On “Climate Stress” and Fishing for Plastic

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“I Don’t Even Want to Think About it”

The Denial of St. Peter (1610), generally thought to be one of the last two works by Caravaggio. In a scene described in the Gospels, Peter denies that he is a disciple of Christ, an action for which he ultimately repents.

One might be forgiven for distracting oneself from climate change. The feelings of helplessness or anxiety induced by thoughts of our future accomplish nothing but a dampening of mood. For it is one thing to learn about a problem that can be prevented but quite another to be exposed to thoughts of cataclysm about which one feels one can do nothing.

A climate psychology educator and a clinician specializing in climate psychology recently launched a climate psychology certificate to distinguish mental health and allied professionals who have trained to counsel those with “climate stress”. A team at the University of Oregon wants to allocate more resources toward helping students experiencing “climate stress”. Universities have an obligation, according to the team, to tend to students’ feelings of frustration, anger, fear, and powerlessness in the face of climate change. Another “climate stress” counselor stated that such counseling “helps to provide coping strategies to assist students in calming their own nervous systems, and to think about the issues from a different perspective.”1

Our decades-long failure to cooperate sufficiently to prevent climate change is giving rise to a new sub-specialty in the mental health industry. Given our continued inability to muster the creativity and cooperation necessary to address the threat, it is reasonable to expect that the number of clinicians interested in treating reactions to the crisis – now dubbed “climate stress” – will grow.

But what if there was work to perform that addressed the threat rather than our reaction to it? What if these jobs induced the sense of gratification felt when one does what needs to be done, and, in so doing, constituted the means by which one made a living? Would not such jobs constitute a means of protecting ourselves from existential threats and also implicitly address other problems – such as the disappearance of opportunities to pursue meaningful work – over which people feel helpless? And what if such jobs conferred a high level of social status, such as that which would befit the work of an individual who dedicated herself to protecting society from a serious threat? Might opportunities to pursue such work, if made sufficiently attractive and available, reduce, or even eliminate, the perceived need for college campuses to offer mental health services to those afflicted with “climate stress”?

The demand for therapy to address “climate stress” illustrates a critically important aspect of the situation within which we now find ourselves: our inability to mobilize demand for work to address crises that require it.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Another remarkable aspect of the term “climate stress” resides in the degree to which it reflects a failure to account for other salient aspects our situation: even those who acknowledge the threat posed by climate change frequently see it as a single problem and ignore the overall context within which the problem occurs. This may not be an altogether bad thing: Considering the mental distress provoked by exposure to the reality of climate change, perhaps yet more “stress” would be induced if it were accurately apprehended as one manifestation of a range of ecological disasters precipitated by human behavior.

Another crisis arising from our own behavior has its origin in the ubiquity of plastic manufactured from petroleum. The primary problem with plastic resides in its indestructibility: The EPA reports that “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.” Dr. Winnie Lau, Project Director for the Pew Charitable Trusts Preventing Ocean Plastics Projects, points out that “there are practically no natural processes that can degrade plastic back into the ecosystem.” 2 Discarded plastic ultimately finds its way into the oceans, such that all five of the Earth’s major oceans now contain “gyres” (spirals) inundated with plastic pollution. The largest vortex is twice the size of Texas and has been dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

“The Work Must Start Now”

In Physics and Engineering, “stress” arises from a complex interaction of forces and has sources and effects that can be precisely identified and measured. Because “stress” has become a catch-all concept that is used to describe all adverse experience, it has lost much of its explanatory value. When the term is used to characterize our collective predicament, for example, it tends to obscure, rather than clarify, relevant aspects of our situation.

“The scale of this challenge is daunting…Unless we act, by 2040 the amount of plastic going into the ocean would triple annually, and the amount in the ocean would nearly quadruple. That’s
unimaginable …” 3

Winnie Lau, PhD

While the term “climate stress” has been used to refer to mental suffering among those preoccupied by the threat of climate change, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it is a reaction to a reality-based problem that must ultimately be addressed by action and work. The ultimate cause of “climate stress” resides not in disease-based symptoms but in the persistence of a problem that our society has thus far lacked the capacity to mobilize sufficient cooperation to address, much less reverse.

Plasticization of the ocean is another example of a reality-based problem, that, if left unaddressed, will likely contribute to a future that is painful to imagine.

A comprehensive study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust concluded that combatting plasticization of the oceans requires “immediate, ambitious, and concerted actions”. 4 Eight interventions were recommended by the study. One such intervention – the immediate expansion of waste collection rates in middle and low-income countries – creates demand for work that is likely to be found meaningful by anyone who retains awareness of the multiplicity of threats that confront us.

Some Ways of Coping are Better than Others

The Arapakis Family Fished for 5 Generations.

The Next Generation Hauls Plastic from The Sea.

It can be helpful to recall that there are two fundamental approaches to coping with a reality- based problem. One approach, problem-focused coping, targets the problem itself and develops practical ways to tackle it. The second approach, emotion-based coping, focuses on the emotions and symptoms that arise as a result of a problem. If one is paralyzed by emotions precipitated by a reality-based problem to an extent that renders work impossible, then focusing on emotions and symptoms makes sense. But the latter approach is one-step removed from the problem itself, and, as such, does not solve the reality-based problem.

The fact that it might be a surprise to learn that “problem-focused coping”, i.e., actions based on addressing the reality-based problem itself, is generally a far more effective strategy than emotion-focused coping, reflects our culture’s proneness to “psychologize” reality-based problems. A tendency to insufficiently distinguish between real problems and psychological problems creates a demand for therapists but does little to address the reality-based problems faced by us all. Hence the need to remind ourselves of a fact that one would otherwise expect to be self-evident: avoiding reality-based problems has alleviating outcomes for a short period of time but denial and avoidance tend to be detrimental when used over an extended period.5

Another fact may also be relevant to recall in this context: There are a range of ecological and existential crises created by humans that, like climate change, are indifferent to our capacity to mobilize the cooperation and creativity necessary to address them. The problems do not diminish even if we find a way not to be bothered by them.

Creating Opportunity Amid Crisis

If current trends continue, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

“I knew no better, I always threw stuff in the ocean, but he, like young people everywhere, has been educated differently…Yes, there is room for grief, the sadness of it all, but also happiness that a new generation is finally doing something about it.”

Vangelis Arapakis6

Yet the world is not without examples of people who able to connect work to the problems that demand it.

In his first expedition on a fishing boat, Lefteris Arapakis – whose family has plied the Mediterranean for fish for five generations – pulled a can out of the net and looked at it. He was still staring at the can when a fisherman grabbed it out of his hand and tossed it back into the water. “That’s not what we’re paid to catch,” Arapakis recalled the fisherman telling him. Everyday, Arapakis explained to the Washington Post and the Guardian, the boat caught old bottles, plastic foam, flip-flops, and other detritus in its nets. And every day, its crew tossed everything back into the water, only hauling back what would bring cash.

When Arapakis’ father, Vangelis, started working the seas in 1978, it was a different era. The fish were plentiful, and the plastic nearly nonexistent, he said. Vangelis had hoped to pull his eldest son into the fishing industry, giving him summer jobs cleaning the boat and selling fish at the market.7

While Lefteris Arapakis always knew he didn’t want to spend his life on the family boat, the idea of clearing the seas of plastic felt different. So Arapakis, now 28, had an idea: He would try to convince the fishing industry to treat plastic as a catch. In 2016, he launched a nonprofit focused on sea cleanup and fishing education called Enaleia. Once the fishermen brought the plastic ashore, he would recycle it and pay them for their trouble. The shock of excitement Arapakis felt when he saw the project’s boat bring back trash in 2018 probably confirmed his sense that he was on the right track.8

“At first the fishermen were making fun of us,” Arapakis said. “They said we are not Greek garbage collectors.” But as the project has expanded, the fishing industry has flocked to it.

Enaleia pays fishing crews a small amount every month for the plastic they gather — between $30 and $90 per crew member, depending on how much plastic they bring in. The funding comes from foundations that support the organization and from profits from the sales of recovered fishing nets to clothing manufacturers, who can reclaim the material for socks, backpacks and shoes. Other fishermen get paid to do days of plastic cleanup entirely, instead of heading out for fish.9

Six years into the project, Arapakis has signed up more than half of Greece’s large-scale fishing fleet — hundreds of ships — to pull in the plastic they gather as they ply the Mediterranean. This year, after Arapakis spread his efforts across Greece and much of Italy, he expects to gather nearly 200 tons of plastic — enough to fill a football field five feet high with tiny pieces of plastic. That’s more than 7,500 pounds of plastic every week. He plans to keep expanding globally. Now, from port to port across Greece’s vast coastline, fishing boats are gathering plastic and bringing it to shore. About 60 percent of Greece’s biggest fishing boats are working with him, about as much as makes sense logistically, Arapakis said.10

“What you Change Grows”

“What you change grows.” Ocean waves are formed as wind blows across the surface of the ocean, creating small ripples which eventually become waves with increasing time and distance.  Waves analogize to social movements that, when functional, culminate in the creation of work that addresses existential threats. 

“(The fishermen) were part of the problem. Now they are part of the solution.”

Lefteris Arapakis

Arapakis is still thinking about places to expand. Kenya is the latest target, his first attempt beyond the Mediterranean. Next is the rest of Italy and Cyprus. Another target is Egypt, whose powerful Nile pumps a torrent of plastic into the Mediterranean.

The program will be able to have even more of an impact in places like Kenya, as it can pay fishermen more by gathering plastic than they could earn by fishing. That helps fish populations recover and brings in more plastic per fisher than in the Mediterranean.

Arapakis acknowledges that the cleanup effort is small compared to the scale of the challenge. But it is still a way to leave the sea a better place. “I cannot change the climate crisis. But I can change my father’s mind, and some of the others who work with him. And then we can expand to fishing communities around Greece, and then you can expand to Italy and the Mediterranean,” Arapakis said. “What you change grows.”11


  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2022/09/12/climatechange-stress-college-therapy-programs/
  2. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-andanalysis/articles/2020/07/23/breaking-the-plastic-wave-top-findings
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. While this is complex subject, the absence of a sufficiently “problem-focused” approach is typically seen when work-related problems become a focus of clinical attention.
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/30/plastics-wastesea-greek-fishermen-recycling
  7. through 11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climatesolutions/interactive/2022/plastic-pollution-greece-enaleia-lefterisarapakis/?itid=sf_climate-environment_climate-solutions_top-tabl

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