2021 has been a difficult year. Not only are we still coming to terms with the new reality of living in a pandemic, but this year has also seen many environmental and social justice struggles, complicated by our limited ability to organise in person. From a new oil field in the UK, the destruction of Indigenous lands in Minnesota, the longest heated oil pipeline in the world in East Africa, to the criminalisation of protest: governments around the world have taken advantage of the pandemic to push through vicious attacks on our human rights to a healthy environment, protest, and physical integrity.
Many will recognise the exhaustion I’m feeling as this year nears its end, and appreciate the slower pace of the festive period, a welcome occasion to step back from our stressful and often frantic lives as campaigners. Since I started this work, I have been an advocate for mental health awareness and regenerative cultures – not least because I myself experienced burn-out, which took me out of action for almost six months.
The winter months are a good time to practice habits which will enable us to carry out our campaigning work in a more sustainable way, and to remember that the fight for climate justice is a marathon, not a sprint. While my activism is largely focused around environmental issues, the following advice should be adaptable for anyone dedicating a large proportion of their life towards campaigning.
Acknowledge difficult emotions and use them as tools
Many activists regularly experience a range of difficult emotions, including fear, guilt, anxiety, grief and existential dread. It can be easy to succumb to those feelings and reinforce them by seeking out and sharing negative news stories – or bottle up your emotions and “deal with them another time”. Suppressing negative feelings can lead to dysfunctional coping mechanisms and avoidance behaviours. Often, people engage in a fight or flight response – doing activism during every waking minute, or avoiding difficult topics due to overwhelm. Ultimately, such a response can lead to burnout and ill mental health. In extreme cases, our inability to deal with negative feelings can even lead to climate denial or eco-nihilism – the belief that the world is already beyond saving.
In western cultures, rationality is prioritised over feeling – but observing our emotions does, in fact, make us act more rationally. By practicing mindfulness, we can use difficult emotions as tools to guide our journey and make our activism more sustainable. We can battle our existential fear most effectively by acknowledging both negative feelings and appreciating the beauty we do have in our lives. For me, I find that beauty in long forest walks, swimming in the sea, and spending time with loved ones.
We see a lot of resistance to joy in activist spaces – there was a point where I was so immersed into campaigning that I would feel guilty when spending time with friends. While we need to reclaim that joy and see it as an essential part of our work, seeing happiness as the ultimate goal of our emotional work feeds into unrealistic binaries which do not represent reality. Rather, we need to learn to see the world in its entirety and acknowledge all the different facets that make up our lived experience. As Sarah Jaquette Ray writes in A field guide to climate anxiety,
“The opposite of suffering is not happiness; it’s compassionate acceptance of negative feelings.”
Do not feed the eco-doomists
Activism is often framed in terms of individual sacrifice – in climate spaces, this is often centered around consumer behaviour and putting long hours into campaigning, often accompanied by persistent feelings of guilt. Such a narrow view disregards the broader systemic scope of the problem and feeds into feelings of powerlessness and doomism. Approximately 80% of environmental news is framed negatively – a dangerous statistic as humans have evolved to seek out negative information as a survival instinct. Following the last IPCC report, doomist messaging was highly concentrated in the media, possibly with the aim of conveying the urgency of the climate emergency. But what such messaging does is create feelings of overwhelm, which can lead to “eco-paralysis” and an inability to act.
Research from the University of Bath has shown that 74% of young people think that the future is terrifying and that the majority feel hopeless and powerless. Those findings are highly concerning, and the prevalence of doomism in future generations does not bode well for our democracy. There is an urgent need to reframe our activism as a practice of abundance and wellbeing – to move towards a “politics of desire” in which we live the world we want to see through our advocacy. Nearly half of our global youth is affected by climate anxiety in their daily lives – highlighting the urgent need for support networks in environmental spaces.
Recognise that rest is also resistance
Our unwillingness to prioritise rest in activist spaces is often an extension of the individualist structures we are aiming to dismantle. The reality is that the work will continue when we rest – it did not start with us and it will not end with us. Our movements do not benefit from martyrs – on the contrary, by relying too much on individuals they become more vulnerable. In order to create the changes we want to see in the world, our advocacy must be extended to the self – only by actively practicing regenerative cultures can we dismantle the oppressive structures which deny them on a systemic level.
“Interior work is not just useful for sustaining the external work, it is the greatest form of resistance to the unjust structures we seek to change. If the effort to thrive undermines our ability to thrive, we are serving our own oppression.”
Sarah Jaquette Ray, A field guide to climate anxiety
Building a healthier relationship with social media must be part of our efforts to cultivate regenerative cultures. Invest time in developing a “media diet” which is suited to your needs and temptations. If you find yourself falling into confirmation bias and seeking out negative information, actively introduce solutions-oriented sources into your reading. If you neglect your commitments and spare time activities because you have been glued to the phone for hours, take measures to limit your screen time by putting your phone away, setting reminders, or introducing social media-free days.
Lastly, allocate time for being in nature. Research has found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in natural spaces – this can include an urban park or allotment – has significant effects on wellbeing and mood. Those benefits are even more powerful when we actively move our body in nature – swimming, walking, gardening, and meditating in nature all do wonders for our mental health. Not surprisingly, people who spend time in natural spaces tend to show more pro-environmental behaviours, and those who grew up with a close connection to nature are more likely to seek out environmental careers or become activists later in life. Nature both teaches and replenishes us – seek out whatever green space you have available to you.
Find your community to build resilience
Many of us alternate between the binary of self-care and care for others – but in reality, the two are closely entwined. My own research with climate activists have shown that those suffering from environmental grief and other mental health issues arising from the climate crisis start to overcome despair and cultivate hope once they start engaging with a community. That can be their local campaign group, grief circles, or a digital community – sharing experiences is central to cultivating resilience and developing healthy coping strategies.
In my research, I also found that community (re-)ignites something many of us lose on our path, at one point or another: hope. Realising that one is not alone in caring about environmental and social justice issues and seeing that care in action is incredibly empowering. This is especially true when the outcomes of our work are visible: A few years ago, I joined activist groups in occupying an open cast coal mine in Durham, whose expansion plans were scrapped shortly after. Only this year, the Cambo oil field was halted after sustained pressure from environmental groups. But it is also important to realise that the results of our actions will not always be immediately visible, especially if we are pushing for wider long-term social change.
“If you expect to see the final results of your work you simply have not asked a big enough question.”
Hope, therefore, is something we need to engage in as a practice – not a tick box exercise like taking your vitamins in the morning, but a thread running through our very identity as changemakers. Our actions should be oriented around hope; so should our campaign messages, recruitment tactics, and media presence. Hope is infinitely more inspiring than fear; and by moving towards activist cultures which are centered around hope and wellbeing, we could mobilise the masses to join the fight for a better future.