Climate Connections: The essential climate work of leaning on each other
As winter abruptly announces herself, I find myself frustrated by my waning energy. I never look forward to winter - the bitter cold, the icy paths, and the seemingly unending darkness leave me feeling drained and unmotivated.
Recently, however, I’ve been remembering the words a friend once shared to me about the beauty of the seasonal shift: That winter is naturally a time to reflect and slow down, and if we lean into it rather than fighting it, this time to rest can be healing.
I wonder: can we allow this cue to rest and reflect to bleed into the sphere of climate action?
Climate change is inherently urgent, and it threatens every aspect of our very existence. It is all-encompassing. In my experience working on climate for nearly a decade, many of the people who enter this field are filled with a passion that drives them to pour their entire heart and soul - every single part of themselves - into the work.
In the climate space, setting and keeping boundaries is challenging - working beyond our contracted hours or working for free; being pulled away from our lives to address an urgent action/policy/analysis; stretching ourselves so thin we feel like we may snap. “Saving the world” justifies a bit of self-sacrifice, right?
I’ve seen too many amazing colleagues and friends burn out from this work. I used to attribute the burnout to a lack of passion - I thought they must just not care enough to accept the personal sacrifice that this work requires. I never thought to question the personal sacrifice itself, or to challenge its necessity.
But now, the challenge of avoiding burnout is personal. I am the mother of an active, strong-willed 2-year-old. I am also 16 weeks pregnant. And I am TIRED.
My mind is usually still in climate-mode even after I clock out for the day. Did I comment on that bill? Did I reach out to the energy auditor? Did I schedule a solar consult? Did I research that heat pump? Not to mention the criticisms I hurl at myself: You are wasting too much food. Your showers are too long. You’re really driving to the store? Stop using so much plastic. And on and on - on top of all the typical worries, criticisms, and to-do lists of motherhood.
Perhaps burnout is caused not by a lack or loss of passion, but by a lack of community support. And by a culture that does not value or create space for rest.
And perhaps the assumption that working on climate must take over every facet of our lives also creates barriers for more people to take action in the first place.
I am no expert on avoiding burnout, nor on mental health, and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers. Instead, what I have are questions. And passing along the wisdom of others.
“Somatics and social change is micro. It's relational. It happens between interactions and with bodies and people. And so what happens with activists, especially if they’re just jumping into action or really in the flow of martyrdom and urgency, is that then they start to replicate the very systems that they want to push against. If we really are trying to move towards liberation and justice and a true transition, we need to be practicing it in ourselves. We need to feel what it's like to have that world…How the heck can we go towards something and build it if we don't know what it feels like?”
What would a climate movement centered on radical rest and personal resilience look like? How can we emulate the world we want in the very work we are doing to build that world? What cues can we take from the more-than-human world and her cycles of birth, death, and regeneration? How can we structure our workplaces and volunteer groups to normalize and prioritize resilience?
These are the questions I am drawn to, especially as a mother who wants even more opportunities and better circumstances for my children than I had. I am also drawn to these questions as an observer of the youth climate movement, who has been privileged to witness young people’s passion, drive, and emotion at events such as the Youth Climate Summit in Livingston earlier this month and the 16 youth plaintiffs in the Held v. State of MT case.
Though I am moved by their tenacity, I am concerned that if we do not model a better way of working - one that centers relationships, builds community, and focuses on resilience - then we will burn out both ourselves and the next generation before solutions are reached.
Though there are many things folks can - and should! - do at an individual level to check in, rest, and recharge (check out these resources from Climate Mental Health Network as a start; their Climate Emotions Wheel is a great place to start), these changes need to happen at a larger scale. We need to bring these conversations to our networks, workplaces, and communities. We need to tend to and deepen our relationships with each other and with the more-than-human world so that we can lean on each other when one of us needs to take a step back.
Let's take a cue from the change of seasons to focus on teaching ourselves and our children that taking a step back is not a failure, and it doesn’t mean you don’t care. On the contrary, it means you care enough to ensure that you are able to bring your best self to this important work. And that you care enough to model radical resilience and seeking community in a world in such desperate need of care, compassion, and connection.
Sarah Lundquist is the Communications Director for Families for a Livable Climate, an organization that centers relationships in our work toward a livable future for all. Learn more and join us at livableclimate.org. Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you two Fridays of every month. Learn more about our work and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.