ask polly

‘My Fear of Climate Change Is Eroding My Sanity!’

Photo: Long Zhiyong/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

My fear of climate change is eating away at my sanity.

I feel very guilty that the developing world will pay most dearly for the carbon belched from us wealthy nations, but I also don’t want to give up plane rides to Italy, hamburgers, and cheap underwear made in Bangladesh.

When that whole anti-straw campaign was going on, I felt like I didn’t give a shit about straws, partly because I read an article saying that fishing nets are the biggest plastic threat to marine life, and partly because I want to continue to have my cake and eat it, too. (I have since bought metal reusable straws.)

Polly, I do all the right things: I drive an electric car. I fastidiously separate my recycling. I turn off the water when I shampoo and condition. I donate to Greenpeace.

And yet.

And yet even if everyone on Earth suddenly started separating their plastics, we’d all still be fucked for a very long time. The apocalypse is coming. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but that’s truly the crisis call that’s going on in my head. A quarter of the world is going to be facing a severe water shortage very soon, cities will face dangerous sea-level rise, food supplies will be strained. Need I go on? I feel like, why even pursue my dream career or find my dream man if we’ll all be living in bunkers in 30 years?

Feeling neurotically afraid of my carbon footprint every time I step into a plane, while fair, somehow also feels like another excuse for me to feel bad about taking up space in this world. I tend to make myself small to leave room for other people. I fear that if MY suitcase is too heavy, the plane will fall out of the sky. Like, what is that? I fear that as a white woman, being successful in my career will take away from the opportunities of someone less privileged. When considering approaching a guy, I think about all the other attractive women out there that he’d probably think are hotter, and step aside for them.

I want to live with a mind-set of abundance in all aspects of my life while still being responsible in a time of climate change without turning my hair gray from worry. Can you please help me navigate all this with a healthier perspective?

In Heat

Dear In Heat,

It’s exceedingly difficult to maintain a healthy perspective on a crisis that is likely to lead to the suffering and death of millions of people, not to mention many of the animals on the Earth. The climate crisis is too gigantic and daunting for any plan of attack to feel remotely adequate. The more information you have, in fact, the less you feel that any one strategy in one place will make a dent. That’s why it’s so hard to stay engaged and continue to gather information and continue to fight for our planet. It’s just painful. It’s painful every single day. It feels like we’re doomed regardless.

My current approach is to narrow my vision to one small, stupid thing I can do at a time. One small thing you can do this week is join the Global Climate Strike, which is going on until Friday, September 27. Skipping work or school, giving those who are on the ground a signal boost or some encouragement, and donating a small amount to an organization fighting climate change: These are ways for you to align yourself with your values and feel connected to the enormous movement of people who are dedicating a huge amount of their energy toward trying to save the planet from destruction.

Your one small thing won’t make a big difference to the future of the planet. We need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in half over the next 11 years if we want to make a difference.

But accumulating new small, stupid things to do every day will at least give you the sense that you’re honoring your principles. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and doing whatever the hell you want and feeling shitty about it around the clock, you’ll have a sense that you’re trying to make reasonable choices with the fate of the planet in mind. Even if you don’t cut out every last hamburger, you can slowly encourage your curiosity about great veggie burgers. You can pay attention to that weird thing where the vegetarian seems to order the tastiest thing on the menu every single time. (This wasn’t true a few decades ago, by the way, when eating at vegetarian restaurants was like boarding the tahini train to hell.) You can gather new information and commit to chipping away at your bad habits instead of chipping away at your sanity with a denial-fueled mix of overindulgence and dread. And you’ll think of yourself as someone who does things. That will come in handy, because the goal here is to do more and more things as the days go by.

It bothers me, lately, that there are so many voices “helpfully” speaking up and informing us that we’re chumps for doing the one small thing that we do, or the three or four small things we do, because it will never make a bit of difference. You don’t have to believe that regular people will triumph over status-quo-loving, polluting profiteers to do these things. You just have to believe that it’s healthier than feeling guilty around the clock. Because every single small thing you do is a part of that larger effort, and it does make a big difference to how you feel about yourself and your life.

When you shame others for being earnest and rallying around a worthy cause, you partake in the same toxic, denial-based mentality that led us to this crisis in the first place. Telling people, “Your Prius is idiotic. It won’t make a difference” is a way of excusing yourself from the shared challenges faced by humanity. You aren’t just shrugging off your responsibilities. You’re making other people feel ashamed for having values at all.

I see this all the time these days: people who roll their eyes at activists and outspoken, heartfelt pleas on social media. People who loudly proclaim their lack of interest in what’s going on in our country or our world. People who reduce passionate cries for change to “virtue signaling” or lump all progressive movements under some “cancel culture” banner. I get it. I’m a cynical dick, too. I’m not a joiner or a team player. Some childish but tenacious core of my being has a knee-jerk aversion to any big group of people who seem to agree with each other, from football fans to Dead Heads. But I do know that shaming people who care about something comes from a place of deep shame about your own most passionate emotions. Saying “That will never add up” comes from a place of helplessness and despair. If you’re angry at people who are trying to do something, that tells you that you’re on the run from your own feelings of guilt and powerlessness. If you’re irritated by people who show their true feelings about the state of the world, that tells you that you’ve buried your feelings for so long now that all you can feel now is stressed out and annoyed and angry. Stressed, annoyed, angry, shaming: I’ve just described the resting state of 80 percent of the population.

If we’re going to stand up for the planet and all of the animals on it, we need to dig for our feelings instead. We need to feel the sadness and despair of this moment in history. And we need to figure out how to align ourselves with our values, even when it feels small and pointless and inconsequential.

In the past few months, I’ve seen an uptick in letters about the climate crisis. To me, that’s a good sign. Outspoken climate crisis activists like Greta Thunberg and everyone involved in the school strikes for climate and the Sunrise movement are starting to make a difference in how we experience this rapidly unfolding catastrophe. Just watching this video about young activists coordinating their efforts around the world might help.

I watched it a few days ago and cried several times. I cry whenever I see kids marching or when I hear Thunberg or another young activist speak. But that makes sense: Sadness and helplessness are a big part of this movement, actually. People tend to associate activism with optimism and even delusion. But the people who get involved in major movements are people who don’t cut off their feelings about the dire state of the world. These are people who experience sadness and helplessness often. Instead of pushing those feelings away, they welcome them in until they’re driven to take action.

Even as the world grows darker, we’re more isolated from each other than ever. We might connect on social media, but we don’t feel capable of asking our neighbors to come over and talk about the crisis we’re in. We’re taught to hide our emotions from the people we see every day. We’re told that strong emotions belong in movies or at concerts, where you pay a $20 or $200 ticket price to feel feelings in the company of other people. We’re instructed to handle our feelings of sadness and helplessness by going out for a nice meal or buying a new lipstick or getting a massage. We don’t feel justified in reaching out to each other in the midst of our terror and anguish.

Thanks to the constant drumbeat of news about climate change right now, it’s impossible to feel like you’re doing enough, no matter how much you’re doing. We may not stop the globe from overheating. We’re reaching the point of no return, where things will just get worse and worse whether we cut emissions dramatically or not.

So existence on this planet has taken on a warped, surreal quality for many of us. Just going to an outdoor mall and walking around, watching a fountain spray water everywhere, watching people eat sushi and meander around with big bags of stuff they just bought, feels like living in the past. It feels odd to buy new things. It feels recklessly decadent to sit down to a meal of food that’s been flown in or shipped in from a few different locations far away. And I think it’s particularly odd to do these things when you have kids who won’t be living this way for long. It feels inevitable that at some point, they’ll turn to you — you with your aggressive recycling and your electric car — and they’ll ask, “What were you thinking? Why did we own so much shit? You knew what was happening. Why did we run the AC so much? Why did we eat three kinds of unsustainable fish in one sushi roll?”

Where will you be when they ask this? How many species will have gone extinct by then? How many deadly droughts and monster storms will have hit us? How many economic crises will naturally follow from this moment, which currently feels like some bizarre denial-fueled last hurrah of total excess before things start to deteriorate everywhere, visibly, inexorably?

I don’t have the best answer to the big existential questions posed by climate change. I don’t even know the right questions. Almost every morning these days, I look online for some new action to take, some new method for conserving energy or spreading awareness or just beating the same tedious drum. I keep looking for some comprehensive guide for transforming my own life into one that doesn’t look completely fucked and embarrassing and shameful 20 years from now.  At the moment, I’m fixated on how flatly unresponsive the financial industry is in the face of the climate crisis. My reasonably non-evil retirement fund includes just one high-minded Social Reform mutual fund, and one of its top holdings is Facebook, a company that’s repeatedly demonstrated a self-serving recklessness that’s had a direct impact on electing climate-change-denying leaders who seem hell-bent on destroying the planet more quickly.

It’s exhausting to give a fuck. It’s mind-boggling how few people in power seem to care.

That’s why I’m making myself a Climate Action Plan this week (sounds official, right?), so I’ll have some way of setting new goals for myself and keeping track of them. The first thing I want to do is call that investment firm and ask them about their massive investments in fossil fuels. I want to ask: When will we prioritize the fate of the planet over profits? Once half of us are already dead? How will the stock market be doing once we can’t grow enough food to feed the planet? How rational will it feel to fixate on growth when millions of climate refugees are desperately searching for a way to survive?

Am I sacrificing something I shouldn’t sacrifice? Personally, I feel like I’m old enough that I should have to give up more than my share. My youth was spent consuming without a care. My kids will navigate the world differently whether they want to or not. We all will. So my motto is, “You have enough already.” I look at the clothes I own and I think about finding ways to wear them until I’m dead in the ground. I look at the food on our shelves and I think about what it would take to eliminate industrially farmed foods and packaged foods entirely. I want to start a list of ideas and get my kids to add to the list.

We all know that there’s no personal route to being absolved from all sins, past and future. I don’t even think my small things will make a damn bit of difference, honestly. I just think it’s fucking embarrassing not to do every single thing I can do at this point. That’s my personal stance, as a privileged white person who has the time and energy to make choices instead of just dodging one enormous wave of bullshit after another in order to survive. We all do what we can. The only thing that none of us is excused from is voting, and being aware of just how bad things are about to get.

The more you have, the more you’re obligated to join the fight. The more you’ve taken, the more you need to give. But that’s unrelated to dream jobs and dream men. You can be bold and take up space and have a tiny carbon footprint at the same time. Instead of drawing unhelpful lines from your compulsive self-abnegation to your compensatory, indulgent habits, focus on allowing your feelings into the room. Because the more you feel, the more you’ll do. Sadness is important. I never feel quite right feeding people despair, but right now I think that some of us are sidestepping the despair of this moment in history a little too effectively. The remedy for that isn’t embracing denial or hiding from this darkness, and it’s not joining the “Ignorance Is Bliss” faction of mutants who still care more about profits than the planet, and it’s not being cynical and saying, “There’s nothing we can do individually so fuck it,” and it’s not beating yourself up for what you’re not doing already.

The remedy is acknowledging that our world is in trouble and VOTING for candidates who recognize that and are willing to take bold steps to save the planet. Voting is the first and last on the list: registering people to vote, encouraging people to vote, talking about voting until the stars fall from the sky. It’s also important to question those who refuse to acknowledge how bad things are, and to question those who refuse to vote. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But a lot of people on this planet need to feel a lot less comfortable about what we’re facing.

It’s almost impossible to do the things you need to do —  vote, talk to people, take action, and make big lifestyle changes —  without FEELING THIS DESPAIR, every day. But feelings are actually part of the package. Feeling these feelings will make you bolder and stronger and more resilient: Looking straight into the face of this sadness, every single day. Seeking out the latest climate news and reading it, from top to bottom. Sending it to a friend and saying, “Read this, as a favor to me, so we can talk about it.” Tweeting and posting these reports, and making your feelings clear to anyone who asks. We need to connect with each other and feel what’s true right now. Feelings like grief and fear don’t drag you back to bed when you confront them every day instead of avoiding them. Recognizing the shape and folds of reality, even when reality happens to be very dark, doesn’t make you incapable of moving forward. Reality — and the sadness that comes with it — will propel you forward.

We have to feel sad, and cry, and worry a little, and then we have to go back to our plans, over and over again, and revise them: I will vote, and I can commit to driving someone to the polls, too. I can eat a little less meat, I think. I can read a new book about industrial farming and think about my habits on that front. I can save a tiny bit every month for an electric car. I can donate a tiny bit more to an organization fighting climate change. I can call one elected representative and read from the script I wrote about the Green New Deal.

Every small thing will feel stupid. We can do them anyway. Twenty minutes a day, for the planet. Ten minutes. When you feel guilty and hopeless, this is what you do with those feelings.

That’s what I’m doing. It’s not enough. What will you do? It won’t be enough, either. But this is what I need to feel good at this late date on planet Earth. I realize that now. What will make you feel good? What will make you understand who you are, and feel proud of how you’re living? What will make you feel truly alive and grateful and strong, even now? What actions will honor this dying world the most?

You don’t have to do all of the right things. You just have to try. Trying will make your whole life feel a little bit less bleak. Trust me on that.

Because when you try, even a little bit, even in ways that won’t make a big difference, you align yourself with the Earth. You stand in solidarity with the trees. You pledge your allegiance to the birds in the skies, to the fish in the ocean. You are connected with those kids marching all over the world this week, desperately hoping that someone will listen to them. Go watch footage of them now, and feel in your cells what it means to care much more than you can stand. It’s like being set on fire. This is your blood, pledging allegiance to the ground. This is your despair, pledging allegiance to the clouds. You are being called to fight for this world with everything you’ve got.

Our feelings will lead us forward from here. We were lost before. We couldn’t feel enough. But now, we’re feeling our way toward hope, together. The sky is on our side.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘My Fear of Climate Change Is Eroding My Sanity!’