I crawled into bed and checked my alarm clock. I settled my body, positioned my pillow and sheets, closed my eyes. I lay there, as any other night, letting my mind drift away into sleep. It kept drifting but couldn’t find a place to rest. I turned over, tried to settle again. I lay still for what felt like a long time, finally looking up at the clock, it was 2 a.m., and I hadn’t slept. Now my stomach started to twist a bit. What if I couldn’t sleep? What would I do the rest of the night? How miserable would I feel the next day?
As these thoughts took hold, I realized that I was entirely awake. Worries flooded my mind, and I had no tools to manage them. In a spiral of self-fulfilling anxiety, my thoughts about not sleeping created more tension in my mind, preventing me from sleeping, and creating the miserable day that I feared.
As an individual, I do not have one thing to worry about — I have many. As a society, the situation is the same. Even in a crisis as clear as climate change, its many elements and effects can bury us in an avalanche of information and emotion. The American West is undergoing one of its worst heat waves in years. Europe endured horrible heat earlier this summer. Unimaginably, one-third of the nation of Pakistan is under water due to monster floods. These events produce untold suffering for those experiencing them directly. For those of us hearing about them secondhand, they can produce severe anxiety.
As with my sleepless night, in viewing the climate destruction around us, our focus can move from changing the behavior that causes this destruction to our concerns that we will never succeed. How can we possibly reduce our carbon emissions to zero in a matter of a few decades? How can we accomplish this task when it depends not just on our own actions — or our own family’s, local community’s, or even nation’s — when it depends on the collective actions of people around the world? These are the perfect conditions for us to center anxiety rather than productive action.
This Friday, Sept. 23, there is another opportunity to set anxiety to the side for a moment and act. A host of environmental organizations will be leading a Global Climate Strike in cities around the world, with one strike happening here in Chicago. At 11 a.m., crowds will gather at Pritzker Park in the Loop, at 310 S. State St. People will march to the Federal Reserve, Chase Bank, and the offices of Senators Durbin and Duckworth to demand that all take action to incentivize climate action and punish climate inaction.
Not everyone can join in this protest. Perhaps you must go to work or school, or you have caregiving obligations in your family. Perhaps you’re physically unable to march or stand for long periods.
Not everyone needs to take this action — not everyone needs to take every action or the same action. This is just one example of a collective action we can take to address climate change. There are so many others.
Join with others in your community to explore solar panels for your homes. Take public transportation more and ask for better service so others can take it too. Join advocacy groups like Citizens Climate Lobby and the Sunrise Movement to speak out for a carbon tax and other necessary policies.
At times, our worries can feel overwhelming. They can distract us, dishearten us, and become the focus of all our attention. When we act on climate, we take the focus off of our anxiety and place it back where it needs to be — on the corporate and governmental entities most responsible for this crisis and on how we can hold them accountable to change.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.