Hope (and trash) floats

photos by Celia Talbot Tobin


The first class I attended when I began a master’s program in environmental science journalism four years ago was a graduate seminar that dissected the merits and consequences of covering environmental stories. We met twice a week, read a lot and pondered out loud how to balance the need for unsugared information without shocking an audience into a state of catatonic depression. We picked apart clichés and deconstructed narratives. But eventually we’d often find ourselves in existential territory. What does it mean for our emotional well-being, as well as those of our audience, to constantly swim in such bleak material?

Environmental reporting does not have to be depressing, nor does being a journalist. But it often is. Environmental themes can feel like The Biggest Subject, the umbrella under which everything else falls. Pull the thread on any story covering human rights infractions or social injustices in the world and it seems it’s only a matter of time before the role the shifting environment plays reveals itself. All stories of pain and joy play out on this one stubbornly finite planet.

My reporting partner, Amelia, and I spent a lot of time walking on and floating through mounds of trash for our story. For better or worse, trash is visually loud.  It screams “something is wrong” in a way many environmental issues do not. This means the scope of the grievance is overwhelming not only in concept, but to your senses as well. And meanwhile you’re well-aware that this is just a drop in the bucket of a much larger global problem.

We’ve spoken extensively about how to approach something so large. I’m not sure we really have an answer yet. But it seems clear that, much like the solutions we’ve been learning about, the best we can do is to take small bites. Not only in reporting, but in digesting the issue ourselves, within our own emotional processors. Cynicism is a beast to be constantly kept at bay, and swallowing overly-heaping mouthfuls can feed that cynicism and leave you choking.

The last interview we did before leaving Guatemala was with Alerick Pacay, the young founder of an environmental non-profit that focuses on education. At 26 years old, he was the youngest person we’d spoken with. Smiley and vibrant, he spoke passionately about how critical education is in changing culture. All policies and regulations are for naught, he argued, if people don’t truly want to change their behavior.  The most effective place to start, he believes, is with kids; the younger the better, and good riddance to the older generation as their power fades. He was invigorated in a way that no one we’d spoken to had been, untarnished by the exhaustion of bureaucracy or ulterior motives. A cynic might say it’s a product of youth and naiveté, yet it was clear that he fully grasped the complexity and scope of the issue. But by focusing with intense devotion on his part, the one small cog in which he was working, he seemed able to maintain a degree of optimism that was so overwhelming in its novelty that it brought me to tears after such an emotionally depleting few weeks. Alerick was the hope we didn’t even know we needed.

– Celia Talbot Tobin, Fall 2018 Guatemala Reporting Fellow