Depression, anxiety, generalized stress and a loss of community identity are increasingly familiar symptoms that may no longer be considered “all in our heads”.
But is the news really all bad? Psychologists have demonstrated that our brains are wired to react more intensely to negative stimuli than positive. If I hear happy news, my neurons stay fairly calm, so it doesn’t make much of an impression. When I’m exposed to information generating “bad” feelings like fear, anger, or despair, far more electrical activity lights up my cerebral cortex. The result is a much stronger record of the negative story, so that’s what I’ll remember in the future. This may have helped us survive in different times, when we had to remember the exact sounds, shapes, and smells of various immediate threats such as wild animals or poisonous plants. But today, with so much news (both accurate and speculative) swirling around our media-driven worlds, we may be making ourselves sick.
News outlets understand the psychology of bad news only too well: the optimistic stories get much less exposure. With this in mind, let’s highlight a few examples of things going right with the world. These stories show not only the hard work of some dedicated individuals and groups committed to environmental justice, but also the surprising receptiveness and resilience of the natural world responding to their efforts.
1. The ozone layer is thickening
or a while, the news was full of dire warnings about the ozone hole, and human-caused destruction of this essential atmospheric shield. Why haven’t we heard much on this topic lately? Because political commitment has succeeded in phasing out ozone-destroying CFC gases. Today the hole over Antarctica has ceased growing, and it’s predicted to begin shrinking within a decade. Elected leaders and citizen groups worked in unity to accomplish this victory: with the same combination of optimism, perseverance, and urgency, much more can be achieved.
2. The California blue whales are recovering
Not too long ago, the massive blue whales — up to 100 feet long and weighing twice as much as the largest dinosaur — were believed headed for extinction. Whaling and shipping had decimated their once-robust numbers, and it seemed impossible to turn the tide of destructive human activity. But concerted conservation action did turn the tide: a combination of whaling restrictions and habitat protections have allowed blue whales to return to almost historic 19th-century levels: currently around 2200 whales. Humpback whales have made a similar comeback, with nearly 20,000 in the North Pacific after a low of 1400 in 1966. Luckily, conservationists are making sure conservation and monitoring measures stay in place to preserve this trend.
3. World’s largest dam removal accomplished in Washington State
When the remote Elwha River was dammed in 1914, a journalist celebrated “There is no question but that the Elwha is harnessed at last and forever”. Once the richest salmon river on the lush Olympic Peninsula, the Elwha’s dam decimated the fish migration as well as the complex, once-thriving ecosystem at the mouth of the river. Thankfully, “forever” came less than a hundred years later, and with careful engineering oversight, a slow and total deconstruction of the dam has now been effected. The result? A miraculous regeneration of salmon spawning, and a restoration of riverside estuary habitat for the full web of local life, from Dungeness crab and smelt to the seabirds, otters, and bears that feed upon them, to the Roosevelt elk who will enjoy lush grazing in the drained reservoir areas.
Nearly 850 dams have been removed in the US over the past 20 years, and a new era for prioritizing healthy river systems has begun. As understanding grows about our critical interconnectedness, the claims of industry no longer always trump the needs of the voiceless creatures and plants. “Progress” has acquired new meanings.
4. International marine regulations strengthened to protect ocean biodiversity
Sharks, as apex predators with an unfortunate mass-media history in Jaws and other inaccurate tales, have not traditionally gathered much public sympathy. In recent years, however, the wasteful over-hunting of sharks (especially for shark-fin soup, a prized delicacy in many Asian countries) has come to light, along with the crucial role of the shark in maintaining the balance of the ocean, preserving species diversity, and serving as an indicator for overall ocean health. Finally, essential trade rules have come into effect, banning the sale of meat or fins from five threatened shark species as well as all species of manta rays.
Due to the global nature of our marine systems, as well as the fishing industry, protections can only be meaningful with worldwide collaboration and cooperation. In this case, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has formed in response to the crisis our wild creatures face on both land and sea, and the United Nations steps in to endorse and validate their measures. It’s heartening to know there are groups spending every day working towards promoting biodiversity, and leveling the playing field for those creatures not equipped with industrial machinery to defend themselves.
5. Air pollution improves across the board in US cities.
EPA data gives good reason to breathe easier: air quality has improved tremendously in the past three decades. The American Lung Association publishes a yearly list of “Most Polluted Cities”; the detailed information reveals that even the worst ranked cities have made significant improvements. In some cities that have historically been the smoggiest, the upswing is striking: in New York City, air quality is better than it has been in 50 years. In NYC’s case, conversion to cleaner heating fuels such as natural gas may play a part, along with a city-wide reliance and commitment to public transportation and a recent surge in bicycle transportation.
Since 1970, annual carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide emissions have been more than cut in half, nitrogen oxide is down by a third, while particulate emissions are down 80% and lead emissions reduced by a triumphant 98%. A series of Clean Air Acts are largely responsible: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George HW Bush each played their parts in enacting Clean Air legislation which has set the standard for industrial emissions. The Acid Rain Program, part of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, has effectively decreased SO2 and NOx emissions from power plants. Acid rain has decreased dramatically, and some sensitive forest and aquatic regions are showing signs of recovery — though involved scientists call for further emissions reductions. The soils of affected regions will take time to heal, but if we continue efforts to convert to “green” energy and cap emissions, healing can happen.
Other hopeful trends are emerging …
China is showing signs of “environmental awakening,” with increasing citizen protests and unrest, as well as government efforts to reduce coal use, cut vehicle emissions, and publicly acknowledge widespread negative health effects already seen from China’s recent catastrophic industrial pollution.
Germany is setting a strong example in converting to emissions-free electricity: soon, 30% of the nation’s power will be renewable.
In other upbeat news, a recent analysis suggests a solution to climate change that may not pack a heavy financial wallop after all. A global commission suggests that most of the money spent on emissions restrictions would have been spent anyway on new power plants and infrastructure. Lower fuel costs and savings on health care from environmental improvements might further even the relative costs, making the fixes essentially free!
As the daily onslaught of fearful predictions wears us down, let’s remember to share and celebrate the victories along the way. Each of these signs of progress results from the committed action of individuals. They have made a real difference, and we can too. Giving in to despair and inaction is the fastest way to let all that progress slip through our fingers. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy teaches us that it’s important to allow room for the grief and pain we feel about the earth’s predicament: “What is it that allows us to feel pain for our world? And what do we discover as we move through that pain? To both these questions there is one answer: interconnectedness with life and all other beings. It is the living web out of which our individual, separate existences have risen, and in which we are interwoven.” In this way we can connect with others who are working toward the same goals.
Sharing the good news along with the grief, we can bolster one another’s spirits along the way, to keep working for change any way we know how.