Let’s face it: If you care about the environment, you’ve got a lot of reasons to be bummed out. Is the sorry state of the planet dragging you into the dumps? John Fraser, a psychologist, architect, and educator with the Institute for Learning Innovation, is one of a small group of psychologists interested in the mental health of conservationists themselves — how professional activists, environmental educators, and conservation-oriented researchers handle the daily evidence of environmental destruction.
Environmentalists, Fraser says, often aren’t aware of the emotional toll of their work. “Talking to environmentalists can be like talking to a bunch of macho cowboys,” he says. “A lot of people will say, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re really not looking healthy.'” The result, he says, is that many environmentalists unconsciously express their stress in meetings or classrooms — sometimes sabotaging their own mission.
Fraser’s varied research interests include U.S. attitudes toward bison conservation, training programs for teachers living in Central American jaguar habitat, and the effect of literature and poetry on conservation thinking. He spoke with Grist about the under-recognized emotional trauma of environmental work — and how environmentalists can and should recapture their sense of humor.
Q. How did you get interested in the emotional health of conservationists?
A. I had been working in conservation organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society for many years, and I was starting to realize how aggressive people were in meetings, and how emotional meetings became. People were very, very committed to the environmental issues, but when they got into a conversation in a meeting, it could become quite heated over very petty and minor issues. Outside the conservation community, I’d never seen that level of passion around minor topics.
So I was becoming aware of this, and I was also working on finishing my Ph.D. in environmental studies with a focus on conservation psychology. One day, I was describing these conditions in meetings to one of my dissertation advisors, Vic Pantesco, who is a clinical psychologist. He looked at me and said, “What you’re describing is something that would almost fall into a clinical definition of distress.”
Q. You and Pantesco surveyed more than 140 professional conservationists. What patterns did you find when you asked them to talk about the emotional toll of their work?
A. We asked them to describe environmental damage that they had witnessed. Some of the experiences were big, and some were little. Some people had seen hurricane damage and knew that the damage was much worse because the mangrove swamps had been removed. Others had seen fisheries workers catching endangered species in driftnets and just tossing them aside.
Then we said, “How would you describe your feelings after those experiences, and how long did these feelings last?” Some people described crying that recurred over a few days, not feeling they could get out of bed, feeling listless and helpless. Definitely anger was a very, very, important part of their descriptions. They all felt angry.
Then we asked people, “Do you feel your family shares your environmental values? Do the people you work with every day share your environmental values?” What we found was that the people who did not feel they had family or work support were significantly more likely to have emotional distress that lasted longer than what would be considered healthful and that would fall within the definition of traumatic distress.
Q. You’ve said that conservationists who don’t process this kind of trauma privately may unconsciously process it publicly.
A. When someone experiences a trauma, they may be able to manage their own care most of the time, but there may be certain triggers which bring them back to that feeling of distress. For example, let’s take the case of a rape victim. If the person was raped in a park, parks might be a trigger. If the perpetrator had some distinguishing features, seeing other people who have those same features might be triggers.
Well, in the conservation business, everything you see can be a trigger. There’s roadwork happening? Trigger. They’re cutting down a tree because somebody felt like putting in a new bench for a café? Trigger.
Vic and I recognized that what we were describing didn’t fit the traditional definitions of acute trauma. In the conservation business, we believe what’s happening is that people are developing knowledge over time, and that knowledge allows them to see environmental problems in the world around them.
For example, when I first moved to Oregon, I drove through a park with an animal behaviorist. I said, “It’s so nice to see such a big flourishing forest.” She said, “Yeah, but it’s sad, because we’re looking at a dead forest.” She knew the system and knew that the understory had been overtaken by blackberries and ivy — shallow-rooted, invasive plants that were choking out the trees. So where I saw a flourishing forest, she saw a system in collapse. And as she explained it to me, she had to surface and process her own experience of that little bit of traumatic knowledge.
Q. You’ve pointed out that it’s not only researchers who experience this — anyone involved with environmental issues might be vulnerable to it. How might an environmental educator, for instance, process these traumatic experiences?
A. Well, we often hear environmental educators talking about building an emotional connection. Students get to climb trees and play with them and hug them and watch them grow over time, and in that way they come to know nature.
But I’m suggesting that sometimes environmental educators — in looking for that emotional reaction — may also seek to validate their own emotional experience, their own sense of loss about what’s happening to nature. Frequently, that’s because we tell the story of nature as a tragedy. When that happens, the student can react in two ways — they can take in this new knowledge and use the emotions to feel a sense of passion to go forward and do something to change the situation, or they can say, “You know what? I just don’t like crying that much. It’s not fun, and I don’t really want to do it again. This person is a downer.” They may run the other way.
We don’t have the processes in place for environmental educators to recognize their own emotional state. They often don’t have the chance to be in a safe place with other environmentalists and talk about what’s really upsetting them. Instead we’re seeing little bits of their traumatic experience surface in overly emotional behavior, and in burnout — in people saying, “I just want to retire and go back to my own little garden.”
Q. But for environmentalists, is there an alternative to the tragic narrative?
A. It’s comedy, absolutely. The whole way we’ve created our cities is really a comedy of errors. We think we have the power to build a levy that can hold back all of the Gulf of Mexico? OK, really? Aren’t we awfully proud little monkeys? I think that we can start to realize how pride and our own good intentions have led us to live with blinders — and have created conditions that allow for not only ironic humor but
quite frankly very absurdist humor. It may be shocking to say that when people are dying, but it can translate into absurdist humor too.
If we want to move to a new place, we have to think the way comedians think. In our society, comedians have permission to mention the unmentionable — to talk about things that are disturbing and morally challenging. Sometimes they go too far, but most often they point out our society’s hubris. I think we can go there in the environmental movement. We can start to look for the humor in what we see around us, find the irony and the absurdity and start to let it out.
Q. When you raise this issue with environmentalists, how do they respond?
A. I would say they’re not willing to acknowledge it — well, some are. The first time Vic and I presented our work at the Society for Conservation Biology, I think we were the third talk in a panel about midway through a daylong series of talks. The usual pattern was, you give a talk, there’s some applause, there are a couple of questions, there’s some more applause, and it’s all very polite. We presented our talk, we finished, and we had dead silence. After a minute or two, people started saying things like, “Oh my, I hadn’t thought about it that way, gee,” and their voices were cracking.
We’re asking people to accept that something they have always believed is their passion is also something that’s hurting them. That’s really hard. So the reception it’s received has been — I wouldn’t say it has been ignored, but I would say it’s difficult for people to listen to.
Q. What are your suggestions for environmentalists who read this interview and say, “Oh, that’s me”? How should they deal with what they’re experiencing?
A. As Mr. Rogers says, if it’s mentionable, it’s manageable. I think the important thing is to ask yourself, “How am I experiencing environmental loss? What am I seeing around me that causes me to have these feelings?” Think about that very consciously — ask yourself, “Does that upset me?” If it does, talk about it with a friend or colleague who you think shares your values. It doesn’t have to be concealed. In fact, the less concealed the better. But don’t take it out on those who don’t share your values, and certainly be aware of those feelings if you’re in the role of teaching others.
I’m not a clinical psychologist, but if you’re waking up and feeling really, really listless about something for more than a day or two — that’s an OK experience to have, but it’s not OK to live with. That’s when you need to think about finding someone to talk to about your feelings, to start to process them and develop some strategies with professionals.
I was at a high-level conservation conference recently, and someone who was transferring into the field looked at me and said, “Boy, people here drink a lot.” I said, “Yeah, they do.” That’s a symptom of what’s going on — it’s a way of escaping, but it’s not a healthful way of escaping. I’m not saying environmentalists shouldn’t drink liquor. What I’m suggesting is that within the community, there’s probably a higher level of self-medication than is really helpful.
I would love to see environmentalists create a place for talking about sadness. When an editor responds to one of my papers with, “Gee, this is kind of downer,” I think, “Exactly, so we have to talk about this.” It’s perfectly reasonable to have conversation about our own sadness and how to accept it.
Also check out: Does caring about the environment make you crazy?