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Worried about environmental doom? Go see an eco-therapist

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People with eco-anxiety are convinced humans are driving the earth towards environmental doom. (Justin Nobel/CNS)

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Recent media articles, TV shows and movies have helped to convince a growing number of people that environmental doom is fast approaching. Some of them are seeking eco-therapy. (Justin Nobel/CNS)

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People with eco-anxiety are convinced humans are driving the earth towards environmental doom. (Justin Nobel/CNS)

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People with eco-anxiety are convinced humans are driving the earth towards environmental doom. (Justin Nobel/CNS)

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Recent media articles, TV shows and movies have helped to convince a growing number of people that environmental doom is fast approaching. Some of them are seeking eco-therapy. (Justin Nobel/CNS)

Dr. Theo Colborn is renowned for her research on endocrine disruptors, tiny, mostly manufactured chemicals found in pesticides like DDT as well as everyday objects like plastic water bottles. She believes they are behind the rise in autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and some birth defects.

“This is a pandemic,” she said. “Something is happening and these systems aren’t functioning properly.”

Concerns generated by her own research led Colborn to make major lifestyle changes. The 80-year-old widow avoids Tupperware and Saran Wrap and uses mason jars and empty peanut butter containers for her leftovers. In 1987, fearing a coming energy crisis, she bought a non-air-conditioned 900-square-foot cottage that’s within walking distance of the small town of Paonia, Colo.

While scientists like Colborn are making environmentally sound lifestyle choices based on their research results, a growing number of people have literally worried themselves sick over various environmental doomsday scenarios.

Their worry even has a name: eco-anxiety.

Melissa Pickett, an eco-therapist with a practice in Santa Fe, sees anywhere from 40 to 80 eco-anxious patients a month. They complain of panic attacks, loss of appetite, irritability and unexplained bouts of weakness, sleeplessness and “buzzing,” which they describe as the eerie feeling that their cells are twitching. Pickett’s remedies include telling patients to carry natural objects, like certain minerals, for a period of weeks. Making environmentally friendly lifestyle changes can also prove therapeutic, she said.

The fears of the eco-anxious are fueled by abundant media coverage of crises like global warming, collapsed fisheries and food shortages. The Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” warns that only 10 years might remain to avert a major environmental catastrophe.

The British film, “Children of Men,” portrays the state of terror that ensues when society crumbles after women stop giving birth, possibly because of environmental factors. “It Could Happen Tomorrow,” one of the Weather Channel’s most popular shows, addresses such questions as, “What if an F5 tornado rips through downtown Chicago?” or “What if wildfires race out of control toward Austin, Texas?”

Is the end actually nigh? If anyone can answer that question it should be the scientists whose findings feed such articles, films and television shows. But they don't always make the best spokesmen.

“Scientists are very bad at communicating with the public about risk,” said Dr. Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at John Moores University in Liverpool, England, who studies the effects of catastrophes on society. “Unfortunately, a lot of low probability risks are blown out of proportion.”

Peiser used to worry that an asteroid half the length of a football field would explode over New York or London, as one did in Siberia in 1908, burning miles of forest to a crisp. Imagine the devastation if such an event happened over a modern city. And then there are the 10-kilometer asteroids, like the one known as Minor Planet (7107) Peiser, named after Peiser himself because of his "particular research interest in neocatastrophism and its implications for human, societal and cultural evolution," according to a NASA Web site.

Were Minor Planet (7107) Peiser to hit earth, it would cause an "extinction-level event," wiping out most of the life on the planet.

Fortunately for us, Peiser says scientists are now much better at detecting these mega-asteroids thanks to improved telescopes. His fears about smaller asteroids have also been allayed somewhat. Recent research suggests that explosions like the one over Siberia in 1908 probably happen only once every 1,000 years, not once every 100 years, as previously thought. This eased doomsday agitation in the research community, according to Peiser, and also “helped people realize that other potential hazards may not be as serious.”

And some potential hazards may be manufactured out of whole cloth. Dr. Robert Hale, a marine scientist at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science who studies the effects of PCBs and pesticides on sea life, blames journalists for the public’s misinformation and subsequent eco-anxiety. He referred to a 1997 episode known as “Pfiesteria hysteria.” Many journalists attributed a spate of human illnesses in the Middle Atlantic states to a flesh-eating microbe found in the Chesapeake Bay based largely on the views of a single researcher.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, who studies climate variability at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, is concerned about carbon dioxide emissions unnaturally warming the planet, but he hasn't succumbed to eco-anxiety yet. He attributes the rise in eco-anxiety to a naive public.

"The fact that people don’t have a good grasp of how science thinking works," Schmidt said, "means they don't have a good grasp of what they should be skeptical about."

Schmidt provided examples from his own life of things he had done that might help stem global warming, including driving less, buying electricity harnessed from renewable sources, using fluorescent light bulbs and voting for “people with a head on their shoulders.” He also co-founded the blog realclimate.org to correct misinformation about climate change.

“There’s a scientific reason to be concerned and there’s a scientific reason to push for action,” Schmidt said, “but there’s no scientific reason to despair.”

E-mail: jdn2108@columbia.edu