Balancing Between Denial and Despair

The Capital, March 01, 2008

Peter Bergstrom, Fishery Biologist

There are two moments in Al Gore's 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth" that have stayed with me. One is near the start, when he gets on a scissor lift to show on a graph how high greenhouse gases are today, and how much they are predicted to rise in the next 50 years. The other is when he says, near the end of the film:

"If we accept that this problem (global warming) is real, maybe it's just too big to do anything about. And you know, there are a lot of people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem."

Those of us who work in environmental careers could be described as pausing between denial and despair, in that zone of action. However, for me, sticking with working as an environmental scientist for 19 years has been more of a balancing act - more dynamic than simply pausing.

When Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts don't seem to be getting the expected results, I edge towards despair. When a project that I worked on or one that my office funded has good results, or some aspect of the bay's health improves, it nudges me back towards feeling that I'm making a difference, and it makes me want to work harder and accomplish more.

But we environmental professionals can't clean up the bay on our own. We need the help of all of the citizens in the watershed, and many of you are already providing that help. You may feel that you also balance between denial and despair in this effort. I have a suggestion for how we all can maintain our commitment to action to clean up the bay, even when the news about that effort seems discouraging.

For me, commitment to environmental action doesn't depend on getting results from that action, although such results are of course very encouraging. My commitment stems from my love of natural places and a desire to leave some of them for future generations. I need to be reminded of that love regularly by experiencing nature directly, and sometimes I forget to do this in the rush of daily life. Luckily, my work gets me into the field sometimes, which helps, but I also enjoy birding, kayaking, biking and hiking for exercise and recreation in natural places, and I do water monitoring as a volunteer for the Magothy River Association, which works to protect and restore the watershed where I live.

If you want to renew your commitment to environmental action, I recommend finding your favorite natural places and your favorite ways of exploring them-and then exploring them often. Getting exercise and recreation in natural places helps, but I think it helps if some of these experiences get you more involved. To do this, we need to find the adult equivalents of the "Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences" that the Chesapeake Bay Program promotes for K-12 students, and that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supports through its Bay Watershed Education and Training program. Like the students who take part in these programs, adults will benefit the most from "investigative or project-oriented" experiences with a hands-on component. Of course, many of these experiences also help restore the bay and its watershed, so they benefit you and the bay.

These hands-on watershed experiences often can be found through your local watershed group, nature/outdoor education center, park, wildlife refuge, or through state-wide volunteer programs. If your local groups don't offer a particular watershed activity that interests you, you could try it elsewhere, then ask your local group about offering it. I also encourage you to find intergenerational activities, which are very rewarding.

When my children were young, they weren't all that excited about the activities I liked to do (birding and water monitoring), but they really enjoyed helping with fish seining at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary on the Patuxent River. They dove right into this "hands on" activity with lots of squirming, shiny fish.

What's most important is to find your own passion for nature and the bay and practice it. If one place, time, or method doesn't work for you, try another. I find that regular, meaningful experiences with nature help to keep me from slipping into despair about the bay's problems, and keep me in that middle ground where I take action.

Dr. Peter Bergstrom is a fishery biologist at the Chesapeake Bay Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Annapolis. He specializes in underwater bay grasses and co-authored a field guide to Chesapeake underwater grasses. To order a copy, see

(Revised Mar 2008)