I remember past Earth Days feeling celebratory and full of hope. Coinciding with the first warm weeks of spring in the Midwest, Earth Day to me felt like a yearly opportunity to reconnect with the outdoors after a long winter spent sheltered away and to appreciate all that our planet does to sustain us year after year.

Earth Day has been celebrated since 1970, stemming from efforts from environmentalists including activist John McConnell and former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to honor the planet and raise environmental advocacy awareness following a disastrous oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The observance has since expanded around the world to Earth Week and Earth Month, with local organizations like the Urban Ecology Center hosting outdoor cleanup projects and clothing and plant swaps to mark the occasion.

This year, however, Earth Month has felt–to me, at least–like a blur.

Earlier this month, the temperatures in Milwaukee skyrocketed from the low 50s to the upper 80s, prompting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the National Weather Service to issue a Red Flag Warning–conditions were too warm and too dry for the time of year, meaning the risk of wildfires was high. This past week–which, too aptly, happened to be Severe Weather Awareness Week in Wisconsin–saw temperatures dropping and rising again, triggering a tornado warning and bringing about a sudden hailstorm. In the Midwest, we make plenty of jokes about how fickle our weather can be, but these recent weather incidents feel far beyond our norm.

If you’ve been bracing yourself every time you check the weather forecast, you’re not alone. Various organizations and news outlets worldwide have been reporting about the rise of “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety” in recent years. As environmental researcher Dr. Britt Wray describes the phenomenon:

“The American Psychological Association describes eco-anxiety as the ‘chronic fear of environmental doom,’ but at its simplest, at this late stage in the climate crisis, it is merely a sign of attachment to the world […] Eco-anxiety arises when we feel our vulnerability, and are in touch with our capacity to care because we are no longer numbed by our defenses. It is what happens when we bring our thinking and feeling together.”

These weather incidents make climate change feel tangible and immediate, but they’re only a small part of the issue. There have been an overwhelming number of reasons to feel climate anxiety over the years, from rashes of uncontrollable wildfires to melting glaciers to the rise in pollution-related health issues.

And, as environmental scholar Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray notes, the climate crisis is deeply intertwined with other societal crises:

“Climate change compounds existing structures of injustice, and those structures exacerbate climate change. Exhaustion, anger, hope—the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment. What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future […] Today’s progressives espouse climate change as the ‘greatest existential threat of our time,’ a claim that ignores people who have been experiencing existential threats for much longer. Slavery, colonialism, ongoing police brutality—we can’t neglect history to save the future.”

No wonder we’re all on edge. Our planet feels increasingly uninhabitable, but sometimes, it isn’t the physical environment I’m immediately worried about.

Our planet feels increasingly uninhabitable, but sometimes, it isn’t the physical environment I’m immediately worried about.

At the same time that we were experiencing such extreme weather events, the United States experienced yet another rash of gun violence in which multiple people in separate incidents across the country were shot for inadvertently being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The federal government opted to end the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, eliminating access to widespread, no-cost COVID-19 testing even as the virus continues to spread. There are no doubt other macro- and micro-stressors in your own life that you can add to all this, too.

(A note to the reader: This is the point where, in writing this article, I started feeling my own anxiety begin to rise. If you’re starting to feel it too, please use this space to take a break! You can always come back later. And please allow me to recommend this breathing exercise and this soothing video of Monterey Bay Aquarium sharks to help ground you.)

Human beings do not exist outside of nature–we are part of it. Earth Day was founded with the goal of advocating for the protection of our natural environment, but perhaps it’s time to recognize that it takes a wider variety of issue advocacy and activism to contribute to the preservation and protection of our home planet.

Fortunately, getting started on this journey is a matter of taking small yet intentional steps. Beyond the usual Earth Day recommendations of adopting more sustainable everyday practices–which we should still try and follow when we can, of course!–here are some additional ways we can all make a difference for the planet during this Earth Month and beyond:

First, we need to make sure that we’re okay at a personal level before we set out to try and save the world. NPR Life Kit has a great episode and article about managing climate-related anxiety, along with a comic and episode about handling anxiety related to the endless news cycle. Some great books on managing stress include Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, The Microstress Effect by Rob Cross and Karen Dillon (which I reviewed here!), and the upcoming release Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun.

Second, it’s imperative that we build stronger ties within our communities. After all, wildfires and tornadoes make no distinctions based on our beliefs or our values–we all feel their effects together, and we have to be ready to come together when it comes down to the immediate issues at hand, like clearing away a downed tree or making sure we’re safe during a flood or a power outage.

Wildfires and tornadoes make no distinctions based on our beliefs or our values–we all feel their effects together, and we have to be ready to come together when it comes down to the immediate issues at hand.

Once again, NPR Life Kit has some great episodes and articles on how to start fostering more neighborly connections and how to strengthen the friendships we already have. And if you’re in a particularly divided community, books like Mónica Guzmán’s I Never Thought of It That Way and David McRaney’s How Minds Change are great resources for boosting your empathy and listening skills.

Additionally, if you’re looking to engage with fellow activists, Hummingbird hosts the Building a Multicultural Environmental Community initiative! You can join the Collective Learning & Action Sessions to learn more about the intersection of systems of oppression. Members also receive biweekly Collective Action Alert emails with ideas on how to work towards environmental and racial justice in their communities, and there are Quarterly Network Meetups for activists to foster fellowship and learn from one another.

Finally, let me remind you again, dear reader: we are part of nature. And while it’s important that we work towards a better environmental future, we must remember to live in the present, too. That means–and this will no doubt feel counterintuitive–taking time to stop thinking about “the issues” and just existing. We can find joy in activism, but we must also chase joy beyond it, and nature is full of opportunities to find such joy.

Stop and listen to the birds chirping. Appreciate the tulips and daffodils that have poked through the dirt and held steady against the capricious rise and fall of the spring temperatures. Find some time to visit the parks and beaches and nature preserves around you. Eat a tomato you grew in your own garden! All of these small, everyday actions can be part of your sustainability journey because they are sustaining you.


Featured photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash