Advice From the Trenches

Advice from the Trenches: Extreme Activist

Dear C and Dr. B;

I live with my brother, who is an environmental activist. Nothing wrong with that, but he takes it to the extreme. He doesn’t sleep, eats little and is always upset over the state of things. He collects articles and papers his room with them. Twice he was even arrested for acts of civil disobedience. He can never relax, and forget about dating – all he does is rant about his ideas and scare them away. 

I worry about him. He has a good heart and technically, there’s nothing crazy in anything he is saying, the data backs him up. Unfortunately, no one else seems think it’s as important as he does and it’s driving him nuts. I can’t just tell him not to care when he sees the end of the world coming. I feel like I’m living with Noah preparing for the Great Flood. What should I do about it, or should I do anything?

Cray Cray

Dear Cray;

This is an interesting and pertinent question. Is your brother manic or just a fanatic? Is mental illness just a cultural concept? Clearly, he can’t fit in to the norms of socialized culture, but should he? Ignoring climate change is going to cause human extinction, but a huge number of people just look the other way. Is your brother crazy for his exaggerated alarm, or are they crazy for ignoring it?

Here is an old story from eastern Europe: Heavy rains caused a hallucinogenic mold on the supply of wheat, causing an entire kingdom of people to go crazy. The king was told, “Either we eat the wheat and go crazy like all of them or we starve.” The king’s response was: “Eat the wheat!” Humans live by denial. Most of our culture is in some sort of denial or distraction.

Like in the tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” your brother is that kid who points out the obvious no one can see – the ruler is parading around in his birthday suit. As you pointed out, Noah was also told he was crazy. He neither slept or rested, working day and night until his boat was done. When the rains came, no one called him crazy, probably because they all drowned. There are medications that can help your brother, but should he use them? Honestly, I think it’s more likely that we need to listen to him. But we won’t. Not until the water is up to our knees. I think given the context, he needs to keep shouting. Someone needs to.

Dr. B

C says: I do believe that there are people who are capable of seeing truths long before everyone else does. They are like our “canaries in a coal mine” – those birds the old timers brought down into the shafts because the critters would fall over at the slightest whiff of dangerous gas. The problems that your brother sees are very real, and too few others are paying attention. But getting stressed out and sleep deprived doesn’t solve the problems; it’s more likely to warp his judgment.

Take a few lessons from Bob Dole. Dole also believes passionately in the need to address environmental change and erosion. But he has a reasonable manner of expressing himself. It helps people believe that what he’s saying is both true and important. That hollow-eyed, ranting demeanor your brother has developed can make him seem like a crazy person. And nobody wants to listen to a crazy person. 

Anxiety is a corrosive acid that singes the emotional edges of perception. Living in a constant state of anxiety, as your brother does, is as dangerous to his health as fracking is to the earth. He wants people to protect the health of the earth; he needs to protect his own health, too. Has he tried getting involved with other people who share his feelings? I think that his isolation, more than his cause, may be fueling his anxiety. Help him find a way to connect with other activists. Best of luck.

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