Activism, Apathy, and the Antidote to Burnout (Or, A Healthy Dose of Feel-Good-ism)

I’ve been mulling over some of the things we talked about in that interview I did earlier this month. The one that’s really standing out to me right now is burnout in activism, whether that’s environmentalism or human rights or spiritual freedom. Let’s focus on environmentalism in specific, just for simplicity’s sake.

The prevailing theme in environmental activism for the past several decades has been one of urgency, bordering (or crossing over into) doom and gloom. How much of ecological rhetoric is based on “This thing is horribly wrong, and if we don’t fix it WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE”? I don’t have exact statistics, but I’m on the mailing list of a number of environmental groups, and I try to keep tabs on ecological topics in the news. Most of what I see in my inbox and the headlines is negative, problem-focused.

There’s good reason for this: we do face some pretty serious challenges environmentally speaking. From pollution in the water, land and air, to the endangerment and extinction of species due to habitat loss and other factors, to climate change brought on by carbon production–each of these is a massive, complex problem incorporating many smaller, still serious problems, and there are no easy solutions. So it’s certainly not all sunshine and bunnies on the environmental front.

The media is another really significant contributor to this phenomenon. The fact is, bad news sells. So the headlines in the papers, on the nightly news, and on the news sites online tend toward the negative (and even the sensational). This includes news about the environment and our effects on it; when’s the last time you saw a front page headline about advances in solar power or the creation of a national park (did you know we got our newest national park just this year?) Most of what we get is pushed further back in the paper or lower down the page, and it’s usually bad news. So we get a constant stream of primarily negative messages from the media making us feel even worse about the situation.

Consider that this has been the prevailing theme of environmentalism for the past four decades. Individually and socially it gets really exhausting hearing bad news all the time, and when we don’t have good news to balance it out, we can start to feel hopeless, like nothing we do matters. It’s not that people don’t care about the environment; many people have varied concerns related to ecological issues (whether they label them as such or not). But when you feel like you’re facing the problem of “a billion cars in the world, all contributing to air pollution and climate change” or “poachers in countries on the other side of the world killed the last Western black rhinos” what do you feel you can do? Apathy starts to seem like a refuge from all the pain and grief over constant environmental losses.

Well, here’s the point where I yell “HEY, KNOCK IT OFF!!!!” at the media, and the doomsayers, and their ilk.

You’re perfectly validated in being upset and sad and angry and having all sorts of other feelings about ecological destruction in its many forms. And we shouldn’t stop pointing out the issues that need addressing. But for pity’s sake, can we amp up the positive news and feel-goodness some?

No, really. I mean it. We need more fluffy, kind-hearted, bring-on-the-light reminders that things aren’t 100% horrible. They’re not just Band-aids that make people feel good about, for example, recycling their aluminum cans. I mean, yes, okay, there are low-pressure environmental efforts that go no further than encourage people to do lightweight things like recycle or take public transit more or eat one meat-free diet per week, and to an extent they are only meant to help people feel good about taking that small action. But there’s nothing wrong with that! Making people feel good is a great plan!

Why? Well, for one thing, a lot of people respond better to positive ideas than negative ones. We need good news, especially at a time when we are bombarded with so much bad news. Good news keeps us motivated and engaged. We need opportunities to celebrate even the smallest victories, an important part of activism on any scale.

Also, praise goes over better than punishment. Yelling at someone and telling them what they’re doing wrong is more likely to make them resentful and defensive, and we’ve had a lot of yelling the past few decades. On the other hand, if you tell people what they’re doing right, it’s more likely to encourage them to keep up that behavior and potentially adopt other eco-friendly choices.

This means that instead of being problem-focused, we need to start being more solution-focused. Don’t just tell people what’s wrong–give them clear strategies for making the problem better. Use the constructive criticism sandwich: start off with a victory, then bring up a related problem, and follow up with constructive ways your audience can address that problem.

Make the solutions accessible, too–not everyone can convert to solar, for example, but their utility company might offer a green option, or they can find ways to cut down on household energy use. Be open to the possibility that not every proposed solution will work for every person, or that someone might not agree with you on the efficacy of a given solution even if they agree with you otherwise. Remember that you’re working for a common goal, even if the way by which you each do it may be different.

Now, as I’m writing this, I’m hearing in my head the voices of several cynical activists I’ve met in person or online over the years. “These people aren’t doing enough!” they’d say. “They’re just recycling because it makes them feel good, they don’t really care about the Earth, and [insert rant about a dozen other, often more complicated or inconvenient things they think people should be doing but aren’t]. WE NEED REAL CHANGE!!! We have to TELL THEM WHAT THEY’RE DOING WRONG BECAUSE IT’S URGENT!!!” and then proceed to yell about it to anyone they think is the problem. However, the number of people who respond favorably to this sort of aggressive activism is a lot smaller than the number of people who don’t.

Part of what we activists need to do is to accept that we can’t control other people and let go of the idea that we must make them behave a certain way. Let’s say I have (just throwing hypothetical numbers out there) ten people who have listened to me talk aboutrecycling. Let’s say maybe half of them do start recycling, and then the other half go back to their usual ways. But let’s say one of those ten not only recycles carefully, but also is inspired to find out other ways to reduce waste in their home, like making sure they use food before it goes bad, and then goes on to try other sustainable efforts which help them make a bigger positive impact.

But that one person has to come to that decision themselves. If I try too hard to make others do what I want them to, they’ll turn away and stop listening. If I insist that my way is the only way and they have no room to disagree or find their own solution, the result is the same. A person has to have their free will emphasized if they’re going to feel that the decision they make is truly theirs. And if they do indeed feel they made a personally empowered decision, then it’s more likely to stick and perhaps inspire them to try more if they’re so inclined. 

That’s why I feel it’s important to leave people feeling empowered as well as energized and enthusiastic about activism. It does involve some feel-good-ism. And it does need to be balanced out with some of the harder realities; if all you’re doing is some ego-stroking, you’re not going to give people goals to work toward. But we’ve spent so much time erring on the side of serious doom and gloom that I think we can afford to go a little overboard on the positives with a healthy dose of feel-good-ism.

So since I’ve been talking about making more positive themes in environmental discourse, and in giving people some concrete solutions to work with, here are a few suggestions lifted from a more rough draft of these ideas I posted on Tumblr a little while ago:

—Model good behavior. People are creatures of imitation. In the worst cases this turns out social pressure to act in negative ways, but you can also use the tendency to imitate in good ways. And it’s not just “monkey see, monkey do”. When I started gardening a few years ago, I had some friends give it a try as well, because if I could do it, hey, why couldn’t they? 

—Support the victories. Too often the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism is one of doom and gloom and panic. Being informed is crucial, but after a while all the bad news can wear down on even the most dedicated of activists. Part of the problem, too, is that the media tends to focus only on the worst possible spin as a way to get attention and sales; good news simply doesn’t make money. But it IS crucial when keeping people engaged in making the world a better place. So when an environmental org puts out an article on something they (we) managed to accomplish, spread the word!

—Make use of the constructive criticism sandwich. Studies show that if you praise someone and then criticize them, they’ll only remember the criticism—and again, not everyone responds favorably if they feel they’ve screwed up. So round out the constructive crit with another positive which can help give them the energy to go out and improve the thing you were critiquing.

4 thoughts on “Activism, Apathy, and the Antidote to Burnout (Or, A Healthy Dose of Feel-Good-ism)

  1. I agree that we are bombarded with so many “we’re doomed” messages, people have become more apathetic. Teenagers today don’t in general see any reason to try. The good news I look for is in the people who are building the infrastructure to help humans and other than humans survive the incredibly harsh reality. Permaculturists, both types of rewilders, biomimicry, upcycling, seed savers, Bioneers, traditional indigenous technology, etc. Hopelessness is not a good motivation. LOL! I am into solutionaries. They tend to be doing not writing, more practical than theory, in general, they are wired that way. (You can do both, but that’s rare.) Solutionaries make me feel hope and EXCITEMENT. Yeah, a lot of death is happening and will continue however a lot of creativity comes from that. Our culture brainwashes people into thinking they cannot do anything,that they are not good at so many things, stealing away their contribution to the excitement. I do believe every human here has something to offer in the Great Turning. The diversity of skills is needed! I was thinking about this lying in bed in pain and thought of people I know.You were one. You have a skill to sell ideas and yourself, to market to the more mainstream, to meet people where they are, not where you are or where you want them to be.You can unobtrusively sneak ideas into people’s minds gently. Ecotherapy gets your clients to be aware of and value nature. I suck at that stuff. I need to be with radicals pushing the limits, the cutting edge, the trailblazers. I have NO diplomacy skills but the nice thing is I don’t have to be good at everything for everyone. It’s why we have diversity! We need as many different types of voices as possible to reach the widest audience. I dig to find dissertations on solutionary stuff, not much is available in the mainstream. It’s not just that bad news sells; keeping a population convinced it is powerless/valueless makes it much easier to maintain the status quo. I wish nonprofits knew this. It’s easier to give money to a group that tells me its victories (American Anti-Vivisection does that very well) than a group that just tells me about what sounds like an impossible situation. I won’t throw time and money at a black hole. I will support people who can tell me some feel success stories. Humans want to join winning teams. The marketing nonprofits and activists do goes against stuff any 101 advertizing book says or 101 psychology. Today we all know the problems and we tend to try to drown them out to keep our sanity. I miss pre-Internet days. I only knew a few atrocious things in the world, met with people to do our Amnesty International letters, gave money to friends working in Nicaragua, bought fair trade chocolate and coffee and had rather narrow idealistic ideas about what living cruelty free meant. Now I am FLOODED with end of the world news -and I watch, listen to nor read any media. For burn out I suggest work local, work on obtainable goals, don’t get obsessed with the Big PIcture. Focusing on ending racism doesn’t have a discernible goal of Are we there yet? Big fuzzy goals are overwhelming and never are won at least in our lifetime. Focusing on what you are for is way better in the long term than what you are against. Anger makes a short lived fuel, love can carry you. And have activist support groups. My two cents.

  2. I don’t know if this is allowable, but when I look for positive environmental/ social justice news I read _Yes_ magazine. I’m not connected to them in any way, other than as a subscriber but their magazine is all about people who find creative solutions to make the planet better. It’s a bright spot in my similar inbox of negativity.

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