The power of positive thinking: The role of optimism in today’s environmental chaos.

Image by Ben Johnson |

Image by Ben Johnson |

We all know what it feels like to be presented with a barrage of negative news the moment we turn on the TV or radio -- it can be overwhelming. It’s hard enough for most people to battle daily hardships and hear about violence going on across the globe. The last thing anyone needs is a reminder than the planet is doomed.

Sometimes, it can be hard to remain optimistic and find the motivation to work towards an environmentally sustainable future, especially when this future feels unattainable in more than one way.

When I learned about climate change as a kid, I felt upset and completely helpless, but when solutions like riding my bike to school were presented as alternatives to carbon-intensive methods of transportation, I embraced them with enthusiasm. Optimism and pessimism, without a doubt, play a huge role in determining our future. The good news? There’s hope.

We hear overwhelming amounts of bad news, but the last few decades have also seen numerous success stories.

Sea otters made a comeback.

Take the sea otter, for instance. Sea otters used to inhabit the Pacific Rim from Japan to California became extirpated throughout most of its range during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was hunted for its fur. In the early 1900s, the Pacific had under 2,000 sea otters left. But action was taken by the U.S. government to protect Californian and Alaskan sea otter populations in 1911, and in the 60’s and 70’s, 89 otters were reintroduced to coastal B.C. By 1995, B.C.’s sea otter population had already grown back to over 1,500 individuals and the global population was up to 150,000 sea otters.

This resurgence had a huge effect on coastal waters, where urchin kelp forests turned into ocean barrens because there were no sea otters to eat the urchins and keep urchin population levels under control. As a result, the urchins ate entire kelp forests, which would normally provide habitat for all kinds of other sea creatures. Bringing back the otters has been a victory for sea otters and entire kelp forest ecosystems, which are no longer overrun by sea urchins.

Ecological restoration makes a difference.

Several decades ago on Galiano Island in B.C., patches of forest about halfway up the island were logged and replanted with a Douglas fir monoculture. The entire area was replanted with only one tree species, and the trees were planted far too close together, creating a dense canopy that does not let enough light down to the understory and prevents the soil from having enough nutrients for other native plants to grow.

The Galiano Conservancy Association took it upon themselves to help restore this ecosystem. They thinned the unnaturally dense tree plantation, pulling down trees without the use of power tools. They also redistributed woody debris, removed invasive plants and planted vegetation native to the ecosystem. I have recently walked through this forest, it is well on its way back to a natural state. The site serves as an excellent environmental education tool and provides trails open to the public for hiking and access to the shore.

Fishing Reforms on the Pacific Sea.

In 2013, after being approached by Greenpeace, a large New Zealand tuna brand agreed to phase out its use of a harmful fishing technique by the following year. Fish Aggregative Devices are a destructive fishing method that catch about 200,000 tonnes of non-target marine life around the world every year,  including sharks, baby tuna, rays, and critically endangered turtles. Since then, all large Australasian tuna brands, major UK brands, and the American Safeway chain have all followed suit and developed plans to phase out this type of fishing.

Meanwhile, humpback whales were killed in huge number for their blubber in the 20th century. These whales are very big and swim relatively slowly, making them easy targets for whalers. Today, these whales are protected, and their numbers have begun to increase to approximately 54,000 whales globally, and about 18,000 in the North Pacific as of 2005. While this is still far below pre-whaling numbers, the good news is that our actions have allowed humpback whale populations to increase. If this progress continues, and we continue to protect the whales, there is hope that we will once again have pre-whaling quantities of humpback whales in our oceans.

Bald eagles are on the rise.

Back in North America, bald eagles have their own success story to tell. This may be hard to believe if you’ve spent a lot of time in coastal B.C., but for a while, bald eagles were actually in danger of extinction because of habitat destruction, illegal shooting, and contamination. Arguably, the biggest threat to bald eagles was DDT, a widely used pesticide in North America during the mid 20th century. DDT contaminated bald eagles’ food sources, such as fish, and ultimately caused bald eagle eggshells to break before eaglets were ready to hatch.

The good news is that the U.S. government banned DDT in 1972, and protected bald eagles under the Endangered Species Act, leading to an impressive recovery by the birds. The U.S. now has at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles, which is a huge improvement over the 500 (or fewer) bald eagles in 1963. When we consider Canadian bald eagles, we have a North American bald eagle population that is on the mend.

The Ozone layer is recovering.

We also have global climate change problems, and thus extremely difficult to tackle. Yet, even in this challenging atmospheric arena, 100 countries have proven that success is possible by coming together and signing the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This signing was only the tip of the iceberg in dealing with atmospheric challenges, but regardless, a large number of countries came together and agreed, in 1987, to reduce the production and consumption of CFCs and other chemicals that deplete the ozone layer, putting the agreement into practice within two years.

The Protocol forced quick scientific adjustments, and soon after, ozone depleting compounds in the atmosphere began to drop. If the global community was able to achieve this in the late 1900s, there is no reason to believe we cannot achieve further agreements to curb carbon dioxide emissions in this century.

It comes down to optimism.

The key here is optimism, a psychological characteristic linked not only to good mood and physical health, but also to perseverance and achievement. The health of our planet depends on our behaviour, which we can either degrade or protect, depending on our optimism (or lack thereof). If most of us believe we cannot do anything to protect our ecosystems and curb climate change, this will lead us to collective inaction.

When climate change is framed as a catastrophe, it is only natural for us to be scared, engage our defense mechanisms, and ignore the problem. It is up to us to take the energy we invest in denial and fear, and instead turn it into motivation.

Positive thinking has, in some cases, resulted in better outcomes for patients suffering from serious medical conditions, as well as for people making major life transitions. Optimists are often more effective at altering their behavior to deal with challenging situations and making problem-solving efforts than pessimists.

Optimists tend to have more positive expectations about the future, which can make success seem more likely, and brings about long-term problem solving. Ultimately, optimists are often rewarded with more desirable outcomes compared to their pessimistic counterparts. That being said, even optimists will “disengage” from problem-solving when problems seem uncontrollable. This explains why even the most optimistic among us can become discouraged when it comes to tackling climate change and other complex environmental issues.

Let's keep in mind the many environmental achievements we’ve had thus far when taking on the many challenges that lie ahead. We cannot change the “doom and gloom” information we so often hear about, but we can certainly stay optimistic in spite of it all. We can also make efforts to communicate environmental issues and initiatives in a positive light to encourage our communities to actively engage with climate and other environmental problems, turning their worry into motivation.

The next time you feel the urge to tell someone why the Earth is most certainly doomed, tell them instead about an initiative they can join to fight climate change or ecosystem degradation. That’s the power of positive thinking.