Dealing with Hopelessness at the End of the World

I opened my Facebook app the other day. “Half a billion living things die in Australian fires,” reads the first headline on my timeline. I spent the next hour staring at my ceiling on the verge of tears.

Is this the end of the world? I thought to myself.

The recent bushfires in Australia aren’t the first cataclysm to befall the environment in recent history. Fires have been raging in the Amazon, in Russia and across the United States all through last year. The oceans are in a constant state of catastrophe, and mass extinction has wiped out 60% of all vertebrates.

This isn’t even considering the costs to human life – 40 were killed in extreme flooding in Jakarta this week, while another 28 were lost in the Philippines as Typhoon Ursula struck on Christmas day. Almost a quarter of a billion people live in a state of poverty, much of which can be traced to the current, global collapse of the environment. The natural world is in utter collapse no matter where we go, and everywhere there is someone paying for it with their lives.

Most times I go diving I’m greeted with shattered, empty reef. No fish. No living things. Scarcely anything for small fishermen to catch. I’ve seen corals bleach before my eyes. I usually have a hard time sleeping the night after a dive.

For all the reefs I’ve dived in, more often than not they’re hazy wastelands.

The word eco-anxiety rose to prominence over the past year. More and more, young people have begun to worry about the state of the environment and their prospective futures in the face of climate crisis. Will there be anything left to eat and drink? What world will I be leaving for my kids? I’m so small –is there even anything I can do?

I met with an old professor of mine in a coffee shop recently. I expressed to her my own feelings of eco-anxiety. I can’t, for example, bear the thought of my own children growing up in a world without reefs or forests.

I remember the dark turns that conversation took. We concluded that the future looked pretty hopeless, and that no amount of prayer was going to make things better. We’ve been praying for a better tomorrow for decades, yet today’s carbon emissions are somehow higher than last years. We’ve said a million wishes, yet forests burn ever greater, reservoirs run ever drier and the seas seem even emptier. Things never got any better.

I found myself feeling infinitely smaller. For a week I didn’t feel like doing anything. Everything was going to hell, I thought. Like the great fires raging across New South Wales, there was nothing I could do to stop it.

In this time I reached out to a friend about how I’d been feeling. We talked for a while. He linked me to an article and a thread on Reddit. This friend of mine is on his way to being a doctor. He’s trained in dealing with hopeless situations.

As we talked he made me realize something – that things were bad, but I was still alive to do something about it.

We may seem small, but there are still much that we can do as individuals. They may be the most incremental steps forward – refusing plastic straws, turning the lights off when you don’t need them, popping open a window instead of using the air con. They may be grand things, like lobbying for new policies or supporting good science. Many good things may have already been lost, but for the sake of what is still here we might as well do something, no matter how small that something may seem to us.

I remember sitting at my desk that night and typing away into the early morning as I drafted my own plans to fight for the planet. I was going to live small. I was going to support organic agriculture, and I wasn’t going to patronize big business. As a writer, I was going to shine a light on all the good science and conservation work being done out there in the hopes that others might pick up on it. I was going to make some kind of difference, even if I were doing it all at the very end of the world.

The hopelessness never left. I learned I might as well embrace that fact. There may no longer be hope for the reefs, or for the forests, or for many living things, but I might as well try to do some good while they’re still around.