An XMNR student reflects on psychological resilience to climate anxiety
December 20, 2022
By Christopher Gibson and Amy Hubbard
Climate grief, eco-distress, and climate anxiety are just a few of the terms used to describe the range of potentially paralyzing emotions many people experience in response to climate change and environmental stress and insecurity. Grief, denial, fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, despair, sadness, and helplessness are complicated emotions that even the most conscious among us struggle to process.
This range of emotions is what ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust calls "a healthy response to a world in crisis which needs to be shared and held in community." To ensure that Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) students have access to resources and tools for developing personal resilience practices, XMNR faculty member Susan Apollonio hosted a discussion to facilitate sharing and collaborative peer-to-peer support.
The reflection below from XMNR student Chris Gibson is in response to this discussion.
As some of my classmates have heard, my adult life started on a very different path than the one which is now drawing to a close. I was once a very impressionable and naive eco-warrior, very much dedicated to a vegan lifestyle and environmental protection. PETA and ALF literature were bathroom reading for me and I looked forward to canvassing the upscale neighborhoods of Tulsa, Oklahoma because I knew many oil industry leaders lived there with their families.
I had become involved with a like-minded organization that aligned my youthful energy with their goals of public education and policy change. We were a grassroots organization, recruiting college students to help spread the word about environmental legislation. We also lobbied members of the state's congressional body for their support and to pass our measures.
I enjoyed the front end of the operation. Walking the streets regardless of the weather, meeting people where they lived, and sharing with them a story to which many were oblivious brought me a real sense of joy. I was making a difference. Working afternoons and evenings, I met 20–30 homeowners with their families a night. Some were less than thrilled when their doorbells rang during dinner, but they never closed the door in anger because the topic and the delivery were infectious. Some would invite me to dinner. Many donated money on the spot. A few would request additional literature and wish to confirm my bonafides—even in the ‘90s, "green washing" was a stigma we had to overcome. In the end, we raised enough money to cover our operating costs and more.
My first paycheck was more money than I had previously made working three jobs simultaneously. Concerned, I asked one of the organization's leaders about the zeros. He just smiled knowingly, "We work on commission. You must be very convincing, but you're welcome to give me what you don't want." Though skeptical, I continued naively.
About the same time, one of our main efforts was about to meet the State House for a vote. This was an obvious piece of legislation designed to prevent oil companies from pumping industrial chemicals into empty wells. This legislation also included some of the first verbiage intended to make fracking illegal. The argument and the language were "no brainers" in my mind. Who would want chemicals pumped into their soil and over the aquifers or ground water we all drank? Additionally, why would anyone want high-pressure liquids of questionable substance injected into the ground near their homes and farms? I was convinced that the intelligent and informed members of my elected body would jump at the opportunity to stop these dangerous practices. I was further convinced that the oil companies who had been conducting these operations would be publicly humiliated for taking advantage of the very people they relied upon for their labor force.
I was wrong. The measures failed in the House and did not carry enough votes to even be considered by the Senate.
Crushed, I turned to the leaders of the organization for direction. They didn't seem to even notice. Their focus was already on to the next big-ticket cause, and they were already finalizing the communications strategy. There was no talk of re-engaging or recycling the effort. It was assumed to be a lost cause, and since we had aggressively canvassed the first time, they did not think we could cover our "operating costs" by continuing with the same effort.
Months of my life were wasted on a cause, which everyone supported behind closed doors but no one was willing to speak to publicly. I felt betrayed. Words could not console me and I found myself feeling more alone than I had ever before felt in my life. What was the use? If people didn't care about their drinking water, what did they care about?
A few weeks later was April 19th, and I quickly discovered the answer. The media and public outcry were unanimous. For me, if security was the one thing that got people off their couches, then that was my direction. That was nearly 30 years ago. My fellow Okies are just now coming to realize their folly, but none will admit or seem to remember the bright-eyed blond boy standing on their doorstep at dinner time.
Failure comes in many forms, and while resiliency may be a topic some are uncomfortable discussing openly, it is a requirement of effective leadership. Knowing myself and my limits has helped me overcome many challenges in my life. Realizing that none of the big challenges in life are immediately solvable and are, in fact, infinite has helped me scope my expectations, while further realizing that, for me at least, it isn't about being right, it's about being actively engaged in the present.
Chris Gibson is a lifelong student and patriot with nearly three decades of service in the Department of Defense. Fortunate to have lived in multiple countries, Chris’s travels have allowed firsthand observation of the positive impact diversity and proactive inclusion have on creating healthy and prosperous environments for all creatures great and small. Chris holds a master’s degree in Military Operational Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in English, and degrees in Chinese Studies as well as Intelligence Operations. When free, Chris enjoys cycling, hiking, and spending time with his spouse and their fur family exploring the world.
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