There’s No Place for Burnout in a Burning World

Climate activists can start to build a stronger culture of care by taking burnout seriously and understanding its root causes.

Editor’s Note: This is a lengthy discussion, but it contains perspectives and recommendations for any of us working with others to deal with climate change — or any of the current issues the world’s communities must face together.

By Charlie Wood

Students taking part in the School Strike 4 Climate in Cairns, Australia in September 2020 (Flickr/ School Strike 4 Climate)

By the age of 10, I was terrified about the state of the world. I wanted to quit school and volunteer for environmental and human rights groups. Instead, I distributed leaflets in my neighborhood and attended rallies with my dad. At 14, I watched “An Inconvenient Truth.” At 15, I read a National Geographic article about coal — how it planted cancer in people’s lungs, stole their breath, and polluted their water. This broke my heart and, in the midst of that brokenness, I devoted my life to stopping climate change. 

Fast forward a decade, and I’d had the privilege of working in several nonprofits, including co-founding one. Together, we have achieved a lot — mobilizing record numbers of people to the streets, pushing dozens of institutions to defund coal and gas, building hundreds of local groups, and empowering countless people to take action. But something was eating away at me. We were living through our worst bushfire season, and this was Australia — one of the most privileged nations on Earth. I knew that other countries, which had done the least to cause this crisis, were suffering far worse than us. 

As the fires raged through summer, I struggled to breathe. Home in Canberra for Christmas, the Air Quality Index soared to 7,500. (“Good” is anything below 66.) I had just worked another year of stupidly long days and couldn’t switch off. My mind was racing, my heart was pounding and my lungs were heaving. I couldn’t stop thinking about the burning. 

I would later learn that this was the culmination of a decade of overwork and stress. I had become the proverbial deer in the headlights, gripped by a global crisis that I felt powerless to stop. My mind was telling me I was fine, as my activism etched fear and stress into every cell, rewiring my brain into a state of perpetual fight or flight. 

Over the next six months, my health crashed and I struggled to work even 16 hours a week — a far cry from the 16 hour days I had maintained over the previous decade. At first, I was in denial that this was burnout. I had lived with a chronic illness most of my life. Surely this was a flare-up. But something about it felt more sinister, like my body was screaming at me to change the way I was working.

I also wondered if this was just me. I had a reputation as a workaholic. But as I spoke with colleagues, I noticed common themes arising — stress, over-work and fear — that were driving our activism. I noticed others grappling with complex health issues. I heard many staff and volunteers reflect upon how they struggled with burnout and climate grief. 

I had never taken burnout seriously. And, if I am honest, until recently, I don’t feel discussions in the climate movement treated it seriously enough either. Occasionally, we’d sit in a circle, talk about the climate crisis, name some emotions, discuss a checklist of “self-care” actions and then return to our work. Yet, the over-work, illness and perfectionism continued. Clearly our “solutions” weren’t working. 

As I pieced the conversations together with my own experience, I started noticing four battlegrounds emerging in our efforts to address the climate crisis. Doing so, helped me take burnout more seriously and, as a result, also think through ways we might reverse it.

Battleground #1: Activism as a way of avoiding pain and painful emotions 

This led me to wonder whether many of us are drawn to activism as a way to escape our fear about what is happening to the world. Fear was certainly a driver for me — fear of the world changing irreparably, lives and livelihoods being washed away by the flames and waves of climate change, species going extinct, ecosystems being destroyed forever. This fear drove me to work long hours and do things that my body could not sustain.

Of course, fear wasn’t the only motivating factor. So was a vision of a better world, hope, care and justice. But fear was always there, lingering like a long dark shadow, ready to kick me any time I thought about slowing down. 

I discovered many colleagues had similar experiences. Activism was an antidote to challenging emotions. It was an outlet for the desperate sadness that washed through us as we tried to confront the Earth’s trajectory. Without other strategies to process this pain, I could see how activism could lock us into a compulsive need to work more to soothe the distress.

Where were the spaces to address the painful emotions driving us to work so unhealthily? And why were these conversations so infrequent, the implicit message that you only needed them when you weren’t coping? In sectors that explicitly address human trauma, people are required to get professional support on a regular basis. In climate activism, we are working on one of the world’s greatest human tragedies yet seldom process how it impacts our own health and happiness.  

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So many of us enter activism at a young age, full of fear, guilt and shame about the world and with limited life experience. We throw ourselves into long hours of work in pursuit of huge goals and then, at some point, depending upon our resources, we crash. At this point, we might step away from activism for a while to “fix ourselves,” seeing our crash as a personal problem — rather than a cultural one. We try to push away the feelings of regret and failure so that we can focus on recovering our health. But, more often, we feel we are letting down everyone who is still out there battling. 

As a white middle-class activist, I am forever grappling with my privilege. As a child, the more I learned about people who were less fortunate than me, the more guilt I harbored. As a full-time activist, this evolved into over-work. I set myself massive task lists, expected myself to work stupid hours and felt guilty on days when I couldn’t keep going. “You’re not working hard enough” (guilt) morphed into “you’re a lazy person” (shame). 

It took physical breakdown to teach me that privilege doesn’t mean thrashing yourself. I’ve learned most about this from friends and colleagues who work in far more difficult contexts than I do — Aboriginal colleagues and friends from the Pacific Islands, Asia, Latin America and Africa. 

They’ve reminded me that using your privilege requires you to look after yourself, to face your inner turmoil. This is how we bring our best, most compassionate selves to our work. It took me a long time to realize that health and happiness are not privileges but rights. How deserving we are of these rights doesn’t depend upon how hard we work. We all deserve to be well and happy.

In white western cultures, we often have an unhealthy relationship with our emotions. We are taught that emotion distracts and deflects. Yet, in most cultures, when someone dies, people have ceremonies and rituals to mourn their passing. People hold each other in their grief. Our Earth is dying on a daily basis. Where are the spaces to cry and grieve together? 

Perhaps we are scared that if we express our emotions, they will overwhelm us? However, expressing emotion actually takes the intensity out of it. Shame loves silence. Fear prefers not to be spoken about. When we feel our feelings, we feel better and that helps us to be better agents for social change.

This is not to say that movements should become therapy clinics. But they also shouldn’t be anathema to emotion. Movements are based on relationships, which rely upon the healthy expression of emotion. 

Battleground #2: Activism as a way of battling time and controlling the future

We describe climate change as a crisis. A crisis requires calm, grounded minds, yet too often our approach to climate change is panic-driven. This compels us to work harder but never be satisfied. It sends us hurtling into the grips of perfectionism, breeding feelings of low self-worth.

When we are in crisis, it activates our fight or flight response — directing blood away from our gut, constricting our blood vessels, making our heart pump harder, dilating our pupils and flooding us with cortisol. In short bursts, this response is excellent at keeping us safe, but when we live like this chronically, we get sick.

Too many of us working on climate change live in perpetual fear of the future being a tragedy. This battle can deflect our attention from the opportunities we can seize now to build a better world. It can also push us towards quick results and short term plans. Thinking that a five-year, let alone 12-month, plan will turn around a crisis that has been caused by man-made systems of oppression — cemented over centuries and millennia — is not only misguided, it sets us up for constant failure. 

This culture is not easy to shift when you work in a sector whose existence depends upon philanthropic funding where donors need to see rapid results. You can’t say: “Wait and see how this turns out in a decade.” Instead, we are prone to set overly-ambitious plans, with highly quantitative metrics — rather than qualitative ones — that require a slower, more relational approach. Then we work ourselves into the ground trying to achieve them. 

Battleground #3: Activism as a battle with campaign opponents

There are a handful of people and corporations who are responsible for causing major harm in our world. They have amassed enormous amounts of power and money to block justice. Over time, as we witness more of their damaging behaviour, we can become so cynical that we may lose faith in people’s inherent goodness and come to see everyone as a potential opponent. 

In this state, it’s easy to slip into an us-and-them mindset which is the foundation of the polarization that is to blame for so many of the world’s problems. The idea that things are either “us or them,” “bad or good,” “right or left,” deflects energy away from the reality that the world is, in fact, deeply nuanced. A polarized world keeps us divided. It stops us from appreciating our common humanity and the paradoxical nature of the human experience. 

Albeit challenging, it is possible to both see the harm that someone is causing and acknowledge their inherent worth and capacity for change. This was at the heart of the Dalai Lama’s resilience as a prisoner. Through it all, he maintained unconditional positive regard for his Chinese captors.

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says of his work to understand the motivations behind conservatives and progressives:“The feeling of losing my anger was thrilling. When you get people to actually understand each other, and they let down their guard, and they learn something new, and they see humanity in someone that they disliked or hated or demonized before, that’s really thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the most important emotional tools we have to foster civility. Because once you get it started, it’s kind of addictive.”

Battleground #4: Our battle with each other — movement infighting and politics

When we are battling our emotions, time and campaign opponents, our sense of our own agency can become diminished. It’s no secret that progressives are great at tearing ourselves apart. When we are struggling to see fruits borne of many years of labor, we are more prone to point fingers. When we are so committed to an outcome, if we fail, conflict can bubble up in its place. 

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We are also less likely to have a healthy culture of feedback. Resentment and tension is allowed to build up and then explode. And when conflicts aren’t addressed properly, which they seldom are because most of us have limited skills in conflict transformation, people burn out and leave. 

The shift towards online activism hasn’t helped this. Online communication is often a petri dish for misunderstanding, creating the illusion of connection and community without the depth and trust of meaningful relationships.

It is this battleground that I find hardest to stomach. The issues we are trying to solve are hard enough without tearing each other down in the process. Perhaps, instead we need to take more time to recognize the significant challenges each of us face in doing this work, cultivate our compassion for one another, practice giving and receiving more constructive feedback, and build our skills in conflict transformation and nonviolent communication. 

While that won’t be easy — and I know I don’t have all the answers — here are some ideas that might help in getting started.

Pacific Islanders at the March 2019 school strike in Sydney Australia. (Flickr/School Strike for Climate)

Idea #1: Decolonizing and learning from First Nations cultures

The battle approach to climate activism seems to stem from a colonialist mindset — ironically the same mindset that brought us climate change.

First Nations people have a very different relationship to time than those of us who grew up in white western cultures. Time is seen as deep, stretching back far before humans existed and forward far beyond when we cease to exist here. Our mission then is to live in a way that cares for nature, knowing that the impacts of our actions may never be felt in our own lifetimes. 

This concept of time humbles our existence, recognizing that we live in a world whose drive to survive is far greater than any of us. It reminds us to interrogate the essence of what it means to be human. What legacy do we want our species to be remembered for? 

Another powerful tenet of First Nations wisdom is that all of us are connected. We are human manifestations of the earth. We came from the earth and will return to it when we die. This helps us realize the futility of the competitiveness and individualism that capitalism constantly breeds in us.

My hope is that, by taking the time to learn from First Nations cultures, we also reflect on how their treatment has permeated the culture we find ourselves in today. By respecting and following their wisdom, we can deepen our solidarity and support for First Nations people and sovereignty — which is a vital part of achieving climate justice. 

Idea #2: Welcome psychological trust and vulnerability into our teams

The most effective teams have a high level of psychological safety. That is, they are comfortable sharing their deepest fears and emotions with one another, and with making and owning their mistakes.

We need to get better at creating space in our work to share how we are feeling, to listen to and acknowledge others, to celebrate people and their contributions, talk about shared struggles and spend time with each other outside of activism. 

It is in these “in between” times that trust and deep connections form. This strengthens our work, enables us to have each others’ backs and helps dissolve fear, jealousy and hyper competitiveness — none of which serves our goal of building a more compassionate world.  

Idea #3: Actively encourage and support time for inner work 

The world’s most effective changemakers have all had to reconcile their inner turmoil. Everyone needs time and support outside of activism to process their pain and suffering. And we need infrastructure across movements where people can access this support — things like regenerative circles and mental health services designed for folks working on systemic injustice.

We need to find ways to remove the barriers for people to access this kind of support, acknowledging that much of it is beyond reach due to its cost or, in the case of subsidized services, hugely over-subscribed.

I would love to see us build a culture that encourages each of us to prioritize our emotional health as a lifelong journey — not as something that we only do when we burn out and not something we only justify in order to get us “back to work.”

Idea #4: Connect more with people and nature

There is only so much you can solve glued to a laptop all day. So much more gets dreamed up in conversation around campfires and kitchen tables. It is in these moments, where our bodies relax that our minds can run free and imagine solutions we had never considered before. To solve a crisis as complex as climate change, all of us will need to strengthen our capacity to dream.

Research shows that the humans who survived best were those who were most cooperative and friendly, not simply those who were the physically “fittest.” Capitalism has created the illusion that we can survive disconnected from one another and nature in concrete jungles climbing career ladders. However, the further we climb these ladders, the sadder and sicker we often become. 

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Unfortunately, I see activist spaces perpetuate this same illusion while pretending to be different. We work long hours. Many of us sit in offices in cities, fixed to our screens and struggle to get outdoors during the day. For years, I deluded myself that working more equaled achieving more. I stripped away anything that wasn’t core to my work. I decided not to start a family, so I could work more. But this made me miserable. 

To make the most meaningful contribution we can to the world, we have to look after ourselves. This is not compatible with working all the time. I am not sure it is compatible with working full time, though I note that this is a privilege not everyone can afford.

Idea #5 Engage with people you wouldn’t normally

As campaigners, when we have conversations with others, it is often driven by a predetermined outcome: to change their mind, get them to vote a certain way, sign-up to something, join a group or action. 

Clear action pathways are essential, but seldom do we simply sit and listen to folks’ hopes and fears. When people aren’t feeling pressure from us to think a certain way, when they feel respected and listened to, they are far more likely to respect and listen to what we have to say.  

And when we take the time to listen to others with different perspectives, we cultivate more compassion and open ourselves up to the nuance and paradox at the heart of human nature.

What if, on a regular basis, each of us set an intention to reach out to someone we’ve never thought to talk with before, put ourselves in situations where we meet people from different backgrounds, listened and got to know them, without an agenda? 

Creating a culture of care

I am grateful to my body for breaking me. I think it was the only thing that was going to slow me down enough to begin this journey of transformation that I will be on for the rest of my life. 

But I don’t want others to have to break to reach this point. I see too many activists, particularly young people, sacrifice their health and happiness for this work. The world loses its color, our bodies and minds become depleted, and we find it impossible to step off the activist treadmill to dream up new approaches to climate justice.

The good news is that the battlegrounds I’ve spoken about start in our minds. Enough minds set in a direction create a culture. We can turn this around, but it starts with giving each other the permission to look inside ourselves, do the work to process the pain and fear we are harboring, support one another to be vulnerable, and then step into the world with fresh eyes, new ideas for change and newfound compassion. Because, there is simply no place for burnout in a burning world.

Charlie Wood has spent the past 15 years working as a campaigner and organizer across the climate justice movement, helping to build the fossil fuel divestment, StopAdani and School Strike for Climate movements. Charlie currently works with and co-founded Tipping Point.

This article was published on August 29, 2022, at WagingNonviolence.

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