Greta Thunberg says: Panic. Here’s what to do instead…

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Greta Thunberg says: panic.

It’s true, our planetary house is on fire.

Have you ever been in a burning building?

I’m blessed to say that I have not but, by all accounts of those who have, panic is a really, really bad idea.

Panic makes you stupid. Panic makes you run up the burning stairs instead of down. Panic makes you stay too long, grasping at unnecessary objects while the house fills with smoke. Panic burns out your ability to respond to future stress. Yes, the situation is dire. It’s a matter of life and death. But please, whatever you do, do not panic.

Yes, there are people who need a hardcore wake-up call right now. Policymakers and large corporation owners need to adopt a sense of urgency in the name of everyone, not just their selfishly short-sighted interests. But if you’re like me — an everyday person who’s just trying to get by, live a good life, and make ends meet — panic will not serve you. Panic will make you install a bunker in your back yard and hoard cans of Spam®. Panic will make you invest in weapons which are statistically more likely to harm you or a loved one than they are to protect you in an emergency. Panic will spin you into a downward spiral of helplessness and social disconnect that will not stop the warming of the globe.

I’ve spent the last twenty years continuously working in some sort of caretaking, teaching, or healing capacity. I’ve specialized in burnout and PTSD. I’ve seen what happens when people are in a constant state of reaction to a bottomless pit of emergency.

In caretaking professions, this shows up as burnout and secondary trauma. Imagine, for example, that you work in the E.R.. There’s a very real emergency happening there ALL THE TIME. Every situation there is life or death, time-sensitive, and has no margin for error. What for most people is the most extreme situation they’ll ever encounter is, for an E.R. nurse, an average day at work.

Photo by Roman Fox on Unsplash

You do not want your E.R. nurse to panic. Ever. You want them to calmly pay attention and take action. That nurse also needs to take care of themself. For many who work in emergency care, the stress spills over into their daily lives and they can’t turn it off. They may become numb, anxious, angry, sleep deprived. They may take sleeping pills or drink too much or see disaster lurking around every corner. This is called burnout, and recovery from it it takes a long, long time.

We’re in a planetary E.R.. The emergencies are increasing daily, and it’s more than any one person can do to stop it, so don’t take it all onto your own shoulders. We must act together, supportively, collaboratively, and with long-haul strategies. In terms of strategies, there really is good news. Ethiopia recently planted 350 million trees in 12 hours. Much of the world (not the U.S. yet, though) has banned the toxic bee-destroying pesticide glyphosphate. Single-use plastic is being banned city by city and large-scale plastic clean-up projects are underway in the ocean. Every action counts. It’s true that this planet will never be the same as when most of us were growing up. We are creating a new reality. And under no circumstances must you panic. Panic is not a long-term strategy, and we are in this for the long-haul.

I was in a class today with Dr. Daniel Foor of Ancestral Medicine, and he mentioned two meaningful stories. One is a personal favorite, and the other I was hearing for the first time.

The first, you may have heard before. It was popularized by Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Prize winner Wangarĩ Maathai. In the story, the forest is on fire and the larger animals are in a helpless panic. The hummingbird, however, busily puts droplets of water on the fire. The other animals judge the hummingbird, saying it’s not making a difference, but the hummingbird replies, “I am doing the best I can.”

Photo by Levi Jones on Unsplash

The hummingbird does not panic, it pays attention, and it acts.

The other story told by Dr. Foor was about a team doing a day’s work chopping wood. At the end of the day, one of the workers had chopped much more wood than the others and his colleagues asked him why. “I paused to sharpen my axe,” he replied. If you just forge ahead, tirelessly working without attention to the details, you’re wasting your energy — doing less, not more.

For years, I was a devoted student of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan. While you may be familiar with Tai Chi as a slow, gentle movement of energy, it has its roots as a martial art and I trained with practical martial applications. In Tai Chi there’s a saying, “Move 10,000 pounds with four ounces.” It means pay attention. Turn on all your spidey-senses and notice where the origins of movement occur, where the center of gravity is strongest. Don’t waste your energy fighting with 10,000 pounds; apply four ounces of pressure in the exact right place at the exact right moment and the 10,000 pounds will move effortlessly.

Photo by Mark Hang Fung So on Unsplash

Authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan share a similar philosophy for business and for life in their book The ONE Thing. They ask,

“What is the ONE thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

In other words, where should you apply your four ounces?

Chronic stress and frequent panic wreaks havoc on your nervous system and can produce symptoms similar to those of PTSD. Anyone who grew up in an abusive environment or has worked in a long-term, high-stress job can attest to that. Climate change will require vigilance and action on the parts of everyone now alive, for the rest of our lives. So don’t panic. Don’t do that to your nervous system. Don’t apply the colonialist, Protestant work ethic that got us into this mess in the first place. Don’t focus on nonstop work and endless growth.

Choose your one thing and do it now and do it well. Be like the hummingbird and drop your few drops of water if that’s all ya got. That’s what Greta Thunberg is doing. She’s being true to herself. She’s speaking the truth most adults are afraid to speak. All she had in the beginning was knowledge of the facts, and the willingness to walk out of school and go against the status quo. She has said again and again that she doesn’t want to be made into a hero, she just wants you to wake up, be an adult, and do the one thing you can do NOW.

Her forceful message can bring up your inner critic, another paralyzing voice that can keep you from taking action. It does that for me. I’ve been working in the sustainability and environmental field in some capacity for over 15 years. I’ve dropped paying gigs to work for practically free on organic farms. I’ve also worked just for room and board on organic farms. I volunteer with the Audubon society. I’m certified in Permaculture and Ecovillage Design. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies. I’ve chosen to live in ecovillages and on homesteads for much of my adult life. I’m fastidious about my buying choices (see my sustainable shopping guide here) and I consider environmental impact in everything I do. This video trailer encapsulates the way I think each individual can make an impact that adds up:

I’ve been having exhausting conversations with diehard mainstream folks for decades about why my choices aren’t cute little hippie values, but real and urgent necessities. And yet, when I hear Greta speak, I feel like I’m failing, like I’ve never done enough, like I should be ashamed for not having saved the planet already. It activates an internalized critic that most of us in industrialized society are infected with almost since birth. It’s paralyzing. DON’T FALL FOR IT. That’s part of the charade.

In my shopping guide, I tell people to make at least one change. That’s it. Just one. I’ve struggled with this statement because I know that more than one change is needed by far, but I also know that most people just won’t make an about-face overnight, and I never want you to feel like you’re failing if you don’t. If one change is more than you were doing before, and if 1,000 people make one change all at once, that’s 1,000 positive things that weren’t happening before. That will inspire people to make two changes, and like this the change will grow exponentially and reach critical mass.

So don’t panic. Pay attention like your life depends on it, because it does. Pay attention like your children may not have a viable future, because they may not. Then calmly, intentionally, unwaveringly find your one thing, apply your four ounces of pressure to the 10,000 pound beast, drop your few drops of water to inspire the others, and never, ever give up.

A version of this article was originally published at http://www.ecospiritualeducation.com and was republished with permission.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store