillions and trillions of dollars) on mitigation and adaptation.
And this is all to say that someone who is in school today could benefit greatly from knowing how the future is likely to play out, much as it would have been useful for a teenager to know, say, in the 1970s that the future was going to be computers and the like (which, of course, some did).
If you want career security in the coming decades — and don’t want to become a gerontologist or diabetes specialist or podiatrist or the like — then you couldn’t do much better than becoming an expert on, say, water efficiency/resources or low-carbon technology or sustainable low-resource-use agriculture or building levees, to name a few.
Also, while Cary Tennis may think there is nothing anybody can do about anything, the fact is, this woman could benefit from strategic planning for her family. Maybe she doesn’t buy that beachfront property her husband has been eying or maybe she sells off the one she already has before the market crashes (see “Ponzi 2: What year will coastal property values crash?“). Maybe in 10 years, when planning her retirement, she doesn’t pick south Florida or the
desert Dust Bowl Southwest.
Her letter really isn’t specific enough to give a detailed response, but needless to say I take the very opposite view of Tennis. As long as the woman already knows enough to have these legitimate concerns, I think she ought to get involved and learn enough to really help her children and her family plan for what is to come.
I’ll end with an edited version of “Climate Trauma Survival Tips From Dr. Lise Van Susteren,” which, it must be said was aimed at climate hawks, but most of the advice is good for anyone.
- Take care of yourself physically and spiritually, through healthy living and maintaining a balance in your professional and personal life.
- Physical exercise is essential — endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, are secreted in response to exercise. Endorphins help fight psychic pain, too. Exercise also boots your immune system. If you are stressed out and getting sick a lot — you need regular exercise. Swimming can be very soothing.
- Get out of doors as much as possible — connect with the forces that drive you and give yourself up to the beauty of nature in the present….
- Remember that you are not alone. There are lots of other people who may be just as traumatized as you are — they just aren’t talking about it….
- Your fears are realistic. But what you can do, or what you expect you can do, may not be.
- Personal therapy can help. You wouldn’t be the first person to conflate some personal problems with what is happening to the planet. Although “we” are working on it, many professionals may not yet “get” the problem with climate.
- Having trouble sleeping? … Make sure to cut off the computer at least 2 hours before bedtime. The blue light emitted by computers suppresses a hormone that triggers sleep more than light from other parts of the spectrum. Additionally, turning out lights is not only good for the planet — the resulting incremental darkness sets the body up to sleep. Also, did you know that it can take as many as 9 hours for your body to completely break down caffeine?
- Believe that you are invulnerable. In fact, admitting what you are going through makes you more resilient.
- Lose focus on the essential tasks.
- Don’t give up! Despite the forecast — we are working together like never before.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice.