words by willow defebaugh
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“If you think globally, you become filled with gloom. But if you take a little piece of this whole picture—my piece, our piece, this is what I can do here, I’m making a difference and they’re making a difference over there, and so are they, and so are they—gradually the pieces get filled in. And the world is a better place because of you.” —Dr. Jane Goodall
I’d like you to recall a time in which you were overwhelmed by how much work there was to be done. Maybe it was this week, maybe it was in school, or while you were working a particularly demanding job. How did you get through it? Did you ever find that you could tackle everything at once, all by yourself? Unless you are a truly advanced human being, I would wager not.
In a world defined by globalization and a 24-hour news cycle, it’s almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. There’s a psychological explanation for this, and it has to do with surge capacity. According to journalist Tara Haelle, “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems—mental and physical—that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” Well, what happens when it feels like there’s a new natural disaster every day? And during a pandemic, no less, which is essentially one long disaster without an end in sight? It’s no wonder our surge capacities are depleted.
So what’s the solution? How do we even begin to tackle the enormities of all that we’re up against? The answer comes down to trust. As Dr. Goodall says, we must start by narrowing our focus to what we can do—trusting our part and that we have something to contribute. This looks like asking ourselves questions like, “What are my unique skills and passions that I can bring to the climate movement? How can I use them to impact my local ecology?” The scientist, the tree-planter, the politician, the organizer, the storyteller—these are all equally vital roles.
Inherent in the overwhelming idea that we must accomplish everything ourselves is a lack of trust in others. Consider the case of the leader who, rather than delegating, tries to do it all themself. Not only will they become inevitably overwhelmed, but chances are, not everything will get done. The only movement capable of tackling the climate crisis is one founded in communal trust—trust that if I do my part, you’ll do yours.
In terms of fostering that trust in others, we can start by educating ourselves on the work that’s being done and filling our feeds with not only stories of incalculable loss, but ones of innovation as well. For example, did you know about the designer creating Biogarmentry out of algae that purifies the air around its wearer? Or the engineers inventing kites that generate wind power? What about the companies leading the initiative to plant one trillion trees?
This education not only affords us assurance in others, but also inspiration as to how we can collaborate. We can then grow this trust into relationships and community by reaching out to and connecting with like-minded individuals and those whose skills differ from our own in order to create systemic change. Just look at all organized action has accomplished in recent years, from the Women’s March to Extinction Rebellion to Black Lives Matter.
Through this process of fostering faith in ourselves and others, we begin to develop a trust in the whole. Holistic thinking doesn’t mean trying to solve the puzzle all at once; it means trusting that we each represent a unique piece of the larger picture. We see this abundantly in nature, where a tree is no more responsible for pollinating flowers than a bee is for turning carbon dioxide into oxygen. Ecosystems are upheld by individuals each playing their part—a web woven by many strands, capable of catching us when we fall.