Confronting climate change: Facing down the emotional and psychological costs of environmental chaos

  • Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, right, talks with Rabbi Ellen Bernstein prior to a recent talk at Hampshire College about climate change. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas speaks at Hampshire College about climate change. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Audience members take part in a question and answer session after talks by Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Rabbi Ellen Bernstein at Hampshire College in early December. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas speaks at a recent talk at Hampshire College about climate change. She is holding a new book she co-edited, “Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas listens as Rabbi Ellen Bernstein speaks at a recent talk at Hampshire College about climate change. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rabbi Ellen Bernstein speaks at Hampshire College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ash Hartwell, center, of Amherst, asks a question after a climate change talk by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Rabbi Ellen Bernstein at Hampshire College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas talks with Ash Hartwell, of Amherst, after her recent climate change talk at Hampshire College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas signs copies of her book, “Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis,” for Jonathan Klate, of Amherst, after her recent talk at Hampshire College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Pelham composer wrote his oratorio “Passion for the Planet” in part to make an emotional connection to the issue of climate change. Photo courtesy Geoffrey Hudson

  • A rehearsal for Geoffrey Hudson’s oratorio “Passion for the Planet,” which debuted this past summer at a sold-out show at Smith College. Photo by Jon Crispin/courtesy Geoffrey Hudson

  • Northampton Episcopal minister and climate activist Margaret Bullitt-Jonas has co-edited a new collection of essays on climate change.

  • Pastoral counselor Beth Fairservis, here in her Florence office, says many of her clients became more concerned about climate change this summer after the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, brought international attention to the issue. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pastoral counselor Beth Fairservis, here in her Florence office, says many of her clients became more concerned about climate change this summer after the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, brought international attention to the issue. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/24/2019 3:57:40 PM

As the digital revolution has sped up the pace of life, with cell phones, Twitter, Facebook and 24/7 news coverage seeming to leave no “off” switch, so does the news of climate change seem to come at an ever-increasing clip.

Glaciers in Greenland melting faster than had been predicted? Check. Worldwide carbon dioxide levels reaching record new levels? Check. Animal species going extinct faster than had been expected? Check. July 2019 determined to be the hottest month ever since record-keeping began more than a century ago? Check.

If you’re experiencing anxiety — or something worse, like hopelessness or despair — about the future of the planet, you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association published a guide for therapists two years ago to help them counsel patients about what some have also called “eco-anxiety.” The report stated in part that negative psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, hopelessness, fatalism and fear — even aggression and violence — were growing.

“These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency,” the report added.

Beth Fairservis, a pastoral counselor and climate activist in Williamsburg, has talked to some of her clients about climate change over the past several years. But this summer, she says, “There seemed to be a real shift … it seemed like every client was talking about it, that people were starting to feel a sense of ‘Oh my God, this is different from anything in recorded history.’ ”

Fairservis, who also develops theatrical productions that address climate change, believes the high visibility this year of young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who attracted worldwide media attention with her calls for immediate action on the issue, may have raised awareness on climate issues in a way that myriad scientific and media reports have been unable to do.

“I think for a lot of people, there’s a certain sense of mortality,” said Fairservis. “We’re in shock. We’re looking at profound changes to our way of life. Climate change could upend so many things we take for granted, like food supplies, electricity, the typical changing of the seasons.” Climate change is not necessarily the only thing troubling her clients, Fairservis notes, but for many “it’s at the core of their issues.”

Seeking community

But she and others in the Valley who are grappling with the disturbing changes to our environment — and the prospect of more severe problems in the future, from crippling heat to rising seas to depletion of food supplies — say there are ways to address this. There’s no one solution, they say, nor can we expect some last-minute technical solution to save the planet. But Fairservis, for one, says there’s much to be gained by continuing to push government leaders on addressing the issue, finding value in day-to-day life, and forging stronger connections to one’s community.

“One simple thing you can do is write down what you’re grateful for,” said Fairservis, whose background includes the study of Buddhist traditions and mindfulness. “And we can reconnect with our bodies and our emotions. We’ve become distanced from them by our society and technology.”

Geoffrey Hudson found some perspective on climate change by doing something he loves best: composing music. The Pelham cellist and classical composer remembers reading a newspaper article a few years ago on climate change in which a scientist expressed frustration that what he and other climatologists were documenting didn’t seem to be resonating with people — at least not emotionally.

“That really struck a chord in me,” said Hudson. “I had never seen a connection between the issue and my music, but now I did. Music can really build emotional connections, on a lot of different levels.”

Hudson wrote an hour-long oratorio, “Passion for the Planet,” scoring the piece for adult and younger singers and a 12-member chamber ensemble. The music looks both at the ominous side of climate change, with a reference to the famous “hockey stick” graph from the 1990s that revealed a dramatic rise in global temperatures in the 20th century, but it also offers a message of hope in its later movements: a sense that, as Hudson puts it, “We’re all in this together. You don’t have to be alone.”

When the piece had its debut at Sage Hall at Smith College this past summer, it sold out, he said, and the line of would-be concert-goers extended out the door and down the block. It was performed by the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble — including Hudson’s wife, singer Alisa Pearson — and the Hampshire Young People’s Chorus. Afterward, Hudson said, people seemed deeply moved and happy they’d been part of the event.

“Music is not going to solve climate change, but it can bring us together and give us a greater sense of community and how we have to work together to confront this,” he said. He noted that he and Pearson have an 11-year-old daughter and are very concerned about what the future may offer her. But he suggested climate change be viewed as a large boat that people are slowly trying to turn around and steer in the opposite direction.

“You work as hard as you can to turn it around, and you may think it’s not turning, but eventually it does,” he said.

Lives of the spirit

Margaret Bullitt-Jonas has been concerned about climate change for over three decades, ever since the problem was first tagged as “global warming” in the 1980s. A former Episcopal minister for Grace Church in Amherst, Bullitt-Jonas has devoted herself to climate activism for 20 years and for the last six years has worked full time for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts on climate issues — writing, leading retreats, speaking on the issue and taking part in interfaith services.

Bullitt-Jonas, of Northampton, sees climate change as a vital issue for people in the faith community to address, just as U.S. churches previously responded to social justice issues such as the civil rights movement. On an individual level, she adds, it’s also important for people to take stock of what’s important in their life. Like Fairservis, she counsels people to stop and consider what they feel grateful for as a way to keep climate grief at bay.

“It’s clear that our way of life is not working for a lot of people or the Earth,” she says. “And it can feel that whatever we’re doing to try and lower our footprint on the planet is just so insignificant … but in a way, we have an opportunity now to reassess how we want to live our lives.”

Bullitt-Jonas has also co-edited, with a Lutheran pastor and academic in Kentucky, Lean Schade, a recent collection of essays, “Rooted & Rising,” on the topic. The contributors — faith leaders, climate activists, scientists and others — write about their own responses to climate change and the need to be resilient.

And Bullitt-Jonas and Schade write in an introduction to the book that the crisis could become “a catalyst for spiritual and societal transformation. It is our deepest, most fervent hope that the wisdom of the world’s religious and faith traditions can help to midwife whatever new life will be born out of this cataclysmic time.”

Another climate activist, Sarah Metcalf of Northampton, says she went through a period of serious depression a few years ago after giving a sermon on climate despair at the Unitarian Society in Northampton, where she serves on a committee examining climate change. “The situation seems so dire and disheartening … it felt like whatever I was doing [to fight climate change] was nothing more than a symbolic gesture.”

But Metcalf, while not claiming any sudden burst of optimism on the issue, says there are some basic steps you can take to counter that sense of hopelessness. “Go outside a lot — love being in the natural world in all its beauty and variety. Meet other people, stay active. Help others. Become more self-sustaining. Being alone and obsessing on this subject is not the way to go.”

And Metcalf, a writer and singer — she sang in “Passion for the Planet” with the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble — has also reconsidered the value of the personal steps she’s taken to try and reduce her carbon footprint. Though stressing she’s fortunate enough to be able to swing some things financially that others cannot, she said that, as one example, replacing her old Subaru with an electric car “has made my heart feel a little lighter — you know, ‘Here’s something personal I can do.’ ”

And Metcalf holds out this hope: that when facing an emergency, humanity can rally and show collective courage and action. “We rush into burning buildings to save strangers,” she said. “And right now, our planet is burning.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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