Riding the storm

Robyn Guyton in the Riverton Environmental Centre with fruit that has been grown naturally. Spots...
Robyn Guyton in the Riverton Environmental Centre with fruit that has been grown naturally. Spots and marks on fruit are how they are meant to look, she says. Perfect flawed, but tastefully delicious. That's their beauty. Photo: Giordano Stolley
Not too worried about environmental issues? That's good, but if species extinction, pollution and climate change get any worse, more of us are likely to experience the enviro-blues. Maureen Howard looks at what we can do to head that off. 

Greetings from Foveaux Strait restore Robyn Guyton on her visits to the southerly shore of the small town of Riverton.

"If I have had a bad day, I like to go out for a walk on the beach the next morning," she says. "All the birds are there and there is that lovely energy."

A lesson from the ocean guides Guyton's approach to life's difficulties.

"When things get tough, I always think it's like waves. The waves go down and then they come up again. Every time you think it can't get worse, it does start to get better."

Bad days don't visit Guyton often. She and her husband Robert have lived the good life in Riverton since 1991, surrounded by hundreds of berry bushes, more than 100 heirloom fruit trees, vegetables and herbs and a thicket of natives for the birds and insects, all squeezed into about 6000sq m.

The small community of Riverton has an impressive list of environmental achievements: 11 annual harvest festivals, the Southland Seed Savers programme, annual Earth Craft Days and the Riverton Environment Centre, staffed seven days a week by volunteers, to name a few. Guyton volunteers at the environment centre and is deeply involved with many of its activities.

Riverton wasn't always this eco-idyllic.

The Guyton family moved to the town in 1986 on a two-year trial. At the time, it had some features they enjoyed: a river and beaches, eclectic and historic architecture and the nearby small city of Invercargill. But, for the couple who are passionate about living gently off the land, there was no organic community for them to connect with.

Associate Prof Niki Harre. Photo: Supplied
Associate Prof Niki Harre. Photo: Supplied
Rather than head off in search of greener pastures, Guyton put an advertisement in her local paper for an organic gardeners group meeting.

"Of a town of 1000, 57 people came!" she says. Having found a like-minded community of friends, the Guytons no longer wanted to leave. "That was the missing ingredient!"

When the family's third baby came along, the Guyton household got very busy and decided to move the many activities they were involved with, off their premises. Despite the small size of Riverton, Guyton thought an environment centre would be the ideal home.

"I always think, you should just try it because it might work and you'll regret it if you don't do it."

In 1996, a building came available to rent, for very little, and the Riverton Environment Centre was born. In 2002 it shifted to a 1908 historic building on the main street and 15 busy years later in 2017, the group decided it would like to buy and upgrade the building. Bargaining with the landlord, a price of $72,000 was agreed and a contract signed that gave the group a month to find the money, after which the landlord would put it on the open market.

"He gave a bit of an ultimatum to us!"

But the group felt confident and went to the bank to get a mortgage - only to find the bank did not give mortgages on pre-1935 buildings.

All of a sudden, Riverton faced the imminent prospect of losing its environment centre. Guyton toyed with the idea of a yurt to hold its contents, until her daughter suggested they try crowdfunding.

"We got $53,000 in three weeks and within a month we owned the building."

The Riverton centre has clearly touched many hearts over the years as money came in from all over New Zealand and even from travellers.

"One woman from Australia had been really depressed touring around New Zealand, because she found even New Zealand was not clean and green. And then she called into our building and she realised that there are groups doing this kind of thing around the world and that it's not all bad! It gave her such a boost of positive that she later gave us $300!"

Guyton has cultivated an enviable resilience to the challenges that life tosses up.

"I try to find a way to look at [something] as a positive thing. I try. I'm not perfect. I think that I might have been influenced by that book Pollyanna! Life can be pretty gloomy and if you can suddenly look at it through somebody else's eyes, in a positive way, that's really good."

Even Pollyanna might struggle to see the upside of today's environmental challenges. Last year, August 1 marked the point at which humanity used up more resources from nature than it has the capacity to renew in a whole year. It is called Earth Overshoot Day, and each year it comes earlier. Resilience in the face of such challenges prompts some questions. Why do some citizens like Guyton remain environmentally active while others burn out? Or, why do some people respond with positive action when others take the pessimistic route towards cynicism and despair, or the illusory pathway to denial?

Leslie Davenport
Leslie Davenport
Leslie Davenport thinks about these things. She is an integrative psychotherapist who teaches climate psychology in the United States and is author of Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change.

When she began to think about addressing climate change, it was clear to her that what goes on inside our heads needs to be taken into account.

"I started to realise that so much of what is within training in mental health and psychology is relevant," she says.

Examples she lists include understanding how we can help people to work past denial, how we can help ourselves and others to build emotional resiliency when facing very difficult situations and loss, how we can assist people who want to make changes but are hampered by their own habits and ambivalences, and how we can communicate about climate change more effectively.

"It's not that I feel that psychology has the answer and the solution but I started to realise `why aren't we at the table when it comes to interdisciplinary solutions?'," says Davenport.

Associate Prof Niki Harre, of the University of Auckland, is also on a mission to use psychology to save our world. Harre is author of Psychology for a Better World: Working with people to save the planet, the second edition of which came out last year.

When it comes to influencing others, Prof Harre highlights the importance of fostering motivational hope, which is "the sense that there are efforts afoot to make a change, and the possibility that together we can make a difference".

"It's a bit different from complacent hope, which is the sense that I don't have to do anything, it will all be taken care of," she says. And both are very different from despair, which is the sense that there is nothing we can do, she adds.

Prof Harre's core message to anyone communicating about environmental issues is to "never present a negative message without thinking to yourself `How can I also ensure that that this person feels able to participate in making a difference, making a change'."

Her second directive is to forget the popular message of "I can make a difference", and to replace it with "Together we can make a difference", and each of us can be a part of that.

"The point is that we are essentially all pieces in the jigsaw puzzle," she says.

"We are not alone, there are others working too, and together change can happen."

Remembering that we are not alone can be difficult for some.

"I'm really aware that there are people out there who feel that they are the only one in their family who cares, or the only one in their workplace who cares. I really get it," Prof Harre says.

"You might have to look a little bit further," she adds. "The more you can immerse yourself with like-minded others, the easier it's going to be for you."

Prof Harre has founded a supportive community through the Transition Town she belongs to in Point Chevalier, Auckland.

But simply hanging out with "the converted" and making personal changes while ignoring what others are doing will not solve our environmental challenges. We also need to reach out.

"I think it's a matter of dipping in and out with others where you get that nurturing and sense that you are on the right page ... and then those little forays out into the slightly scarier territory!" Prof Harre says, laughing.

Instilling motivational hope is especially important with the young. Prof Harre was a secondary school teacher for six years before she immersed herself in academia. She still talks to children in schools about issues such as climate change. Frightening children is not an option Prof Harre entertains. Instead, she focuses on imparting the basic facts in a way that allows children to see where positive action could lie and what they could be aiming for.

"I would and do talk about the sheer science of it, ... what carbon is, what greenhouse gases are, how they are cycling through different parts of the system ...

"I concentrate on the more basic idea that if you take a carbon atom, it can be in various places and the whole idea is to try and concentrate those atoms in places that are healthy for the ecosystem in the environment, in the wood of trees, and the soils and the bodies of organisms.

"You really want to keep it out of the oceans where it's leading to ocean acidification. You really want to keep it out of the atmosphere."

When it comes to supporting yourself as an environmental advocate, Prof Harre's No1 tip is to "keep remembering that you are part of a huge mass of people that is trying to turn this around. Remember, whether or not you can see them right now, you are part of a community."

Her second tip is that "it's actually OK if you feel sad, angry, stressed ... Recognise that whenever you do anything that is hard, difficult or worthwhile there are times when you will feel bad and that's just part of it and it's not your job to get rid of all those bad feelings.

"We are in the era of the `fragile self', in which we have told ourselves the story that we are all fragile. And the people I admire are the people who have told themselves that their own fragility isn't the point here.

"The point here is contribution to what matters. ... You are a small part of something amazing and just keep remembering that. You are not as fragile as you think."

Her third tip for personal resilience is self-nurturing.

"Look for and remember the beauty that is all around you in the natural world and the kindness of other people. There is actually so much beauty there. Pull that out and celebrate that."

For Davenport, the fundamental, almost radical, part of building personal resilience is to take care of ourselves first.

She draws on the analogy of the breathing mask in the aeroplane: put your own on before you help others to put theirs on.

"These are tough times and by all reports there will be tougher times ahead. And we have to find ways to relax, give ourselves what we need so that we will have the energy and stamina to respond to what is needed."

As well as us all doing what needs to be done, Davenport also points out that constructive action is a common strategy used in psychotherapy to counter feelings of helplessness and mental distress.

Add in the importance of a supportive community and we find that caring for the earth together is a winning combination, for as we work together to heal our planet, we are likely to find ourselves, our communities and our planet in much better health.

Guyton has long known the essentials of a supportive community. She and her husband have surrounded themselves with like-minded people who support each other.

When she wanted Riverton to have an environment centre she wasn't opening it on her own, she says.

"I was doing it with 27 volunteers. We were all doing it together."

Positivity breeds more of the same and Guyton strongly recommends volunteering with others.

"If you can get into a place that is busy and well connected and vibrant, it's not just you who benefits, it's all the people that come in."

 

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