Dear Umbra,

I’m the poster child for a late-twentysomething environmentally responsible adult. I use less than 100 gallons of gas a year, less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, less than 20 gallons of water per day, less than 100 therms of natural gas during the winter in Minnesota. I take my garbage out once every two months because nearly everything is recycled, composted, or bought in reusable containers. My house, built in 1921, scores a 9.8 out of 10 on the Energy Star assessment (I document it on my website). All my investments are socially responsible. My job is working with renewable energy. I buy all-organic food from my local food co-op and/or community supported agriculture farm. You can see I’m working hard here to improve my life environmentally (although compared to the rest of the world, I wonder if I’m actually any better than the average).

But sometimes it’s not enough and it tears me apart. Some days I’m fine, others I’m not. I’ve spent a month debating whether to switch from my socially responsible phone company to the local behemoth to save $36 a year and really increase my call-time flexibility. I’m getting bitter that no one else seems to care — drive, drive, drive.

What’s a green to do? Support group? Green girlfriend? Cleansing ceremony by Ralph Nader?

Mike
St. Paul, Minn.

Dearest Mike,

You’ve got to chill out. The way you’re headed, you’ll get a rare stress-related illness and then spend months wondering if you should go to the doctor and use up all those disposable gauze pads. Take some deep breaths and calm down. There is help for people like you.

I would spend time complimenting you on your admirable success in reducing your personal environmental footprint, but I’ll wager that no amount of kudos will satisfy your obsessive nature. Our best hope is to find a way to relax you, and a way to relieve the terror of failure that crowds your brain.

Relax — go to it.

May I gently suggest taking up some type of calming activity? Millions of tightly wound people find peace and relaxation through spiritual or meditative practices such as Hatha yoga, Buddhism, Quaker meetings, deep breathing, tai chi, and Catholic confession. Others shun the obviously emotional and turn instead to physical cleansing through exercise. Or there’s always relaxation through over-the-counter medication. Whatever sounds good to you: Just try something, preferably lickety-split. You’re adding to the stress pollution level of your community.

Once you’re feeling a bit more relaxed, make goals for yourself. You’re approaching the giant problem of environmental destruction with no clear idea of how to measure success, so of course you are sometimes torn apart. Sit down and write out the highest hopes you have for your personal environmental impact on everything from your home to your neighborhood to the earth. Look carefully at those hopes and from them select the realistic goals for what you might be able to achieve in your lifetime. Set reasonable, human timelines for achieving these goals. You’ve obviously done quite a bit on your house. What could you feasibly advance on your street, or in your town? By laying out the parameters of your ideals and being honest with yourself about what you can accomplish, you’ll get a better grip on success and failure. Be sure to recognize your successes and feel happy when they happen.

Lastly, yes, go find a support group. Any support group will do. Start a book club, join the local Sierra Club chapter, take kids to pick up trash on the roadside, anything. There are groups designed to help the sensitive, earth-conscious person grapple with the despairs of modern living, like the Sacred Earth Network, as well as New Age folks who help people find their purpose, like Joanna Macy. You need comrades, so go out and get you some. And good luck with that ulcer.

Soothingly,
Umbra