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How I Overcame My Eco-Anxiety

September 6, 2019 by

Last November I saw a headline in the New York Times: “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.” I had such an attack of eco-anxiety that I could barely bring myself to read the article, which was about disappearing insects and the frightening ramifications. The next day a friend shared the online version with me: “Hey, you’d be interested in this.” Interest, shminterest. I’m depressed already.

Then my husband had to go and bring home the advance report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Basically, biodiversity is in rapid decline, and we can’t conserve and sustain our planet unless pretty much all seven billion of us transform our goals and lifestyle now.

Several months later, my dad returned from Australia with a very fat book clearly procured to kill time between Sydney and LA: Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy. “You’ll be interested . . .” It looked like Silent Spring on steroids. Thanks for the doorstop, dad.

Charles Massy’s tome sat neglected on my bookshelf until one day, when I was dusting, I pulled it out and all the other books tumbled down. After finding another bookend, I opened at random to page 77: “‘Another thing about biodiversity,’ said Tim, ‘is the number of insects now. There’re so many insects at night, you come out on the motorbike and you’ve got to have bloody goggles on.’”

The realists say that one person can’t make a difference. But who wants to live as if that’s true?

Massy reports how Tim Wright, a farmer in Australia, actually observed an increase in insect biodiversity and abundance – during an historic drought! I kept reading. Wright found himself running out of pasture and water for his cattle during a dry spell in the 1980s. He realized that the soil on his property had been destroyed by conventional agriculture, so he decided to try a new method. Using holistic grazing management to pasture his livestock, Wright began trying to mimic the natural environment around him.

Basically, Wright grows a greater diversity of plants, grasses, shrubs, and trees by herding cattle so that they graze (“prune”) and naturally fertilize smaller areas for shorter periods. This stimulates plant growth, and the plants heal the soil. Healthy soil stores huge amounts of water. The water is transpired into the atmosphere by the plants and trees, cooling the earth and making more clouds, which make more rain.

Now that Wright’s land is healing and regenerating, his crops and stock thrive. The soil is more drought- and flood-proof because it stays hydrated and there is less runoff. The regenerated soil is increasing biodiversity in the local ecosystem, and even battling climate change by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil via plant photosynthesis. Wright’s soil, and therefore his livelihood, was almost destroyed by the opposite process: oxidizing carbon into the atmosphere. Oxidation happens when you burn, log, clear, till, use synthetic fertilizers and biocides, or leave land bare.

Reading the success stories in Call of the Reed Warbler reminded me that the cure for despair is not merely a feeling of hope, which soon passes, but action. And action – even if it’s only on the weekend – might even ameliorate my eco-anxiety. So I changed my priorities and made time for gardening. Our family claimed an abandoned vegetable plot behind our house. We hauled in compost, put up a chipmunk-proof fence, and planted kale, salad greens, radishes, tomatoes, sugar snaps, cilantro, and basil. We didn’t till and we didn’t kill. We hauled untreated stream water to irrigate. A few weeks later we were harvesting more than we could eat, sharing it with neighbors, and donating it to our communal kitchen.

When the salad greens were done producing, we pulled them out. We realized our error later, during morning devotions at the family breakfast table, when my husband read chapter 19 of Teaming with Microbes. Those living roots we had yanked out are an essential part of the soil food web: When plants photosynthesize they grow long roots that produce exudates (liquid carbon) that feed the microbes and fungi in the soil. Fungi mine minerals and break down organic matter, which in turn feed plants. Fungi also produce a kind of organic glue (humus) that holds the carbon and water in the soil. Oops.

Are we just helpless bystanders watching global corporations do what they like with our world? The realists say that one person can’t make a difference. But who wants to live as if that’s true?

Kids certainly don’t. They like action. So at the breakfast table, we brainstormed how to regenerate our soil further with compost. We decided to build our own sixty-cubic-foot bioreactor down the hill from our now shabby-looking veggie plot. A bioreactor is a fancy name for a compost bin that you don’t have to turn, doesn’t smell bad, doesn’t leak, doesn’t attract flies or rats, and doesn’t upset your neighbors. I made the whole family wear swimsuits to mix the ingredients: water, sawdust, woodchips, coffee grounds, hay, and fresh grass clippings. When I last checked it, the compost was steaming and fruiting (producing mushrooms) lavishly.

children making compost for their garden

The other day we went out to collect fresh cow dung to inoculate our bioreactor with more nitrogen. A big Jersey ambled over, curious. I panicked and fled, abandoning my buckets in the pasture. I’m a bit disappointed that I have not turned into a farmer overnight, but this feels a lot better than doing nothing. I haven’t even finished reading Massy’s book, but I think it’s safe to say that my eco-anxiety is slowly being replaced by eco-literacy and hope.

There’s still the residual bovine anxiety, though.

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About the author

Jordanna

Jordanna Bazeley

Jordanna Bazeley lives at Spring Valley Community with her husband, Johann, and their four children, as well as Kizzie the...

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