Some trees are tragically uprooted after strong winds follow heavy rainfall that weakens their roots’ grasp. Other trees lose limbs and branches but survive to see the calm return. And still others rely on an extraordinary foundation and limberness that allows them to escape volatile storms unscathed.

I identify with each of those trees. Sometimes, I feel crestfallen and lifelessly numb after reading climate news or watching an emotional documentary. More often, I feel a sense of loss – of optimism, of confidence in humankind, of clarity about what to do next – without feeling felled. Only occasionally do I feel sufficiently rooted and flexible to avoid being wounded by the harsh realities that confront me.

Where do you find yourself these days? Are the myriad international military conflicts, trial updates, election polls, unprecedented ocean warming, and immigration tragedies taking a toll on the roots of your optimism? You might find yourself slipping into a state of doomerism.

“It’s not hard to figure out why we are experiencing a new religion of profound pessimism,” writes the New York Times’ Jane Coaston in “Try to Resist the Call of the Doomers.”  “For a lot of people, things seem pretty bad right now – whether they’re fearful of Covid or care deeply about abortion rights being taken away, climate change, police brutality or severe restrictions on immigration – and the means by which those bad things might be changed or reversed seem more stuck than ever before. …

“But recognizing that things are bad and could get worse is not what I’m talking about. Rather, doomerism luxuriates in the awful, and people seem unable to get enough of it – the equivalent of rubbernecking at a terrible car accident. That horrible news story you saw? That’s what’s going to happen everywhere, probably soon, definitely to you, and here’s a 22-tweet thread about it. Also, the problems of every town and city are evidence of impending catastrophe, which is coming for you and your family, and no, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Coaston continues: “What’s the point of all this? If the idea of doomerism is to use hyperbole to spur readers or listeners to greater action, it’s not very effective. It seems to make our situation worse. As the climate scientist Michael Mann told Mother Jones, after Wynn Bruce died by self-immolation outside the Supreme Court, ‘Climate doomerism can be harmful because it robs us of agency, the agency we still have in determining our future.’”

“If you want people to do something, they need to be motivated – and impending doom doesn’t seem to do it,” Coaston explains. “Yes, it seems it would be the equivalent of setting people’s couches on fire to get them to move, but doomerism seems to have the same effect as depression, bringing about a loss of interest in taking action.”

“It makes sense,” Coaston writes. “If you believe that your fate is sealed by climate change or the Supreme Court or the Republican Party, well, why would you do anything about it? As Mann told The Guardian, doomerism causes people to be ‘led down a path of disengagement.’”

Do I see you nodding your head in acknowledgment? It’s OK. Many of us are wondering what we should do, can do, need to do, want to do – and then releasing the tension of flexing our agency by asking,”What difference will it make?” And so are young people, who are just coming into their adulthood agency and are loaded with the challenges of debt, an unpredictable job market, and a nefarious social media barrage. Doomerism comes easily for them.

“It’s understandable that people want to turn away from the harshness of reality,” Sian Bradley writes in “Why More Young People Are Turning to Nihilism.” “Young people are growing up in a world of rising costs, stratospheric rents and stagnant wages, with inequality only deepening. They live in fear of a climate crisis that threatens their very future. All of this felt in the shadow of a global pandemic which, according to a recent study by the Prince’s Trust, one-fourth of 16-25-year-olds in Britain feel they will ‘never recover’ from emotionally.”

“While suffocating under the daily drudgery of capitalism, visions of a brighter future can feel like a utopian fantasy,” Bradley writes. “Nihilism becomes a way to cope with reality. … If nothing you do matters, why bother doing anything? Why get out of bed in the morning, bother with school work, work, or have goals at all?”

Can you relate? Bradley believes that “this fear is realised most poignantly in climate nihilism, or the idea that the planet is doomed, so why bother trying to save it? Such fatalist attitudes are understandable: almost daily, the news pings with another sobering warning or evidence of climate catastrophe. Eco-anxiety (the chronic fear of environmental doom) is surging among young people. Compounded by the ignorance and inaction of world leaders, mass extinction, declining health and major climate disruption are now part of our daily reality.”

He goes on to introduce Australian writer Wendy Syfret, who recognizes the destructiveness of thinking nothing matters but who sees value in “that it can result in a ‘pretty radical decentralisation of self.’”

“If you have been forced to recognise that the things you thought were going to promise you a good life aren’t available anymore, you look beyond yourself to protect something bigger,” Seyfret claims.

Bradley explains Seyfret’s thought that “rather than surrendering to nihilism, we should focus on Nietzche’s view that rules, laws, and morals are social constructs. ‘That can be a very liberating idea, because you can ask, well, why do we take capitalism to be the absolute truth?’ Seyfret says. ‘The reality is, the world is total chaos, and everything you think you know is a construct that someone created, and can be dismantled.’”

How many of you reading this blog post are actively helping dismantle systems that cause irreparable harm, that perpetuate inequality, and that reinforce the ongoing exploitation of human, animal, and natural resources? When we are comfortable with our personal status quo, we tend to protect our privilege, but we may also be losing hope that we can contribute to any significant systemic change. We may be succumbing to doomerism.

Brian McLaren writes in “Love Is Stronger than Hope” that “if we can see a likely path to our desired outcome, we have hope; if we can see no possible path to our desired outcome, we have despair. If we are unsure whether there is a possible path or not, we keep hope alive, but it remains vulnerable to defeat if that path is closed.”  

He offers a reframe, though. “When our prime motive is love, a different logic comes into play. We find courage and confidence, not in the likelihood of a good outcome, but in our commitment to love. Love may or may not provide a way through to a solution to our predicament, but it will provide a way forward in our predicament, one step into the unknown at a time.”

I think this is why an energetic group of UUCA members chooses to participate with the Climate Action Team. We help each other maintain a hope grounded in love and in our values, independent of a particular outcome. It’s not easy. More frequent storms thrash our limbs and threaten the hold of our roots, so we rely on our community to stave off doomerism.

• • •

JOURNEY WITH US: The Climate Action Team is for you because, well, the planet needs your urgent action – and we need each other as we navigate these changing times. Learn all about the group here,  and check out our minutes and take action table, our lending library and the Carbon Offset Fund. You can also request to join the Climate Action Team on Realm. Contact Nicole Haines to connect to the CAT and join us for our next Zoom meeting on Monday, May 20, at 7:30 PM at this link.