Ironically, I had to fly to the other side of the world to get my head around the state of our planet! In 2019 I attended a conference in Dublin, which included a workshop on climate change. I spent the next two hours in tears.
We were asked to consider the impact of our actions on future generations and how my future self might be proud of my choices in this decade. My eyes were opened and can never be shut again. I’m eternally grateful to my colleagues for that gift. I was full of emotions and motivated to change.
If you’ve been paying attention, the news hasn’t been so great the last couple of years. We’ve had deadly heatwaves in Europe and horrendous fires and floods at home that seem to have touched all of us. Add a global pandemic and a war. There is plenty of negative information we might want to avoid. People are switching off the news.
In my Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) training I learned that short-term efforts to numb out and escape hard stuff won’t make big feelings disappear for long. And avoidance can create new problems to deal with down the road. Sound familiar?
What psychology tells us, and what my experience in the last three years confirms, is that feelings of anxiety, anger, grief, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness are all completely healthy and to be expected.
Think of feelings as data that tell us something isn’t right or might need addressing. Values-based actions are the antidote to anxiety, despair and so on. We all have a window of tolerance to consider so it’s important to find a balance – read a climate report on the one hand and watch a silly comedy on the other. Staying out of rabbit holes of doom and gloom is good for your mental health. The trick is to stay informed enough.
When I landed in Sydney after that conference, I felt like a new phase of my life was starting. I bought a worm farm, started reducing my meat and dairy consumption, and joined a group of amazing people at Australian Parents for Climate Action to connect with other parents and carers who were worried about the future. Facing the science wasn’t easy but with my climate buddies, I now have someone to talk to and share my concerns with.
Waking up to what was happening was invigorating. I started asking a lot of questions such as one posed by a colleague, Tiffany Dubruc, “Who do I want to become?”. I watched documentaries, such as David Attenborough’s Our Planet and read voraciously –favourites included The Future We Choose and Active Hope. I became acutely aware of how precious our time on this planet is. Strangely enough, it took a willingness to face anxiety, grief and loss of the world as I have known it so that a new future is possible. This might sound scary but actually, it is also very empowering and energising.
Since my awakening experience, I have continued working as a coach and clinical psychologist, as well as volunteering for organisations that align with my values. I also found myself personally engaged in this year’s election, motivated by the hope that our country can be a proud leader on the world stage in the challenging decades to come.
Periods of great change and uncertainty can be unsettling. They can also provide opportunities to connect with our personal values and the people we love. Is there something you feel passionate about that you can bring to your home or your workplace? Is there something you’ve been putting off that might be a small step that helps protect your children’s and grandchildren’s futures? Can you imagine going to bed tonight feeling a bit prouder of the person you were today? Imagine doing that every night!
We may not be able to control world events and may feel small in the face of such things. And yet, never doubt that your actions matter. Every day we have 1000s of choices to make, and so do the other billions of humans we share this planet with. Together we can make this world better, one worm farm, one solar panel, or one letter to our local member, at a time.
What values-based action are you willing to take today because it’s too important not to? Will grandchildren thank you for it?
By Louise Shepherd (September, 2022)
Louise is a clinical psychologist and executive coach