Psychological toll of being a sustainability scientist

8 12 2014

depressed scientistLike many academics, I’m more or less convinced that I am somewhere on the mild end of the autism spectrum. No, I haven’t been diagnosed and I doubt very much that my slight ‘autistic’ tendencies have altered my social capacity, despite my wife claiming that I have only two emotions – angry or happy. Nor have they engendered any sort of idiot savant mathematical capability.

But I’m reasonably comfortable with mathematics, I can do a single task for hours once it consumes my attention, and I’m excited about discovering how things work. And I love to code. Rather than academics having a higher innate likelihood of being ‘autistic’, I just think the job attracts such personalities.

In the past few years though, my psychological state is probably less dictated by the hard-wiring of my ‘autidemic’ mind and more and more influenced by the constant battery of negative information my brain receives.

mass quantitities of codeLet’s face it, the study of ecology, conservation and sustainability can be very depressing. Try as I might to provide some positive angle to a particular topic I am presenting in a public seminar, I invariably leave the audience slightly depressed. Yes, there are some good-news stories in conservation ecology, but they are few and far between, and are wholly overshadowed by the massive loss of biodiversity we are witnessing right now. For every half step we stumble forward, we take 10 giant steps backward.

Whether it’s spiralling climate change, bad government, extinctions, toxicity, poverty, human over-populationdeforestation, corporatochracy, or the notion that most people couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about the plight of our planet, we get inundated with bad news daily. It’s a wonder that any of us get out of bed in the morning – even if we only keep doing it for the ones we love.

I’m not about to stop fighting for my environment, but I have been wondering lately just how much this never-ceasing flood of negativity affects my psychological state. I’m not depressed, but I wonder if I am experiencing even a modicum of what people in the military or emergency services experience after dealing with constant death, disease, injury and destruction. For I, like many of my conservation ecologist colleagues, deal with death, disease, injury and destruction of the planet and its species every day.

It would be academically interesting (there go my autistic tendencies again) if psychologists examined the effects of such negativity on our outlook, capacities and even our personal relationships. A quick Google Scholar search suggests that the psychology of conservationists is a non-existent field of research. Perhaps it should be.

CJA Bradshaw



26 responses

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16 12 2014

Reading your post was too deja vu. Yup, full-fledged depression and burn-out with a dose of jaded. My therapy was to escape from the halls of academia and get out into the field full-time. It helps that I qualified for early retirement ;)
Regardless, removing the increasing pressure and negative trends of academic institutions made room for full-time personal immersion and involvement with conservation. Here I can experience and see the small advances in conservation efforts. Additionally, consumption of the Shiraz had decreased in favor of large doses of wildlife.


15 12 2014

Just managed to get 5 minutes to read this…finally.
I have battled a lot with this. To be honest, I would go so far as to say I do suffer from depression as a result of doing research and being faced with information about the plight of our natural world everyday.

During one of my bad stints, I decided to do some literature searching about this exact topic. Like you I came up short. By that I mean, nothing, zip, zilch had looked specifically at the mental health effects on scientists doing research in conservation.

My family have to spend considerable time pepping me up, telling me what I am doing is worthwhile, attempting to convince me that despite the exponential rise of babies around me (I am in my early 30s, married, and have decided for environmental ethical reasons to not reproduce) that there is hope…

Anyhow, it is hard. I have recently come to the conclusion that yeah, what I am (we are) doing probably won’t change the ultimate result. BUT, at least when the you know what hits the fan (in a way everyone takes notice), we will know we were on the right side….


10 12 2014
Priya Davidar

Your blog strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of many people. Its very depressing but the little victories are motivating and keep us going forward. Amateurs, often derided as ‘activists’ by professional ecologists often play an important and passionate role in advocating for conservation in India. Therefore its important for scientists to communicate with the broader public. When I am depressed I like to watch wildlife in our backyard as an alternative to Pinot Noir (not available here). Priya


10 12 2014
Chris Daniels

HI Corey,
This is a great article. I do understand, accept and agree with your premise (including the academic autism bit!! :-)). I have often heard it described as conservation fatigue! I think we as scientists need to think about the problem differently and we can also learn management skills from how medical professionals especially, oncologists, and others who live with and deliver bad, often horrible news every day. One solution they offer is to revise down expectations. They often advise those supporting their dying loved ones to concentrate on the here-and now- and talk about having a good day rather than planning for the nest 10 years. They also rarely describe the horrible process the sufferer will go through before death. yet we do (about the planet) all the time! Obviously oncologists don’t sugar coat news but they do look for ways to create realistic hope and support in the carers– because without hope we are in an awful position.
Our job as environmental scientists is to collect all the information we can and develop the best solutions we can – then present them to the community in bite-sized chunks they can best understand and in ways which empowers them to make a difference. Yes every once in a while hit ’em with the big picture –but not too often or it takes away hope.
We know deep down that our children will inherit a world so much poorer (environmentally) than our parents enjoyed. There is little we can do to stop that–so what can we do? Triage the planet, save what we can, empower the community where we can to make a difference. Document the big picture and keep working on the great universal cure –but until that is found, sweat the little stuff, –try to have a great day!. Sometimes the joy is in the little things! It is still an amazing planet
cheers (I will have another wine now!)
Chris Daniels


9 12 2014
Pommie chick

Hi, I read your blog a lot but this post particularly resonated with me. I’ve just finished my PhD and am back in field getting more data, giving talks about the importance of bats, and trying to feel like a drop in an ocean of people who give a damn as opposed to one of a few drops who care trying to change the tide of an unstoppable ocean who don’t.

While doing my PhD I was treated for the depression and anxiety I’ve struggled with all my life, which got worse partly because I felt like it’s so futile as one individual trying to make a difference, but sometimes it seems hard to get into a group that’s making changes. I have long periods free of depression where I marvel at the beauty still left in the forests and wild places, and that motivates me to keep going. When things get bad and I feel like I’m wasting my life because I can’t make a difference, I do two things: I look at a letter I got from a young student in Bangalore who said I changed her mind about bats, and I look at the stars and remember how tiny this planet is, that there may be life elsewhere, and that in 5 billion years we’ll be torched by our exploding sun anyway so I should allow myself to have a beer and chill out every now and then!

Anyway thanks for this post, it came at a really good time for me. Sometimes it’s just enough to know you’re not alone.


9 12 2014

Good article Corey, I wonder if there is a follow up article along the lines of our pub discussion at Alice Springs. What drives ecologists to continue in this field without becoming cynical and “hateful”?

You have addressed similar issues in posts prior, but I wonder if this is the case more broadly among many ecologists. After all, one does not want to reach the grave feeling their contribution was for naught.


9 12 2014

Hi Corey,
Really interesting post.

Sadly you are not alone in feeling like this and there have been some studies on this phenomenon.

I touched on this in my doctoral research, in relation to loss of threatened species, where wildlife managers talked about feeling ‘sadness’, ‘grief’, ‘anger’, ‘disappointment’, ‘tragedy’, ‘upset’, ‘frustration’ and ‘moral outrage’ about the potential extinction of a threatened species they work on. ( See section 9.3.4)

To make matters worse: ‘Perceptions that their in-group status as environmentalists separates them from larger society or the communities where they work can also engender feelings of isolation or the sense that their work is unwanted.’ Fraser et al. (2013). “Sustaining the conservationist.” Ecopsychology no. 5 (2):70-79.

On balance though, my online surveys found that the Australian public is very concerned about loss of species, so I don’t think we should feel alone in all this. We just need to get better at letting people know how they can get involved and breaking down social norms and structural barriers that deter conservationists and the public from collaborating more on creative solutions.

Well said Alejandro!


9 12 2014
Heather E. Eves

Another fabulous post. I read your blog regularly and recommend to all my students and colleagues. We just ended class today and had this very conversation. I’ve thought for awhile now about your same question/suggestion regarding the study of this outcome. It is time for an actual study – count me in to help.


9 12 2014
Alejandro Frid

Thanks Corey. My experience, of course, has been similar for much of my career. Yet, more recently, my psyche is shifting towards lighter places.

For long, I just enjoyed the dregs of our planet while getting a rush out of playing war zone doctor (in the battle fields of conservation)—believing that the possibility of a decent future was nothing short of delusional. But, once our daughter was born, it became obvious that I had to ditch the comfort of the “we are all fucked” script—which so easily frees us from real emotional investment and, therefore, responsibility—to something like “doom-and-gloom prophecies ain’t good enough for my daughter.” At the same time, it became so obvious we already have enough great science to dig our way out of the deep hole…should we muster the political will and societal support towards such a move.

This awareness propelled me into the scientific, emotional, and philosophical journey of writing a book ( that taught me, among many other lessons, the following.
1) Do not disregard history. To mention a single example, if the economic engines of institutionalized slavery could be abolished, a shift in the large-scale economics of how we run our world today is entirely possible.
2) Stay reverent for what we can still protect. (Otherwise, why bother?)
3) The world has changed irrevocably and loss will continue. That is obvious. Yet the difference between the “we are fucked” script vs. a message in which “things are really messy and challenging, yet there is still a lot that we can work with, and must work with” is huge.

I recently gave a guest lecture to an engaged group of undergraduates, most in their early 20s. Because I chose to give them the latter message, most students stayed afterwards and chatted about the myriad ways in which we might navigate our way through the Anthropocene into a world of genuine optimism. To me, if a bunch of young and emergent conservation biologists can feel that possibility in their bones (as they did), then all of this is real and not some Panglossian delusion I concocted while wearing pink-coloured glasses.

Sure. The loss is real and horrible. Yet when I walk through the forest with my 10-year-old daughter, my awareness of that loss transforms into something beautiful—a commitment to engage our human potential into becoming a wise species that practices coexistence.

I know we can do this.


9 12 2014
Courtney H

Thank you for this post on the psychological toll working in conservation takes on those scientists and practitioners. I’ve been observing this for years, as I’m sure you and others have, and have been thinking of a project to more fully examine the effects.


9 12 2014

P.S. You showed a lot of compassion for me this past summer. Is that emotion number three?


8 12 2014
Benjamin H-K

Hey Corey,
Interesting. On a related issue, there has been quite a bit written about the psychological toll on environmental or climate change campaigners and them burning out-seeing things get worse all the time. Here is a good article on the topic I remember reading a few years ago. You might find it interesting. ‘Dealing with climate trauma and global warming burnout’
Thanks for the great blog you have. I read conservation bytes often!


8 12 2014

I know exactly how you feel and I’m no scientist or number cruncher. Science is very much a ‘top down’ activity, the elite and educated usually looking at one thing, a lot. This can a bit like digging a hole for yourself (there is a scientist in my family and my partner worked for CSIRO communications, so I know). Conversely, artists develop antennae and are always open to connections/ideas outside the main focus (the best scientists do this too). I use videos as ‘happiness pills’ i.e.’ Rediscovering the Country’ and Ian Lunt’s video (both on my site)


8 12 2014

Nice. Sure gets to me occasionally, but good Pinot Noir always brings relief.

Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies, President, Center for Conservation Biology Department of Biology, 371 Serra Mall Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-5020 Adjunct Professor, University of Technology, Sydney Honorary Professor, Sichuan University Ph 650-723-3171 Fx 650-723-5920 WANT TO HELP TRY TO SAVE THE WORLD? VISIT and FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER? @PaulREhrlich


8 12 2014

That was no accident including that particular photo at the top of the post! ;-)


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