Environmental activism is dread-inducing work—how do we cope?
By Leah Coppella
When I returned home from a protest earlier this year, I found myself in bed the entire next day. I was drained.
I felt conflicted—on one hand, I was inspired by my fellow activists’ dedication, but on the other, I was discouraged by the enormity of the challenge we were working to overcome.
A feeling of dread is inherent to many activists’ journeys, but this existential fear or worry is an issue that is intimately and particularly connected to environmental activists’ work.
Last year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, estimated that humanity is on its way toward total climate ruin. If we’re unable to keep global temperature change under 1.5 degrees, we’re looking at damage that is both irreversible and catastrophic in scale. The report also sparked important conversation about “eco-anxiety,” a term used to define the psychological impact of our changing climate.
Because in the context of climate change, the future is a dreadful thing to think about—so dreadful that many millennials are choosing not to have kids, both as a way to spare the earth another carbon footprint and because of what future generations might suffer through: cities being taken over by rising sea levels, food shortages, increasingly destructive natural disasters, and the ultimate possibility that the earth could become uninhabitable by humans. These are complex, to say the least, ideas to grapple with.
And to make matters more frustrating, far too few people are paying attention. Environmental policy and corporate sustainability practices are moving at what activists and experts see as dangerously slow rates. We only have 12 years to turn things around, a ticking clock that in itself is anxiety-inducing.
A report by Lancet Countdown, a research collaboration between academic and inter-governmental organizations says that environmental change has been linked to not only depression, anxiety, and pre-and-post traumatic stress, but increased drug and alcohol use. They predict the topic of mental health will be increasingly included in research such as climate vulnerability and impact assessments. The report also points out that “research in Canada has particularly contributed to the evolution of concepts such as “solastalgia,” explained as ‘feeling homesick when you’re still at home,’ ecological grief and eco-anxiety.”
Research has shown that what lies at the bottom of climate anxiety is existential dread. A study by the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA), showed that people who have habitual worries concerning climate change, “can be functioning quite well. They tend to have pro-environmental attitudes and engage in “pro-environmental behavior,” which could point to why our environmental activists are still pulling through. But it also points to the fact that climate activists are experiencing a particular type of anxiety that is different from other forms. It’s a never-ending and constantly lurking anxiety that looms over their work and down-time.
Thomas Sowell once said that “activism is a way for useless people to feel important.” But today, it seems that very important people are feeling more and more useless. Considering the mental health research into eco-anxiety as a whole, I’m surprised that the discussion concerning eco-activism, specifically, and a healthy head space is left out. After speaking with activists across Canada, it’s clear that that it’s a prominent issue, but is often neglected or even entirely disregarded.
Patricia Ballamingie, associate professor of environmental studies and human geography at Carleton University in Ottawa who teaches her students about ways they can engage in activism, works towards putting theory into practice and knows how all-consuming action can feel.
“I am often walking across campus with, ‘It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine,’ playing in my head. I do sometimes feel bummed about our prospects, but I try to live in the moment, and be grateful for the beauty that’s all around us,” Ballamingie says.
Despite this, she doesn’t believe it’s all downhill from here. She sees activism as an antidote to depression. Instead of neglecting her mental health due to the nature of her work, she actually thinks that this tough work reminds her to take care of herself. “Actually,” says Ballamingie, “I think working in this field forces me to take care of my mental health.”
In 2017, Tina Yeonju Oh, from Treaty 6 (Edmonton), made Canada’s Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25 list. Currently based in K’jipuktuk (Halifax) she works for young people everywhere as the interim coordinator for the Canadian Youth Delegation for United Nations climate negotiations, an unpaid position. As an organizer, she believes that her activist work is what also heals her. She’s also a committee member for Powershift Young & Rising, a youth movement that works to bring awareness to the climate crisis.
While her work attempts to give the environment a helping hand, she adds another pillar to it: “We don’t talk enough about how climate change exacerbates literally every social issue we face in society—like poverty, housing, food insecurity, et cetera. Caring for our communities by caring for the environment is harm reduction. It’s an attempt to lessen the impacts that disproportionately affect Indigenous peoples, the poor, and the marginalized. Maybe it is depressing, but at the end of the day, it’s about survival for the many. It’s work that needs to be done.”
While Oh knows the importance of this work, she also recognizes that it takes a toll on her mental health.
“Organizing for climate justice often means that our work is public-facing and under intense scrutiny. As a woman of colour, it means we’re on the frontline for violence like racism and misogyny. As an Asian woman, that often includes fetishization. This work requires tough skin—though it shouldn’t have to—and it definitely impacts my mental health in ways I am still learning,” Oh says. “It’s extremely anxiety-inducing, as a young person in this line of work, because we are the generation to shoulder this burden.”
Anne Frank once wrote of the fantastic power we have to change the world without “needing to wait a single moment.” Although true, this idea is anxiety-inducing in itself. To think that when you take a day off from campaigning, the world is continuing to burn is troubling, to say the least. But if you’re constantly working for a cause and neglecting your physical or mental health, you’ll end up with a bad case of burn-out. And the double-whammy that burn-out delivers is that it hurts you and your ability to get back up and continue working toward change.
A report by the American Psychological Association back in 2017 found that while using public transit, visiting green spaces, and utilizing clean energy can help minimize the anxiety due to climate change, thinking about our damaged climate can mean increased trauma, shock, PTSD, and even depression. Oh says that since the UN report on climate change, she’s noticed a major drain on her own mental health, including worsening anxiety and depression.
In fact, many people have admitted to feeling anxious about the climate since that report came out. Research is still being done on what exactly causes this anxiety, but it can vary from person to person. From a mother who worries about the world that her child will grow up in, to a man that has anxiety about the safety of his coastal house. In an activist sense, it could be the overwhelming thought that the state our world is in is so immediately needing attention. Or it could be that there is so much work to do in such a limited amount of time. This instills the feeling of hopelessness and, at times, apathy. A dangerous combination that hurts our planet even further.
Oh also suffers from constant burn-out. While working in unpaid organizing, she’s also a full-time graduate student, part-time teaching assistant and part time research assistant. This is the first time throughout her undergrad and graduate that she has held less than three jobs on top of climate justice organizing. This chronic stress can add up in big ways, such as insomnia and lack of concentration. Oh sometimes finds herself skipping meals in order to make conference calls or sacrificing sleep to get work done.
Oh argues that while neglecting her mental health is not exclusive to being activist, it does mean that those in activism require some level of self-discipline that translates to “being gentle with ourselves and others, and taking responsibility to ensure our health is in good shape in the long run.”
Oh also stresses that climate anxiety is not meant to be felt alone. And it’s definitely not an isolated issue. In fact, a study by the University of Texas School of Public Health in January of last year, found that 48 per cent of respondents in Harris County, displayed signs of distress who suffered damage to their homes due to Hurricane Harvey. It also found that the psychological impact of the climate disaster disproportionately affected women and Hispanics. They found serious psychological distress in 18 percent of all respondents.
“We’re in this together, and we need to get better at communicating and rejecting the loneliness we’re systemically told to feel in dealing with mental health issues,” Oh says.
Many activists agree that working with friends can help shoulder the burden. By making connections with similarly-minded people, and spending time in groups that hold the same values, we can build each other up, foster resilience and have faces to turn to when the going gets tough. There is hope in knowing that others feel the same way you do. We truly are all in this together, despite what burn-out may be telling us internally.
At the same time, though, Global Witness, a not-for-profit that campaigns for human rights and the environment, reported that 2017 was the deadliest year for environmental activists. The extensive report identified 197 land and environmental defenders that were murdered in 2017 alone.
It should come as no surprise to find out that many of us are feeling this drain. The world of activism is large and its impact reaches even further, but the jolt of even one unjust death is felt intensely. While being an activist is exhausting, these murders add to the weight in ways that are hard to articulate. Despite the concerns we have for the issue we’re fighting for (and all of the campaigning, writing, reading, researching, and fundraising that comes with the job of trying to raise awareness), losing one of our teammates, can make us feel a particular kind of loss that puts us in a state of inaction. The type that makes us throw up our hands and say, ‘What is all this for?’
There are also a few things that one can develop at an individual level in order to remain healthy as an activist: Build up your resilience. Take the time to indulge in no-work days. Surround yourself with people on your wavelength, people who energize and empathize with you. Be self-aware and know your limits. Respect them. Take breaks, and during them, do something that you love and that is not inherently connected to your work. Foster a sense of positivity in all aspects of your life, love, and work. Find a community that reinforces these and keep them close. Ballamingie and Oh are both gardeners. They find that seeking solace in nature can help ground them. Ballamingie likes to include meditation in her routine, and Oh works as a beekeeper.
What’s important to take away from these experiences isn’t that activism is useless, or endless work. And it’s not that it’s going to crank up your anxiety or depression, at least not indefinitely. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association says that by “participating in policy and advocacy efforts to combat climate change,” we not only allow ourselves to do meaningful work that feels good, but we also help the world prepare for future (and sadly, inevitable), disasters. This suggests that engaging in the very work that can take such a negative toll our mental health, can also be the thing that saves it.
So after you’ve walked that march, painted that banner, or created that petition, give yourself time to breathe. Know that we’re all doing this because we care about something that matters. Now is the time to take care of yourself. Trust me, the earth will like you better for it.
Leah Coppella is a freelance journalist and student at Carleton University. She divides her time between Toronto and Ottawa and writes about indie arts, feminism, and climate justice.