Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Antidote to Despair: Moving Forward

As scientists continue to reveal new evidence of the declining state of the biophysical systems upon which we depend for our existence, the nightly news seems to reinforce the consequences of these findings. We witness an almost daily stream of bulletins about record drought, heat waves, wild fires, extreme storms, floods, extinctions, and evidence of oceans more degraded than previously thought. This knowledge of environmental degradation can lead to feelings of fear, sadness, grief and despair.

Paul Gilding, in his new book, The Great Disruption, talks about despair “as a necessary stage we must all go through when confronted by the enormity of the challenges to sustainability our society faces today. It is in fact a positive sign and an indication of coming to the end of denial. On sustainability, most people start with denial – there is no serious problem. Then comes what we’ll call ‘denial breaking down’ – a more or less intellectual acknowledgement of the science up to a point, but without fully accepting the factual implications and emotional reactions that full acknowledgement would bring. Then comes full despair, sometimes with fear and anger on the way through.”

“My conclusion,” he states, “is that feeling despair at some point means you’ve genuinely and fully acknowledged the facts.”

Gilding goes on to say, “But while despair is a stage I think we all need to arrive at, individually and collectively, it’s also one that we can and must move through.” He adds, “The easiest way to do that is to go forward. We act. We start doing things.”

Artist Chris Jordan deals with his eco-despair through his art in several journeys to Midway Island to document the effect of plastics on the albatross, but also to witness a place of great natural beauty. Don't miss his Midway Project.

Positive action, going forward, according to Gilding, is the antidote to despair and the pathway to solving the problems we face. By moving forward, we are not immobilized by feelings of grief or powerlessness. By moving forward, we don’t slide back into denial or apathy or numbness. We engage.

Part of my job involves working with 18 student sustainability interns on initiatives they lead in collaboration with various university departments and community agencies. Each has an academic mentor to guide their scientific research and each also has an operational mentor to assist with implementation of their solution on campus or in the community. Some do express feelings of fear, anger, despair and frustration with the pace of the mankind’s response to these urgent challenges. Those are the ones who understand the depth and breadth of the response that will be required to turn destruction into regeneration. Those are the ones who end up going forward and they take all of us with them.

We are recruiting the next class of sustainability interns this month, from scores of qualified applicants. They will be challenged with large, complex problems and they will find their way through. Keep an eye out for them.

In them behold the antidote to despair and a reservoir of hope for our collective future, moving forward.