When the End of the World Is Your Day Job: Vacation Tips

July 17, 2015 | 10:37 am
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

I’m taking a mini vacation starting today—headed to the White Mountains for some hiking with my family and my dog. It’s going to be seriously relaxing. It has to be. Because when the end of the world is your day job, you better figure out how to chill the hell out on summer vacation.

Esquire recently published a story about people whose day jobs deal with the end of human civilization. I’m not going to challenge the despondency of that piece; my colleague has already done a solid job of that. I’ll just say I was reminded of a quote from Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel is explaining the design of their album cover: “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

But Esquire is still on to something, and I’m here to talk to my fellow end-of-days day-job people.

End of days can make a person testy

Trying to avoid the end of the world has been my day job for more than 15 years. There are other more soul-crushing occupations out there, no mistake, but when you have an end-of-days-day-job (let’s go with EDDJ), and you’ve been flat out for months, and your Zen veneer is wearing thin, things can go south fast. You know what I’m talking about, you bitter misanthrope. I’ve seen your bulging forehead veins as you hurl bad words out the window of your Nissan Leaf.

You, or possibly me, in need of vacation.

You, or possibly me, in need of vacation.

But I feel you. Vacation time.

Your vacations matter in a special way, EDDJ folks, and need to be managed accordingly. I say this because, for one, you go into them a hollow-eyed husk of a human and you come back from them more normal. Taking vacation is essential for you, and your taking vacation is essential for the people who have to put up with you. Other people being able to stand you is important to your happiness, longevity, career… so you see the virtuous cycle here.

It’s science: EDDJ people need vacations.

But not any vacation. You need RELAXING vacations. The kind of break that can gradually restore your basic civility and sound judgement, maybe even your good humor. And here we encounter a problem, because you don’t take the kind of vacations that most of your fellow Americans would find relaxing. Say, a cruise, or a flop at an all-inclusive resort.

No, nothing so simple. Sure, you hit the beach, but you also stroll old boardwalks, you visit barrier islands, you camp in forests and along rivers, you hike snow-capped peaks, you fish for trout, you bird watch, you see historic landmarks and heritage sites, you go in search of charismatic mega-fauna or fall foliage.

Your idea of vacation, in other words (and as the above links show), sends you right into the teeth of the climate mega-bummer just when you need to chill the most, and there you risk being chewed up and spat back into your EDDJ, completely unfit for human contact.

Identifying and avoiding your climate triggers

Here’s where I come in with some tips for having the kind of summer vacation you need. To maximize your vacation relaxation, we must identify and avoid your climate triggers.  Luckily for you, I’ve been testing these methods for the past decade. Tell your family from me, you’re welcome.

No strife, no stress. Maybe your vacation pulls you inexorably into contact with climate-rejecting friends and relations—the über-trigger. First, let’s review the definition of vacation.

va·ca·tion (vā-kā′shən, və-)

1. A period of time devoted to pleasure, rest, or relaxation, especially one with pay granted to an employee.

But for those with non-refundable rental deposits, let’s not see you menacing anyone with a bocce ball. There’s a better way. I offer my friend’s wisdom on playing nice with extended family. And I amend this wisdom with my own tip: citronella bark collars, for you and your adversaries; get the water-resistant ones for the pool; don’t take them off.

Let go, or be dragged. Chances are you’re a climate vigilante and a trigger for you is when people leave climate out of places it belongs. Like when, say, the commentator during your whale watch gives a long list of things that are threatening the marine food web, but leaves off climate change. Or when the Aquarium’s coral reef exhibit goes on about coral bleaching but never mentions rising water temperatures.

Surreal and frustrating, we get it. We’ve all been there, and some of us have made some bad choices our kids like to remind us of. But let’s agree to be more constructive going forward, which in turn enhances our level of relaxation. Have your friends or family call ahead and explain you to the whale watch people; spend more time at the touch tank next time; leave your Sharpies and your diamond-tipped etcher at home—accuracy enhancements are still vandalism. These are just suggestions, but they can keep a person out of jail, and most people find jail unrelaxing.

Location, location, location. A motel too close to the ocean is no good, for example. You’ll ask questions about elevation above mean higher-high water, flood prevention measures, repetitive losses and taxpayer bailouts, and the owners will put your name in a book in case you try to rent next year.

Don’t feel bad, all our names are in someone’s book, somewhere. But do make better choices. My rules of thumb for choosing where to vacation are to avoid anything semi-arid, equatorial, small island, alpine, deltaic, estuarine, anyplace actively burning, anywhere above latitude 60, anything to do with frogs, and stay out of the taiga.

Glacier National Park: No. Ozark National Scenic Riverways: Maybe Photos: Kim Keating/USGS (left);  National Park Service (right)

Glacier National Park: No. Ozark National Scenic Riverways: Maybe
Photos: Kim Keating/USGS (left); National Park Service (right)

Vacation dining. Most people like to eat out on vacation, and most people pick up a menu and see tasty options. You pick up a menu and see our dystopian descent: shrimp = ecosystem collapse; crab cakes = climate-assisted invasive species; a hamburger = methane + all that is wrong with the world.

I recommend making your own personal pocket dining guide and gifting it to everyone you might conceivably dine with. The invitations will taper off but you’ll have less explaining to do when you ask for dandelion greens and water, no straw.

Dialing back. If one of your triggers is the stunning beauty of nature, it’s pretty obvious that this is a place you should dial back. I’m not saying don’t picnic, hike, or camp. But when you hike, bring Sudoko, some balsa wood for carving, or maybe a small loom so you can stop and occupy yourself while the others continue on for the really breathtaking views. If you vacation in May when the warblers are passing through, singing their hearts out, reach for your noise-cancelling headphones. Busy yourself with food prep while others go to fish for the doomed, I mean, brook trout. It’s so simple, really.

My climate scientist friend just sent this photo of herself hiking in Peru. You can bet she’s wishing she’d remembered her loom. This one fits inside most day packs. Photos: Melanie Fitzpatrick (left); E&O Montessori (right)

My climate scientist friend just sent this photo of herself hiking in Peru. You can bet she’s wishing she’d remembered her loom. This one fits inside most day packs. Photos: Melanie Fitzpatrick (left); E&O Montessori (right)

Sit this one out. And if you’re just in a really dark place, and who hasn’t been, you might want to cut nature out altogether and consider the stay-cation. Crap out on the couch or hammock for a week with a stack of suitably neutral reading material. Which reminds me: EDDJ people should completely eliminate the following genres from their summer reading lists: science and nature (see above), travel guides (see above), cookbooks (see above), dystopian fiction (aka science-based future history), self-help (we already know what’s wrong with you, it’s called lack of a binding international climate agreement), and satire. Non-triggering alternatives are young adult and gardening.

This list is a starting place. You may have other triggers. Feel free to share them and we can work through this together.

Me with my son looking like he enjoys me, and a bonus wind turbine in the corner. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

Me with my son looking like he enjoys me, and a bonus wind turbine in the corner. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

Bring it all together for max chillax

I’m confident these tips will help you have a more relaxing vacation and allow family and friends to enjoy you more, too.

And that’s really the point. They need us to be able to shake it all off and we need to, as well, in order to do our jobs well. As Klara, the wife of Jason Box (the EDDJ scientist profiled by Esquire), put it: “I’d say climate change, and more broadly the whole host of environmental and social problems the world faces, does affect his psyche. He feels deeply about these issues, but he is a scientist and a very pragmatic, goal-oriented person. His style is not to lie awake at night worrying about them but to get up in the morning (or the middle of the night) and do something about it. I love the guy for it :)”.

To all you EDDJers, from my smote-black heart to yours, I love you for it, too. Have a good vacation.

Posted in: Climate Change

About the author

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Erika Spanger-Siegfried, the Director of Strategic Climate Analytics in the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, researches, writes and speaks about US climate change impacts and preparedness.