by Sarah Jaquette Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet
It’s been a week of total chaos. As the chair of the environmental studies department at Humboldt State, I’ve been stressed about assuaging students’ worries about disrupted classes, whether they’ll keep their campus jobs, and their families’ safety.
To boot, I have had two kids sick with the flu all week. My partner (who also works full-time) and I have been negotiating childcare responsibilities every day, and now their school has closed; like everyone else, we are now balancing homeschooling and our jobs. Let’s just say, I have never found the mundane normalcy of folding laundry so comforting and necessary.
But uncertainty and fear can make daily tasks and responsibilities seem pointless in the face of such an enormous threat. I know all about overwhelming anxiety; I wrote a book about to publish concerning climate anxiety and the tools we all can develop to face an uncertain future with compassion, joy, and action. COVID-19 may seem unrelated to climate change. However, coronavirus is climate change. As scientists have warned, an increase in diseases and pandemics is an expected result of climate change along with extreme weather events and sea level rise. I’m not being politically opportunistic when I connect the two; science shows that there is a direct, causal connection. In fact, the only way we will ever perceive climate change is through things like coronavirus and extreme weather events. The worst response is to crumble; there are things we can do right now to make it through this crisis.
Commit to be disciplined in your consumption of news media.
We need to have a disciplined approach to the stories we pay attention to. It’s important to be informed, absolutely, but it’s equally important to think critically about the stories we consume. News is designed to exploit and amplify fears. You may feel that checking the news is the only action you can take; redirect your energies where it’s needed. Check sites that you trust and that are not trafficking in spreading fear, such as the Washington Post piece on flattening the curve, and your local news reporting, which helps explain what’s happening locally—the place that matters most. Local news and local organizers can help us find ways to be useful.
Commit to focus on your communities.
Relatedly, this is a great chance to tap into our relationships with our communities. And if we don’t have relationships with our neighbors, now is a good time to start building them! Where the media reflexively looks for threats, the people and communities who are resilient will find opportunity. Social networks are more important in times of disaster than ever, especially when isolation is our main strategy to flatten the curve. How can we build social ties while engaging in social distancing? There are immediate answers, like helping get supplies and medications to elderly folks nearby, and pressuring local representatives to support businesses and schools. Get involved with organized mutual aid efforts. Yet coronavirus is also presenting longer-term opportunities for building community that we must commit to after this storm has passed, because another storm is on the horizon. Don’t wait for a crisis to work on changing the social structures that compound them.
Commit to take care of yourself.
Let’s have reasonable expectations for ourselves. Positive stories about professional athletes paying stadium employees’ salaries while sports are on hiatus are encouraging. But all of us can take comparable actions; scale your actions to what you are able to do. It can be as simple as texting a friend to check in or picking up a new mindfulness exercise. It can be cleaning the common area of your apartment building or creating new rituals of gratitude. It can be getting creative about new forms of worship, new definitions of normalcy, or new pleasure in old places—practices that ground us so we can approach others with equanimity and generosity.
I did an exercise with my seniors on our last day meeting face-to-face before going online. We brainstormed qualities of a resilient community in crisis. I reminded them of what we had learned by reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, in which she describes the humanity and resourcefulness that arise in crisis.
This was easy for them. They had been studying this in all of their climate change and sustainability courses. They listed many impressive ideas that felt starkly different from what we were seeing in the current response to the coronavirus. They provided detailed examples of empathy, mutual aid, collective support and communication, i.e., social structures of care that can withstand economic and societal impacts.
But then I asked: what does this mean for us, for our community of students? What does it mean for our class to be resilient in crisis? What skills does this moment require of us?
All of a sudden, what they had been learning in their courses became extremely relevant. This is what they had been training for, this is what environmental studies as a discipline can provide. We have been training for community resilience in times of (climate) crisis, so what better way to practice their knowledge? I told them it was their job to practice the things they brainstormed in the coming months. I told them, you got this.
Commit to feeding what you want to grow.
I’m consciously turning my intention and attention toward the things that I want to grow in the midst of this crisis: community, relationships, personal strength against stress, my kids’ resilience in turbulence, good leadership, empathy, communication, knowledge sharing, and a feeling of abundance. In this moment, every act of kindness could quite literally be a matter of life and death. That’s what climate change demands of us. That’s what coronavirus demands of us.