Q. Dear Umbra,

Writing to an advice columnist — even one who has been hailed as the expert in green living — is not the most natural thing for me, because it feels incredibly earnest. And that aversion to earnestness is pretty much the source of my problems right now.

See, I’ve never been an activist, a political junkie, or even your factory-model rabble rouser. I spent high school listening to a lot of Rage Against the Machine in between shopping sprees at Abercrombie & Fitch. As a college sophomore, I inexplicably planned to work in the finance sector? And for the past three years, in one way or another, I have professionally ridiculed things on the internet.

But since November, I feel like I’ve fallen into the wrong computer simulation, and I need to escape. (Except I know that’s not real. Sorry, Elon.) The world was no picnic basket before, but now it’s like that basket is filled with snakes, and there are so many of them.

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So even though I don’t fit the mold of “changemaker,” I realize changes need to be made — and a personality makeover is pretty hard to fathom when I can’t even get off the floor. I need a way to shed this apathy and do something — anything. But how?

Eve A.
Seattle, Washington

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A. Dear Eve,

Wow, very relatable! It’s almost like I’m reading a question from my own brain.

I hear you: The role of “lifestyle advice columnist” is admittedly a weird one. You are telling people, quite literally, how to live their lives, with the intent of making them better in some way — the people and the lives.

Helping readers make smarter, greener everyday choices has been the “Ask Umbra” way of helping people overcome a sense of helplessness in the face of sea-level rise, mass deforestation, famine-producing droughts, and vulnerable communities with polluted drinking water. It’s comforting to look at such large-scale disasters and think: What can I do? Well, I can set things straight in my own household. I can measure water use, slap solar panels on the roof, never eat meat, compost everything. That will be my contribution.

Those kinds of lifestyle changes are crucial. Ignoring their importance means rejecting personal responsibility. To that end, I have nothing but respect for the excellent advice my predecessors in the Umbra Fisk role have dispensed since 2002 — when you, dear letter writer, still thought Good Charlotte was the zenith of sharp political commentary.

Whoa! How did I know your 8th-grade taste in music? The jig is up — I (Eve Andrews) am the new Umbra, and I’m responding to a question from myself. (Calm down, it’s not weird.)

I totally agree that the new political circumstances we find ourselves in are extremely worrisome, and now a much wider swath of people must step up and take action. That includes you.

So what is the best approach? I’ve talked to a lot of very smart and effective people over the past few months — activists, academics, civic leaders, community organizers — to try to tackle the question of “What can I do?” (Several of my colleagues pitched in, too.) And the answer appears to be: “Whatever it is, don’t do it alone.” Because the things that we’ve all done to create a better future in our own homes and in our own lives are no longer enough.

The best thing you can do right now to fight enormous, terrible threats like climate change and environmental injustice is simply to become more civically engaged. Admittedly, that requires many less-simple things: understanding how local, state, and federal political systems work; becoming meaningfully involved with a broader community; and — perhaps most importantly — actually following through on the things you say you will do.

I have always believed that relationships with the people in your life are important above all else. My post-election research has only confirmed that those relationships are the foundation upon which civic engagement and effective advocacy is built. And I’d imagine you’re not going to meet many people from your current floor-hugging stance.

That’s why I’m recommending a 21-Day Apathy Detox to all Umbra readers, old and new — not so much as a cure-all, but as a preliminary treatment for the angst you’re currently experiencing. If you read any of these community-building tips and think, “yep, I could do that,” you can “opt in” — commit to doing something you feel passionate about, and Grist will follow up to ask how it’s going. Because with change this big, you shouldn’t have to go it alone.

I hope the advice will be as useful to you as it was to me.


P.S. I might be new, but I’m still taking questions, y’all — feel free to jump in and Ask Umbra anything you want about making your home, your community, your country, or your world a better place. I’ll get back to you ASAP.

In the meantime, please follow our detox guide — and, if you’re so inclined, sign up to get it in your inbox.