September 25, 2009

Staying Optimistic in a Pessimistic World

As a young boy, I played in the fields and forests around my suburban home in southern Ohio just north of Cincinnati where I found everything natural to be such a wonder.  That wonder has never left me, but at around the age of 10 it was often overshadowed by a sense of fear, sadness, and even anger.   I witnessed in horror the bulldozers destroying “my” sacred places – these treasures I saw as my friends were being taken away with such cold indifference.  As I got older, this personal experience in conjunction with disturbing news about species being lost, forests being destroyed, and even water catching fire ( the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire for the umpteenth time in 1969 capturing the attention of the nation) , sent me on the mission of my life.

Today, I run the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) that my wife and I founded nearly 12 years ago where we do our best to make the world a better place – one that supports all life.  Make no mistake, the environmental problems we face are serious and I feel a sense of urgency.  And I would be lying if I said I’ve never experienced periods of great sadness and even depression.  But I generally remain optimistic that humanity will find its way.  We have to.

Often at meetings and after making presentations, I am asked how I stay optimistic in a pessimistic world regarding the environment?  I decided to jot down ways in which I view the “glass” as half full.  Some of these I think come under the heading of professional observations while others are more personal things I do to cope with the daily challenges in conservation.  I offer this blend for those who are struggling with feelings of hopelessness about the fate of our environment.

  1.   I allow myself to feel sorrow and anger.   Powerful emotions like sorrow and anger could be suppressed, but I have learned that these emotions, if kept in balance with other, more positive ones, motivate me to continue on with the mission and to work even harder.  Many times these emotions are the “fuel” to my fire.
  2. I stay connected to nature.  In our fast-paced, computerized world, it is easy to get trapped behind a desk.  I started my career as a naturalist – I was outdoors all of the time.  Now, since I spend almost all of my professional time behind a computer, on the phone, in meetings, or traveling, I will feel isolated from nature, the very thing I work to protect.  So for me, getting my hands in the earth (gardening, native landscaping, etc.) and making daily connections with animals is important.  Petting one of our dogs, holding one of our purring cats, or hugging our donkey (Moonie) helps me immensely.  Hiking with my children and showing them the diversity and beauty of our Earth adds more passion to my conviction.
  3. Never underestimate the power of a few and rejoice in the victories.   I fully realize how daunting many environmental challenges we face truly are, but I have witnessed on numerous occasions where an individual or a handful of people caused something wonderful to happen – establishment of a new park , stopped a destructive policy, or discovered a new, non-destructive solution.  These instances, and they are growing in number and magnitude, give me great hope and inspiration.  I know there are amazing people in the world making huge contributions and I am honored to work with these people on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, you hear little about these people and their successes – they may not make the headlines but they are doing noteworthy work that is making a difference.  (We need to tell their stories but that is a topic for another blog).
  4. The world is changing rapidly. Over the 12 years CBI has been in existence, I have witnessed a steady transformation – more and more people are caring about the environment and I believe this is not just a passing fad.  Climate change is shaking the very foundation of human societies more than any other environmental problem man-kind has experienced.  There is an urgency as never before and it is translating into action from many sectors that have in the past, carried on with ignorance and indifference.  I see and feel hope, global hope.
  5. See the world healed.  The most important advice I ever received was that it is so important to envision the world the way you want it to be rather than the world you see in front of you.  This sentiment is very similar to a famous quote by Robert Kennedy who said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”  In essence, we cannot create a better future if we don’t know what the future looks like.  That does not diminish the importance of being a witness to what is occurring (I still see the new clearcut or polluted stream) but at the same time, I also envision the same place totally healed and I set myself to realizing the vision.

One final thought.  We’ve all participated in both friendly and heated conversations with friends, family, and colleagues about the “roller coaster” ride our economy is on and how to fix it.  And  during these difficult economic times, we’ve all witnessed the bail-out of financial institutions once viewed as “too big to fail.”  Time will tell whether the actions taken were wise or not.  However, there is one thing that I believe is truly too big to fail – Earth.  We all need a healthy planet, and we are going to need optimism to see us through, for if we view the “glass” as half empty, we all lose.

About the author:
James Strittholt, Ph.D.
President | Executive Director
Jim Strittholt is President and Executive Director of the Conservation Biology Institute
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