Coping With the Junk Show of Today’s Political-Environmental Climate

Hint: take a cue from the animal kingdom.

How are you doing? I confess that I’m having a rough time. Everything I care about is under attack by the regime in power. Whether it’s wilderness preservation, endangered species protection, action on climate change, the integrity of science, corporate accountability, separation of church and state, access to health care, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights—all, all are in danger of being torn to shreds. Trying to keep up with the litany of horrible news is like drinking from a fire hose spewing toxic waste.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, which is exactly what those in power are counting on. So, how to move past that trap?

For our friends who are struggling, we need to be supportive and understanding—and also offer encouragement that resistance is helpful. I don’t try to deny my depression when it comes, but I try not to feed it. Usually after a few days or a week, outrage cuts through the fog, and I’m awake again. But then what?

Looking around me, I see three basic coping strategies. I call them after the species that best exemplify them: armadillos, the tigers and the ants.

The armadillo is famously covered with an armor of tough scales, and when attacked it tucks its head under and rolls up into a protective ball. This is, of course, the strategy of denial, and lots of people I know have shut down and become armadillos. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful small town, where it’s easy to feel insulated from unpleasant reality. If you never pay any attention to the news, you can live here very happily, tending your garden, going out for coffee, taking a nice hike.

There are a couple of problems with being an armadillo, however. First of all, there are some very strong-jawed monsters out there, and I submit that the current administration in Washington, D.C., is such a monster. Second, sooner or later, every armadillo has to uncurl and go about its life. Like me, a lot of my armadillo friends are in their 60s, and I think they’re betting, consciously or not, that they won’t be around when the worst comes to pass. Perhaps that’s what counts as optimism these days.

Then there are the tigers. Tigers are fierce and uncompromising. Some fearless people—my wife, for one —have become tigers. A pediatrician with a demanding practice, she still spends hours every day telephoning not just our own worthless representative but also leaders in Congress like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. She goes to rallies and makes sure I come, too. She donates money to an ever-lengthening list of activist groups and promising candidates. She gets, on a good night, four hours of sleep. I am in awe of her passion and that of the other tigers I know. But not everyone can be a tiger, burning so brightly without burning out.

That leaves the ones like me, the ants. Like our totem animal, we may be small, but we are single-minded and we are legion. The most encouraging discovery of this terrible year has been how many of us there are, working in local networks to form a national resistance. Every week, I take at least three or four actions—I write a letter, make a call, go to a meeting. That’s a level of activity I know I can sustain. I focus on environmental defense, while my friends and allies swarm into action on health care, racial justice, immigrant rights, and all the other issues under threat. In the long run, I believe it’s the collective work of these people, some of whom have never been politically active before, that will save our country from its present nightmare.

So, I say: Join us. Shoulder your small burden, one that is not so heavy that it will leave you broken, and make a path that works toward change. Don’t forget to thank the mighty tigers who inspire the rest of us, and as you pass the armadillos, give them a little kick to wake them up.

We have nothing to lose but our despair.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this essay was produced and first published. Photo by Malcolm Carlaw


Showing 11 comments
  • Allison Gonzalez

    Thank you! It was getting to be just too much for me that I started to really become that armadillo. I was willing to speak about what I am passionate about to those that would listen and not argue or those that think like me but that was it. I want to help the fight yet it has become too overwhelming. And I felt alone in this. Like a hiding coward. But now I know I’m not alone. You’ve sparked something under me and I can be the ant. (I’m not really the lion type, lol) I can write letters and help where I can.

    So thank you. For showing me I’m not alone and to not give up.

  • Kevin

    You might do well not to assume that everyone who enjoys the outdoors doesn’t share all of your political leanings. Put a marker on your calendar for 2025, it’s very likely when you reach that marker, the earth will still exist as you know it now and the sun will not have fallen from the sky because someone you don’t agree with politically was President for a few years.

    • Hoyt Herringbone

      Classic Kev!
      “I’ve got mine, up yours!”

  • Swenson

    Well articulated comment and position. Good for you and your wife for being involved and taking a stand. I disagree with 100% of your stated positions and beliefs but I love your passion and articluation without ad hominem attacks. Well done.

  • Steven

    I agree with your positions and path of action. I can understand why some people would want to get rich off polluting the environment, but I really don’t get how anyone could be in favor of disregarding science, lower corporate accountability, blatant racism and condoning sexual harassment and assault.

    Can I also suggest 1) boycotting companies that have associations with ideas you disagree with and 2) if you have anyway to adjust your finances (legally) during the Trump years to pay less tax now, then do it. I’m maxing out things like 401(k) and 529 accounts. It’s peanuts, but at least I know I’m keeping a few dollars away from Trump.

  • Eric

    Thanks for this piece, there’s a lot of us out there still trying to figure out how to cope. Not everyone needs to agree on every position, but it’s fascinating to me that there are folks reading this magazine who “love the outdoors” but see no problem whatsoever with selling off public land to the highest bidder. Or gutting environmental quality regulations. Or delisting endangered species. Or hindering the development of market-based initiatives toward sustainable energy production. Not to mention the myriad of social distortions and lies promoted by this administration. There are people who have spoken up for generations and against all odds to protect the land that folks now enjoy–we’re standing on their shoulders. To go outdoors and not be thankful for those historic efforts, not realize that this same fight continues, could only be willful ignorance.

  • Cris Mateski

    sure would be great if we could read about adventure. This site is turning into nothing more than an echo chamber of political agenda.

    • David

      Theres an implicit responsibility for those who enjoy outdoor adventure to take action to protect the places in which adventures happen. When there is a political system actively undermining our public lands system and environmental regulations it is negligent to not act. This is not a partisan issue, if you enjoy wide open outdoor spaces and healthy ecosystems, then you must act in the interest of those spaces not complain about those who do.

  • Jerry

    Think of things in geological time. The earth will still spin. The sun will still rise. Everything is okay. Nature will survive. Forests burn and regrow. Politicians come and go. Policies are made and changed. The earth will heal itself. If you want to let the mainstream media ruin your day, then it will. Nature can free you of all of those negative feelings. Leave it all behind and go enjoy yourself. Look up at the Milky Way and understand how small and inconsequential it all is. Enjoy your short time on this planet! Have a super fantastic life!

    • Hoyt Herringbone

      Thanks for being part of the problem, Jerry!

    • Dave

      This comment and the associated attitude completely neglects the issues addressed by environmental regulations, and the reality that they don’t exist to protect the earth per se, they exist to maintain and improve the ecosystem and biosphere in which our species (and ideally those around us) can thrive. This is about preserving a quality of life for our and future generations, not about whether this rock in the solar system will continue progress around sun…It amazes me that humans can be so apathetic towards the legacy they leave their offspring

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