The science posters on the wall of my fifth-grade elementary school class in Lakewood, N.Y. were tucked under a banner called “Balance of Nature.”
I remember a few illustrations: Frogs with impossibly long tongues snatching bugs out of the air, a colorful diagram of how rainclouds form, a complicated bit of art with honeybees pollinating flowers and vegetables. The bees-at-work section melded into a cozy domestic scene of humans munching on veggies.
A decade later a college course called “Environmental Studies” featured posters, too — but of belching smokestacks emitting foul-looking plumes, bluish-black exhaust coming from automobile tailpipes and one unforgettable color photo of a fire raging on the surface of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in 1969.
Collectively these graphic exhibits could have been titled “Nature Out-of-Balance.”
Just how out-of-balance the environment is was highlighted in the recent debates among Democratic presidential hopefuls. As candidates verbally wrestled over which corrective actions are needed, it was clear how complicated solutions are — and how little chance any have of being sufficient.
Meanwhile, the current occupant of the White House is dismantling existing environmental protections as fast as his Sharpie pen can sign them.
All of it can be horribly depressing.
In fact, it’s so depressing that environment-related depression — sometimes labeled eco-grief — is recognized as a fast-growing psychological phenomenon spawning academic studies, self-help movements and eco-specific therapies. Some of the therapies suggest environmental activism as a cure, others try to help people deal personally or in groups with seemingly intractable enviro problems.
“An important part of the climate story is commonly overlooked: the emotional toll of ongoing environmental loss,” says Jennifer Atkinson, a lecturer at the University of Washington, who teaches a course on “Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety.” It looks closely at climate depression, eco-grief, and pre-traumatic stress.
Courses such as Atkinson’s are part of a huge, growing network to help the eco-overwhelmed.
One organization, the cleverly titled “Good Grief” network, was described by writer Carly Stern as “The Alcoholics Anonymous Approach Meets Climate Change.” Founded in 2016, Good Grief uses a 10-step, small group methodology familiar to anyone who knows about how 12-step programs operate.
“We help build personal resilience while strengthening community ties to help combat despair, inaction, eco-anxiety ...” the founders say.
Business is booming for Good Grief, which also acts as a resource for ecological and environmental information to help people, well, deal with things.
I have been reading articles about eco-grief for the last few years, part of the normal march of words that pass by any journalist every day. Keeping track of potentially despair-inducing situations goes with the job.
But last weekend on a hike with my wife, my youngest son and his girlfriend around a gem of a small lake in Northern California, a wave of the eco-grief described by the Good Grief network washed over me.
It came from thinking how much Seneca Lake has changed during my decades of living on its shore.
The fish that once were plentiful are no-shows. Pollution from many sources seems to have increased despite heroic efforts of many people and groups to keep the lake pure.
And then there is the specter of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).
For some reason HABs trouble me the most. I fret over the notion that one summer soon, Seneca — and other Finger Lakes — might prove too toxic to draw drinking water from or to use for any water activity.
I envisioned danger signs posted at Seneca Lake public shoreline parks and a catastrophe for the tourist industry.
I have self-diagnosed that I was — and am — suffering from pre-traumatic stress.
It may be time to call Good Grief for a little help.