In a world of disasters, how do we cultivate hope?

Oil in wave

An oil-filled wave off the coast of Santa Barbara in the wake of this week’s crude oil pipeline burst. (Photo by: Spiritnthesky. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

My home state of California has been hit with two disasters in one week–a raw sewage spill in Monterey Bay, and the more devastating crude oil spill off the Santa Barbara coastline. These two spills are only the latest examples of the thousands of human-caused disasters that plague our shorelines every year (not counting all of the natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes that add to these impacts).

The combined impact of these acts of negligence to our own health and the health of coastal ecosystems, while only partially known at present, are unquestionably negative and potentially long-lasting as has been shown for the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

I work in a field where these types of environmental disasters are at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and in which people are constantly trying to develop strategies to prepare for, respond to, and reduce the impact of such disasters to protect ecosystems and human well-being to the greatest extent possible. When we as environmental scientists, science communicators, and science educators are confronted with almost daily stories of disaster and destruction, how can we cope? How can we support each other and cultivate optimism and positive action in the face of such constant devastation?

A support group might be nice. But in reality, it comes down to each of our own individual mental frameworks–i.e., how we construct our view of the world. In a world filled with natural and human-caused disasters and environmental destruction, we must consciously sow seeds of hope and optimism through individual action (grass-roots, if you will) and awareness, building a strong, bottom-up platform of change in the same way that most social movements have done historically.

I struggle daily with balancing a) my internal rage and feelings of hopelessness as I am barraged with stories of overfishing, deforestation, sea level rise, and a million other dangers and b) my feelings of hope and excitement at the many inspiring stories of species or habitats saved from extinction, or communities banding together to protect their livelihoods and their environment.

This is the reality of a world now dominated by social media. As I scroll through the Twitter feed of the organization I work for, my brain attempts to sift through hundreds of story lines and commentaries within minutes, representing a schizophrenic range of topics from the devastating global consequences of climate change to the adorableness of baby sea otter pups (which typically get exponentially more shares and likes than the ‘serious’ links). Sifting through one’s social media feed is enough to make anyone want to throw their hands up in exhaustion and just accept that ours is a world where cute animal videos reign supreme over issues of dire consequence to our future existence.

But it’s not that simple. Our minds are a microcosm of our external environments. Just as the external world is a balance of life and death, periods of drastic change and destruction interspersed with periods of stability and renewal, our minds can only handle so much bombardment with stories of death and destruction. We need mental ‘breaks’ in which we can enjoy the simple pleasures provided by positive, even humorous anecdotes from family and friends–in fact these breaks may be essential in helping us cope with the more serious issues we are so often confronted with.

Perhaps we need a certain does of silly animal videos to avoid empathy fatigue when we are asked to put mental energy towards serious, potentially overwhelming challenges. Or maybe I’m just creating an excuse for frivolous use of social media to assuage my own guilt at the joy I get out of watching the latest ‘animal odd-couple’ video clip.

Still, I’d like to think that the patterns of positive and negative stories we see in our Twitter and Facebook feeds represent the potential resilience of a global community of humans, as opposed to a self-imposed duality in which we can indulge in light stories at the expense of solving some of the greatest challenges of our time. And there IS evidence that social media campaigns can lead to real-life positive actions by citizens. (Note: I’m not here today to argue whether our growing reliance on social media is overall a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing for social resilience–that’s a whole different topic worthy of reflection).

I guess its all about how we want to construct our realities–its up to each of us to take advantage of our social networks, both in the ‘real’ world as well as the virtual, to make the most of our positions as communicators, or activists, or educators, etc, as the case may be. And if you post a video of a cat playing a keyboard right after you post a story about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet–well, you are human, and its just your mind trying to keep the balance of light and heavy out there in internet land. I forgive you (and by that, I mean I forgive myself).

More importantly, I’ve found through my experiences as a science communicator that positive stories resonate much more strongly with people than negative ones. As a result, I make an effort to highlight as many good news stories (e.g. about new scientific discoveries, or newly designated protected areas/species) as I do stories warning of impending harm or threat. While its important to be aware of the environmental challenges we face, we also need to know that there are solutions, and that each of us can contribute to those solutions in myriad ways.

Do you have thoughts/reactions to the rise of disasters around the world, and how you feel about our responsibilities as individuals or as society to confront and address them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Here’s hoping for a world that evolves towards greater and greater consciousness, sustainability, and compassion.

-Dr. K

18 thoughts on “In a world of disasters, how do we cultivate hope?

  1. I always feel the need to get involved with these sort of things in some way, but money is always an issue. Or I am unable to travel because of the money or the inability to miss work. And if you are just doing the bare minimum that would be to donate money and it’s a viscious circle. I’ve wanted to go on mission trips with my church. but again, couldn’t afford it. I wish there were options that allowed people to help, but didn’t cost so much. And if there are these options out there I don’t know about them. It’s sad that helping people has to come down to money. :-/

    • Hi Tinny, I understand your frustration–I think that anyone who cares about people or the environment, but doesn’t have much money, feels this way at least sometimes. The trick is finding ways to live your life in a way that complements your desires to help others. Remember, the bare minimum is doing nothing, so anything you do above and beyond that is SOMETHING! 🙂 Volunteering with local community groups, whether for beach clean ups, homeless shelters, or whatever you are interested in, will help you feel involved. On a more personal level, what you choose to buy (organic, local food versus processed, e.g.), or NOT to buy (plastics, single use containers), still goes a long way in sending a message to others about what you hope to see in the world. Best of luck, never lose hope!

  2. Pingback: A message of Optimism on World Oceans Day | Enviro-Mental

  3. David Orr describes hope as “a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” We can’t know for sure how things will turn out, but just as there are negative tipping points in ecosystems I think there are positive tipping points in society, and we may be getting close to one. That helps me keep rolling up my sleeves after several decades of teaching and writing about nature and the human spirit.

    • Thank you David for your wisdom and apt quote. It’s true, just as we are nearing a number of potentially harmful environmental tipping points, we have the potential to cross positive tipping points and reach critical mass on societal/environmental issues–hopefully before we lose too much. I suppose that’s what drives us as teachers, scientists, activists, artists, etc., to continue pushing for positive change.

  4. Hmm…I will attempt to answer your questions with my own experiences, since I cannot speak for anyone else. As a lover of big cats, I certainly understand despair. The prospects for these creatures are terrible. But I find that if I focus on the negative, or serious, issues, I feel like giving up. I need to hear positive stories and see pictures of cute lion cubs in order to restore my energy and resolve.

    Concerning what you asked at the end about our responsibilities as a society and individuals, four years of studying psychology (an intensely westernized science) have made me a bit of an existentialist. This means that for me stewardship isn’t about obligation: it’s about choice. It’s about making decisions that may inconvenience us slightly; not because we have to, but because we want to. Because we love and cherish the natural world, and want to express our love through our actions.

    I realize my views are fairly unrealistic, but they work for me.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective–I don’t think its unrealistic at all–its just always harder going through life with an existential bent! Your approach to life is inspiring, and I hope you continue to find optimism and motivation.

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