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Moving from exhaustion to motivation and empowerment

  • by JW

“Taking action can at least help with mental health.” [psychologists Fiona Charlson of the University of Queensland and Tara Crandon of QIMR Berghofer]


Generally speaking, as per advice from the NHS, the basic steps to mental wellbeing include getting active and connecting with other people.

Going from an individual set of actions to deal with anxiety and negativity, there is also collective action – whether as consumers or litigants, as members of the community or members of a football club, or as citizens or scientists.

A group of litigants came together, resulting in yesterday’s European court judgement which in turn provoked the question of whether governments have a duty to protect people from climate change.

A book just out from Ajay Singh Chaudhary also gets very political, looking at looks at The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics in a Burning World. Will de Freitas, energy and environment editor at The Conversation, critiques this latest polemic:

Morten Fibieger Byskov of Warwick University points out individuals are statistically blameless and that it is governments and industries that should take the lead. For him, focusing on how individuals can help is very convenient for corporations.

Even when people do take climate actions they are psychologically predisposed to take the easy option. That’s one conclusion of research by environmental scientists Alice Brock and Ian Williams from the University of Southampton, and is apparently the case even for people who are very well informed about climate change. Bock and Williams note that we might expect people who are well aware of the climate crisis – which presumably includes most Imagine readers – would opt for larger, more impactful behavioural changes.

But that’s not what they found when they asked a balanced panel of people which actions (from small tweaks to huge lifestyle changes) they would take to reduce their emissions: “Instead, we found that regardless of an individual’s stated environmental opinion and beliefs most opted for the easiest, but least impactful options. This goes against the oft-expressed view that all we need to do is explain just how bad the situation is and people will change.”

It does seem that taking action can at least help with mental health. In a piece looking at whether climate anxiety ought to be an official clinical diagnosis, psychologists Fiona Charlson of the University of Queensland and Tara Crandon of QIMR Berghofer highlight Australian data on experiencing “eco-anger”, which they say is “a key adaptive emotional driver of engagement with the climate crisis.” It’s not clear there is an objective answer to all this. Some will be motivated by rage, others by hope. What one person might find empowering, others will say is a dead end.

Tom Oliver, prof of applied ecology and also writing in The Conversation, critiqued the book – suggesting ways to move from exhaustion to empowerment:

Our current capitalist system certainly needs to be transformed, as even the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change increasingly asserts. Though, it is here that I’m less confident of Chaudhary’s approach. “My hope is that you recognize yourself along the extractive circuit, among the Exhausted ….. And that you pass your story of exhaustion onto others who will share theirs,” he writes.

To me, this framing may be self-defeating. Creating a sense of exhaustion can backfire and lead to less action on climate. Perhaps Chaudhary means to incite the anger of the mob. History shows this can be effective, but can also lead to replacement of one powerful elite with another, as communism and the French Revolution demonstrated.

If we are exhausted, as Chaudhary suggests, what are the narratives that enable regeneration? People often feel powerless asking “what can I do as an individual to tackle global climate change?” The knot in this question is in that word “individual”. My own book The Self Delusion describes how we are more than individuals. Our actions are contagious across social networks – every word and touch shapes the minds of those around us. Numerous findings in biology and neuroscience show how we are deeply connected to each other and with other species on this planet.

We are all in this together. This interconnectedness engenders a sense of both individual and collective responsibility as well as agency. We can move from exhaustion to motivation and empowerment to become a driving force for change by combining resources and transforming the systems we are part of. We can work together to ensure our households, local community and the other species around us are adapted to climate change. Rise up, energise others and work as a collective to address the climate crisis. Don’t feel exhausted.

To finish, though, here’s another viewpoint in The Conversation from Steve Westlake of Cardiff University, saying, when it comes to climate change, that, yes, your individual action does make a difference