Image credits: Rodrigo Canisella Fávero licensed under Creative Commons

How to process climate news (and stay grounded).

You’d have to either be a psychopath or superhuman to not feel overwhelmed by the volume and scale of the climate stories we’re being exposed to — so here’s a guide to staying sane for the rest of us.

Max St John
Jun 11 · 7 min read

When I’d written “Why we need to stop worrying about climate change (and what to do instead” we’d already had the UN report that told us one million species are at risk of extinction and the paper that prophesied outright social collapse in the near-term future.

It seems to me that pace and tone of our current narrative on the environment has only intensified since then.

I feel like I’m being told that my mother has terminal cancer and that my house is on fire. Oh, and there are no exits.

And I’m being told all this by social media, hundreds of times a day.

This is too much for any human being to cope with. We are just not physiologically wired to deal with a constant bombardment of ecological disasters and existential threats.

Yes, there are undeniable facts and data that we need to pay attention to — we need to adjust our lifestyles and demand action from those with the ability to make the scale and pace of change required.

But there’s an equal, if not greater, volume of projection and story intentionally and unintentionally designed arouse a stress response in us.

After a rollercoaster of tension, gloom and despair, I’ve had to develop my own strategy to manage the slew of misery and get me to a place where I can keep myself active in the way

The reason I want to share this with you is not to soothe you into inaction but it to offer you a way to stay calm and grounded and be the change you want to see in the world.

This is because I think it’s time to make some major shifts in our personal and collective lives but that fear and anxiety will not help us.

These heightened states either paralyse us and stop us from acting, or lead to poorly thought-through, knee-jerk solutions and self-perpetuating problems.

If we’re to create a society that better meets the need of planet, it’s going to have to start with each of us learning how to not ignore difficult ideas or news, stay level and act together.

I hope this is of some help.

Separate data from narrative

It might be a very confident or well-researched story, but it’s still one of many possibilities that hasn’t happened yet.

The space between data points in any story is projection — it’s the bit where we stitch together facts with a narrative that explains something we have decided is true and want to share with the world, or we rely on modelling done by machines to join the dots as best it can.

While sometimes this can be consciously misused to manipulate people it’s just the same with any story that’s being told that goes beyond the evidence.

Being very crude, there are two kinds of narrative that I experience:

  • An emotional and experiential projection — telling a story from my experience, through my worldview that fills the space between data with my stuff.
  • An evidential and scientific projection — using data to extrapolate into future or present unknowns.

You can treat them a little differently and indulge them as you choose — it may feel very reassuring or inspiring to engage with someone’s emotional experiential narrative, and it may be important to pay attention to modelling about potential future scenarios if you’re making long term plans.

With either, I suggest being very clear about why you’re choosing to engage with them and bringing a critical mind to the narrative.

Why are they framing the story in this way? What’s their worldview? Where did this data come from? Who is behind the story or study and what might their motives be?

It’s all about being mindful, critical and making active choices.

Learn to spot clickbait

But consider for a second what the mainstream online news platforms are vying for. How do they measure success? What generates their revenue when they have teams of hundreds of staff?

Well, the easy answer is that they are vying for your attention. They measure success by clicks and they make money because they can demonstrate to advertisers the volumes of people that are seeing their ads.

So what? Well, this means that regardless of your political leanings and which paper you think has more integrity, like all journalism ever it’s being written to grab you by the eyeballs— and that in today’s attention economy, they have to work harder than ever.

And what really grabs people’s attention are things that make them feel afraid.

This is because we’re wired for it. It’s part of our programming that once upon a time kept us alive — it means that we upweight negative experiences or possibilities by five-to-eight times those of positives.

I am not trying, in any way, to undermine the journalistic integrity of some of these writers, or to deny the facts in the stories they are reporting. Instead I’m suggesting that you remember the anxiety they provoke is not necessarily linked to those facts but to the wrapper in which they are presented, in order to get your attention and for you to share them.

I can talk about all of this with utter confidence because I started my career in online editorial, working at American internet giant AOL, just after the dot-com bubble burst. I saw firsthand, and was complicit in, the early days of writing for attention manipulation and it’s only become more baked in an sophisticated since then.

So choose your sources wisely, read critically and if it evokes a panicky reaction, it might be because it’s designed to, not because you should panic.

Switch off (now)

Even the most level and grounded of us can’t hope to keep our bearings in the face of constant existential threats.

There’s a horrible tendency in people to imagine that if they’re not reading it all, they’re somehow being irresponsible.

Or worse — that unless you’re in an active state of fear and anxiety, you’re being irresponsible.

There’s an old activist mantra of “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” and its representative of the kind of attitude that’s led to activists being particularly susceptible to burnout. It’s toxic and needs to be put to bed forever.

Being anxious or angry all the time is bad for you — your body can’t take it and you make poor health decisions that don’t resource you for your work. It’s bad for those around you and your relationships — you can’t be present for friends and family and this begins to have a negative effect on them and their relationships too.

It’s bad for the planet because stressed people consume more and are less able to work with the complexity required to tackle systemic problems like climate change.

Do yourself a favour and stop scrolling. Even better turn off the news and Facebook — at least for some extended periods of time.

Don’t comment, like or share

We might express that through our comments or share it with our network so they know what we think of it.

The truth is that it doesn’t really help — at best you’ve just passed that anxiety and anger on to some other poor bastard.

And at worst, you’ve just reconfirmed your worldview and told social media that: “Yes please, keep feeding me this stuff.”

The “filter bubble” and the algorithms that pretty much dictate what we’re experiencing online are — in my opinion — whipping us up as a society into a mindless, frenzied panic.

Don’t join in. You’re making everything worse.

Come back to this post, or the many others like it. Talk to a friend or loved one. Just don’t feed the beast.

Stop thinking, keep moving

My need is to stay clear and calm, not tense or despairing and stuck. To be the father and community member I want to be because I think this is what will build a future worth living in.

If you find yourself spinning out my best suggestion is to take your attention away from the piece of glass mounted on the electronic circuits that you hold in your hand or perch on your desk.

Remember that this is what they are, and the response they evoke in you is one that will pass.

By all means give the anxiety or despair a little space but don’t make a home for it.

Feel your feet on the ground, feel your heart beating, look for birds on the trees or bees in the flowerbed.

Don’t look at your kids and think about any ideas of the future, look at your kids and see your kids as they are right now.

If you feel a need for action, my suggestion is to wait until the difficult feelings ease and spend time thinking about what tangible action would make a real difference — not ‘out there’ but to your family, in your home, to your community.

I’m writing a manual on “How to stay calm in a crisis: wiser action in the face of climate change.”

It’s a short and accessible guide to find your ground and keep moving when it feels like the world is going to shit.

Follow me here or add your email address here and I’ll let you know more about it very soon.

Max St John

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Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally. www.maxstjohn.com