February 21, 2020

SMITH | Majoring in the End of the World

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Floods, famine, power-hungry villains, war . . . all the makings of an apocalypse movie. Except, this isn’t fiction; it’s the narrative that environment and sustainability and other majors can begin to feel is unavoidable when faced with teachings about the dangers of climate change on a near daily basis. Climate change is some scary stuff, but it can be even scarier when you’re sitting in a classroom staring at a board filled with words like “food insecurity,” “overpopulation, ” “environmental racism,” “energy crisis,” “over 2 degrees Celsius”and “zero emissions by 2050” and being told that it is up to you to pick one and help fix it. Sometimes a day of class can feel like an attack of facts about biodiversity loss, inaction and dwindling resources. You can hear the death knell for society as we know it. Dramatic, I know, but when you eat, sleep and breathe climate change, it’s hard to keep what’s been termed “eco-anxiety” from rearing its head.

Professors and teaching assistants  do their best to keep a positive attitude and share their optimistic opinions, and sometimes my peers have even expressed feelings that some classes are sugar-coating issues. Still, it can be hard not to sense the deeper emotions behind certain jokes or offhand comments. The American Psychological Association first defined eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” and it is seen as a response to the immense uncertainty tied to the outcome of climate change. The perceived lack of control over the outcome can lead many to play out the worst case-scenario. While some respond by shutting down, others take individual actions by  not eating meat, avoiding plastic or flying as little as possible, actions which can become paralyzing if coming from a place of intense fear. Eco-anxiety is different from a more common anxiety or mood disorder, although it can trigger these in susceptible individuals.

Of course, environment and sustainability majors are not the only students here that deal with stressful information. A lot of experts recommend getting involved in group efforts and conversations in order to deal with the sometimes heavy topics which can arise in classes that deal with world issues. I know of certain classes that have really impacted friends’ mental health, and while most professors offer Cornell Health information in their syllabi, there isn’t much more of an effort to educate students on how to cope. Sustainability impacts so many aspects of life, it makes it hard to compartmentalize my work and personal life. As an E&S major living in Ecology House and a member of Climate Justice Cornell, it can be hard to turn the environmentalist mindset off. Sometimes, in an attempt to escape the stress, I’ve blown off a meeting or obligation because I just needed a break from it all. Conversely, when constantly entrenched in an issue, it can be hard to not get stuck in what can feel like monotony and a lack of positive change. I’m grateful that I have such a genuine and encouraging support system of like-minded friends, clubs that have absolutely nothing to do with sustainability, a therapist and several outlets for activism, but it took me a while to realize I needed these things, as well as to actually make those connections.

An inherent part of studying environment and sustainability or other majors associated with activism or activism-like work is the mental toll of giving so much passion to a cause that can sometimes feel lost. Cornell should recognize this and include more education on how to better manage stressors associated with certain paths, as well as offer more options on how to cope or take action. I’m not asking to be spoon-fed or have my hand held, but it definitely would have made the lives of several people I know easier if mental health had been addressed more in their classes.  It’s not news that Cornell doesn’t make it as easy to get help or support as one would hope. Stories of months-long waits to get a twenty-five minute counselor appointment abound. While crisis counseling can be somewhat more expedient, we really shouldn’t have to wait until things get to that point. What I’ve learned from my time here at Cornell is that the infrastructure is mostly in place, but it’s often only hinted at in flyers, on posters, in small print on emails from Denice A. Cassaro, and lost in the noise of Club Fest. There’s a fine line to be struck between being your own advocate and making things a little easier on some already overwhelmed college kids.

Cornell is in the process of making some changes. There is talk of restructuring the College of Human Ecology to focus on public policy. Cornell Health is also implementing changes to address complaints and accommodate more students. It’s unclear what this will mean for activism, but hopefully Cornell also has plans to continue efforts to support students’ mental health. After all, trying to save the world can be stressful.

Emma Smith is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at esmith@cornellsun.com. Emmpathy appears every other Friday this semester.