How to Separate Your Career From Your Existential Crisis
Since pre-industrial times, human activities have caused 1°C of global warming. This warming, projected to reach 1.5°C as soon as 2030, will affect human health, food and water security, and long-term changes in the environment, including sea level rise and mass extinctions. I’m often asked how I feel about pursuing a career in conservation despite the sharp, downward spiral our environment appears to have taken since the industrial revolution. Is it a huge downer? Or am I at least excited about the prospect of job security?
In short, yes, it is depressing working in a field directly affected by climate change. In the last couple of months alone, there have been reports of the first ever extinction directly caused by climate change; a juvenile whale starved to death by the 88 pounds of plastic in its belly (just one of the estimated 100,000 marine animals that die every year due to plastic pollution); and thousands of students, young people who will bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, on a “climate strike,” protesting their governments’ apathy and unwillingness to take big steps to negate the effects of global warming (see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, stating that the world has a deadline of 11 years to get emissions in check to avoid devastation). So, yeah, it’s a real bummer, to say the least.
Growing up in Central Florida, I was a lot more likely to visit theme parks and strip malls than protected wetlands and prairies. However, Florida’s diversity of flora and fauna was unable to be contained. Even walking around my town, my mom encouraged me to observe the seemingly quotidian creatures we’d encounter. Evening walks turned into exploratory missions. I would take detailed notes of the various species, picking up toads out of the moist grass, warily spying cottonmouth snakes in the weeds and identifying a barred owl’s distinctive call in the woods. I always longed for a little more adventure—and a lot more distance—from the crushing reality of endless traffic and tourists. In the span of my lifetime, I saw the boardwalks that traversed through quiet, wetland wilderness torn down for the expansion of real estate. I stopped hearing the booming, but comforting, chorus of frogs outside my window every night. Every night after a good afternoon thunderstorm I would see dozens of snails climbing around our garden. Now, my hometown is more like an environmental ghost town, in no small part due to human activity.
My desire to engage with the natural world and protect the environment I love so much led me to pursue a winding academic path studying environmental science, wildlife conservation, soil science and now ecology. (I’m in the second year of a program to get my Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology.) But even in the beautiful, sunny, liberal paradise of Boulder, Colo., it’s easy to get discouraged. My research in particular highlights the impact of the many thousands of people flooding to Colorado, especially to the once-wild counties. In my time as a student, I’ve learned how intricately tied everything in the ecosystem is to each other, and how upset the balance has become because of humans.
As someone who aims to find a career in conservation, it’s disappointing to see a lack of compassion for our planet, especially in the political climate here in the U.S. (for the record, President Trump, wind turbines do not cause cancer). Our country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement signaled not only that the United States doesn’t care about its own people, but it also blatantly doesn’t care about the future of the world and the billions of other people that world encompasses. The trending attitude towards scientists seems less focused on their innovation, with more focus and pressure to prove (or even re-prove—looking at you, Flat-Earthers) existing and well-established theories. In fields directly studying climate change in particular, you could say scientists have stopped playing the offensive and started backtracking to the defensive, simply trying to convince politicians and the public at large that we are not liars.
Given the grim state of our planet, all I can do is focus on how I can impact this world for the better. If I fixated on everything going wrong in the world, how could I press on and do valuable work and not just exist in existential turmoil? Yes, the Earth may be headed towards disaster, but as a scientist, I can help communicate the true status of climate change to those around me. As a student at a major university, I can take advantage of all the thousands of academic journal articles provided to me for free and educate myself as best as I possibly can. As a graduate student, I can become an expert in my field and I have the freedom to conduct innovative studies; essentially, my Ph.D. will be what I make it. When I am in the workforce, I can make strong decisions and not be the apathetic leader I so often see representing me in this country. As someone who loves the planet, I have already chosen a great path to help protect it, and with this I find solace.
When you take everything that is going wrong with Earth into consideration, it’s daunting. When you take all the possible actions you can do about those wrongs into consideration, it’s empowering.
Sometimes, it can feel like you’re the only one who cares, or realizes the dangerous impacts of global warming are not in the distant future—they are becoming the new normal. Most young people will be starting their families or trying to plan their futures, while also dealing with the ramifications of decisions made by an older generation, one who has already had their children, lived the majority of their lives and decided not to care about ours.
But don’t think about all of these things at once. Take something you feel passionately about and break it down into manageable parts. If you love the ocean, reduce your consumption of single-use plastics. Bring reusable bags to the store. Participate in a local beach cleanup. Buy from sustainable companies. If it feels useless, or even a bit annoying, think back to that amazing, life-changing time you spent in the outdoors, and take comfort that you are doing your part to protect that cherished moment. When I feel like my minor actions are meaningless and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, I think about my aunt, in Maine, who spends a few minutes each morning picking up litter from the shoreline behind her house. Really, it’s just a minute fraction of the pollution in our world, but the impacts of her actions are innumerable. Otters and fish won’t accidentally swallow plastic. Dogs and raccoons and skunks won’t hurt themselves stepping on glass. She has enormously impacted that microcosm for the better, and you and I can do the same in our little worlds.
Even if your career is a little less directly impacted by climate change, I still encourage you to be as informed as you can be. When you are overwhelmed by the state of our natural world, think about what upsets you the most and try to make it better. This doesn’t mean aimlessly blaming the person next to you. The villains here aren’t our friends and coworkers, but rather campaigns started by companies aimed at taking the attention and blame off of themselves and the amount of waste they create. Get involved in local politics, in sustainable development, in giving to nonprofits that count and divesting from big industries that, quite honestly, don’t care about what will happen in 20 years. Accept that every career, sooner or later, will be directly affected by the effects of climate change, and do what you can to take care of the only home we have.
Bridget graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Environmental Science, and an unofficial degree in knitting and watching Netflix simultaneously. She is now studying for her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She enjoys hiking, reading Darwin, and petting strangers dogs.