Most people suffer from a sense of moral failure over environmental matters. The mismatch between being told to change our light bulbs when the planet seems in free fall—melting ice caps, polluted water supplies, drought—creates a needling angst and anxiety. We know that we are in deep trouble, but feel that there is little we—or anyone—can do individually. Anne Karpf writing about climate change in the Guardian last year said “I now recycle everything possible, drive a hybrid car, and turn down the heating. Yet somewhere in my marrow I know that this is just a vain attempt to exculpate myself – it wasn’t me, guv.”
To fully acknowledge our complicity in the problem, but to be unable to act at the scale of the problem creates cognitive dissonance. And this “environmental melancholia,” results in hopelessness. It is not apathy we are feeling, but sadness that can be eased only with taking actions, mostly collective, scaled to the problems we face.
The moral failure and the inability to act leads to what some now identify as a moral injury, which is at the root of some post-traumatic stress disorders, or PTSD.
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Carolyn Raffensperger is the Executive Director of the Science & Environmental Health Network, www.sehn.org.