Hope and Burnout in the Anthropocene
To build a lasting movement for climate justice, activists must decouple hope from victory and confront their fatigue head-on
Between May 3 and May 16, thousands of people gathered in 20 acts of civil disobedience spanning 6 continents, to protest society’s continued reliance on fossil fuels. Dubbing their collective action “Break Free 2016,” they placed themselves in the paths of oil trains, coal ships and mining equipment, in an effort to convince those in power of the urgency of action on climate change.
But now, a week later, business has returned to normal. Fossil fuels are flowing. April was the hottest April on record, making it the seventh consecutive month of new highs. Activists have returned to their homes, and I know how quickly they may feel their triumph fading.
"As activists, it is important to remember that we have named this a crisis, and that we did so because we intended to solve it. We chose this work out of love and terror and urgency, and those emotions are the source both of our fatigue and our will to act."
For the past 8 months, I’ve been cycling through Asia on the first leg of a world tour to collect stories of climate change. I’ve met activists and artists, NGO workers and electric car salespeople, but I haven’t heard a single climate story that wasn’t marked in some way by weariness and frustration.
I’ve been with activists in the wake of major actions. I’ve been one myself. And I know that now, as the nerves dissipate and the long, wakeful nights become memory, many of the Break Free protesters will be feeling weary and low.
“Burnout,” or exhaustion caused by extended periods of stress, is a rising concern among contemporary activist communities. The term helps us explain our fatigue as we confront the enormity of climate change and the extremes of despondency and hope that surround it. At times, it also justifies our eventual need to “step back” from activist work.
We who suffer from burnout often look outward first. We lament the complexity of climate change, how it’s just far enough removed from its consequences to make urgency difficult. We wonder how our communities will be harried by new and worsening climate hazards as the century wears on, and know that our work will only get harder. If only they’d listen, we think.
But while the objects of our activism hold some of the responsibility for our burnout, they don’t have much in the way of answers. Easy problems don’t demand social movements. So next we look inwards. We wish we were stronger; we convince ourselves that we just need a little rest or distraction or self-care, and that we’ll be able to soldier on tomorrow.
Sometimes the arrival of the next day is enough to get us going again, but it’s rarely sufficient to sustain activism over a period of years, and many of us step away from justice work without considering the mode of our activism as a culprit in our burnout.
Like many of its predecessors, the climate movement relies heavily on urgency as a tool for galvanizing action. Break Free’s website includes the word “now” 3 times in its 8-sentence introduction. Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben have made their names popularizing the idea that climate change is an existential threat to humanity that demands immediate and decisive action. Our hopes rest on drastic change to our society, they argue, and a mobilization of industry unlike anything we’ve seen since World War II. Now.
Certainly, the argument for robust climate action grows stronger by the day, with a recent World Bank report estimating that worsening climate hazards will put 1.3 billion people and assets worth $158 trillion at risk by 2050.
But narratives built on urgency are hardly the foundation of a sustainable movement. We cannot live in constant fear and crisis. Moreover, with our hopes so intricately linked to our victory and any non-immediate victory defined as annihilation, burnout becomes inevitable.
A bright and reaching hope is not sufficient for our challenges. But stable hope in the era of a human-altered climate is not as difficult as it may seem. In the face of this creeping, uncertain crisis, we must place our hope in the victories of everyday people, in our varied paths to justice, and in the future’s uncertainty. In doing so, we guard against worsening forecasts and the emotional weight of our own setbacks, and we turn our focus to the power of individuals and communities. There will still be moments and causes where aspirational hope rules, but it will be a quieter hope that holds constant through storms and drought and long nights.
In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes “We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.”
As activists, it is important to remember that we have named this a crisis, and that we did so because we intended to solve it. We chose this work out of love and terror and urgency, and those emotions are the source both of our fatigue and our will to act.
As activists, we cannot shrink from news that fatigues us or distract ourselves from exhaustion. In doing so, we shy away from the very center of our activism: the urge for justice and understanding in an unjust world. Instead, we must sit with this danger, try to love it, and to build the foundations for a softer and more uncertain hope.
And finally, as the Break Free protesters return to their everyday lives, we cannot say that any of them who take the time to understand their fatigue is “stepping away” from activism. That is activism, because a deep understanding of the obstacles we face is just as vital to our work as being heard.