Where the enormity of the challenges facing the planet drags some into defeatism, it had the opposite effect on Andy Carman, galvanizing the Santa Cruz psychotherapist into action. “Andy, quit whining about what’s needed and what’s missing,” he told himself, and Environteers soon followed.
Community volunteering is often about helping people — mentoring teens, caring for seniors, feeding the less fortunate, etc. And who could possibly argue that it should be any other way?
But for many, the volunteering impulse is best satisfied by helping Mother Earth as a way to face down the all-consuming fatalism that seems to pervade the climate crisis and maybe to feel just a bit more connected to the only planet any of us have ever known.
For locals hoping to find something effective or meaningful to do to maintain the health of the environment, the first stop is Environteers, an online resource to help the ecologically minded find volunteer options to make a difference. The brainchild of Santa Cruz psychotherapist Andy Carman, Environteers also offers up opportunities for learning, with tours, lectures, presentations and exhibits, all about enlarging your perspective on the world. On top of that, it also serves as a kind of news source of relevant environmental information, with an emphasis on finding the silver linings among the immense dark clouds on the horizon.
Carman founded the site six years ago and continues to run it, with a lively weekly newsletter and constantly updated information on what’s happening in the environment.
The idea came to him after watching a film that focused on environmental themes with a like-minded group of activists and concerned citizens. Ironically, if the film galvanized him into action, it certainly didn’t seem to be intended to do that.
“The title was something like, ‘Keep Dancing Even Though the World is Going to Hell,’ you know, be active and don’t despair,” he told me as we walked along West Cliff Drive, near his Westside home, one bright December morning recently.
“But I’m sure the movie wasn’t designed that way. I mean, it was really depressing. It showed all these really well-known environmental leaders, and they were all just bummed. It was purposely filmed in a way that was not upbeat.”
After the film, everyone was devastated by the enormity of the situation as described in the movie. Carman was looking for ways to fight the defeatism that was filling the room and found nothing but obvious tips that amounted to what he called “lifestyle activism.”
The next morning, he woke and told himself, “Andy, quit whining about what’s needed and what’s missing. Do something about it.”
The result was the beginning of Environteers, which first corralled together in one place the several dozen environmental nonprofits and companies that were working in Santa Cruz County to find what each needed in terms of volunteer muscle. Since then, the site has offered prospective volunteers opportunities in direct action, from democracy work — letter-writing and petition-signing — to getting dirty — beach clean-ups and gardening chores, habitat restoration and trails maintenance. Environteers directs volunteers to a diversity of organizations from the Santa Cruz Bird Club to the Surfrider Foundation to Esperanza Community Farms to the Amah Mutsun Land Trust.
In his weekly newsletter that goes out to all subscribers, Carman culls the most relevant environmental news for Santa Cruz audiences, always with an eye to balancing out the dire news with the hopeful. His most recent newsletter, for example, included stories about the rebound of wild jaguars in North America, new local incentives to buy electric vehicles, and a former Superfund site that had been converted into a solar farm.
“I put the gnarly news first,” he said. “And then I’ll have three good-news articles. Things can be done and are being done. So, either gleefully or sometimes uncomfortably, I’ll tell people it’s the best environmental newsletter in the world … for Santa Cruz County. Of course, it’s the only environmental newsletter in Santa Cruz County.”
At 71, Carman, a licensed psychotherapist, is semiretired and sees only a limited number of clients. His free time is devoted not only to the care and upkeep of Environteers, but to participating in environmental action himself, in ocean ecology and reforestation, among other areas.
“He’s just relentless in his passion to help,” said Terry Grove, a friend and volunteer who helps out as Environteers’ “chief morale officer.”
“He lives the life. He’s just so frugal in his energy usage and he’s just one of those people who goes all out and just feels that this stuff is so important.”
A UC Berkeley grad who went on to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in counseling psychology, Carman dates his environmental concern back to 1980 when he moved back to California from Minnesota: “I started reading, like other people did, about Mono Lake and how it had been drained down to the point where the coyotes could go across the land bridge and eat every seagull chick.”
Carman’s two abiding interests — psychotherapy and environmental activism — seem to be two entirely different orientations to the world, the first primarily inner-focused and the latter almost exclusively concerned with the vast outer world. Indeed, he said, there is little overlap in the two realms. But volunteering in an environmental activity can be psychologically healthy for many striving to break certain patterns of self-centric thinking, to escape the “me bubble.”
“I don’t have to figure out why I feel so bad,” he said, “just participating in this activity, I’m freed up from all that.”
Environmental activism, of course, comes these days with a significant psychic component, the struggle to look beyond despair at a future many scientists say is likely to be tumultuous. Carman said that despair eventually leads nowhere.
“People who hear bad news, some of them are like, ‘Shoot, we’ve got to do something about this,’ and, for better or worse, get agitated. Others just get glum and others want to climb in a hole. I get agitated. It’s my makeup. It just happens to be who I am. I want to help. It doesn’t appeal to me to be retired and just read books at this point.”