“Ecological grief” and burnout: when climate activists need a break

Alicia Richins describes herself as a jack-of-all-trades in the climate justice movement. And she’s busy. When not working with companies on environmental sustainability goals, Richins volunteers with youth and consults on the side. When the future looks bleak or the latest climate report comes out, Richins dedicates herself deeper to work, a habit she knows isn’t healthy.

“If we don’t rest, we’ll all burn out and give up, or literally get sick and die,” she says. “It’s a long game.”

She is not alone in her worries.

Faced with overlapping crises in an irreversibly changing world, many people deal with anxiety and grief. These feelings are amplified for activists and organizers who are relentlessly fighting the global climate crisis. In Canada, a country that hasn’t met every emission reduction target ever set, there is no rest for those trying to save our future.

One of the keys to healing and recovery is time spent in nature, the very place they are trying to protect. A national, youth-led nonprofit is giving five young activists, including Richins, time off this summer from worrying about work.

Shake Up The Establishment (SUTE) is piloting the 3R Fellowship Program in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area from May to August. The idea for the program – and its name – is the group’s take on the 3Rs that most people learned about recycling in childhood, but reworked to invest in local changemakers through rest, recuperation and resistance. The five fellows selected for 2022 have contributed to their communities with impacts beyond the realm of climate justice.

“It’s a really cool way to think about a sustained movement for environmentalism and not just individual actions for a systemic issue,” says Manvi Bhalla, president of SUTE. Bhalla is also a PhD student at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

With an academic career in health, Bhalla’s area of ​​doctoral study at UBC integrates different ways of living into environmental decision-making, ensuring that no community is left behind. In her role as president of SUTE, Bhalla is one of 11 women and people of diverse gender identities holding a dozen leadership positions, 50% of which are non-white. They speak 11 languages ​​combined and are all under 35.

SUTE strives to equip young people with tools to be informed about voting, advocacy practices and how to seek political accountability on issues affected by the climate crisis. When it comes to post-pandemic activism, the 3Rs program could serve as a model for young people in the GTHA.

Fellows co-design the program, which will evolve over the summer. Each week, five hours will be dedicated to educational programming, time for fellows to engage with each other and hear from activists, scholars and experts on topics such as decolonizing mental health and the importance of access to the outdoors.

“I feel like I’m throwing a surprise birthday party, in the best way possible,” Bhalla says. “We chose five spectacular individuals who have expressed a need and a desire to engage in our program because there is something they can benefit from,” says Bhalla. “We just try to make it the best experience for them.”

SUTE is the recipient of a 2022 grant from outdoor apparel company Patagonia, which funds local nonprofit initiatives where its retail stores are located. With funding from the Toronto location, SUTE will pay fellows an honorarium and cover their costs this summer. The payments are intended to ease the financial burden of making rest a priority.

“They do the most work educating others and they will continue to do that unless we give them a break because no one else is giving them a break,” Bhalla says. “How can you continue to help a systemic problem if you are exhausted by both that problem and other systems of oppression?”

Rest is a form of self-care and for marginalized groups it can be an opportunity to slow down, Bhalla says. To recharge and reconnect physically to the earth, the 3R program has made nature a central point of rest.

To remove barriers to nature access in the GTHA, SUTE plans outdoor excursions for fellows. They’ll be exploring Ontario this summer hiking, kayaking and learning to forage, and they’ve already booked a bigger adventure: a canoe portage trip in Algonquin Park.

Richins has never been to the Muskoka region or Manitoulin Island and suggested both as places to visit this summer.

Born in Toronto and raised in Trinidad, Richins returned to Canada as a teenager. The travels exposed Richins at a young age to global inequalities.

Navigating Canada as a dual citizen and hoping to get a sense of the world, Richins studied economics and social sciences at York University and holds a master’s degree in environmental studies. She joined the board of the York University Black Student Alliance, an experience of activism that she says highlighted her own class privileges, but proved exhausting. Racialized people in social justice movements spend a lot of time educating and sharing their experiences, which ends up exacerbating their burnout.

“The level of emotional labor, the level of feeling like your life is on the line, that’s a lot to take on,” she says. “It’s that feeling that you constantly have to translate, even if you speak very clearly,” she says.

Now Richins works for a nonprofit organization setting standards for measuring social impact and sustainability. Using the United Nations Sustainable Development Framework as a guide, she offers advice and parallel workshops and shares her knowledge as a volunteer with a number of groups, including Leading Change Canada.

Richins says this work gives him purpose, a path to follow when life on planet Earth seems uncertain. “Eco-sorrow” and “eco-anxiety” manifest differently in different people, but eventually emerge with knowledge of devastating changes to the planet. When new climate warnings hit the headlines, Richins says she knows work isn’t always the answer, despite an inability to sit idle.

“Grief manifests itself in ways of dissociating or obsessively sitting down to write another Medium post to kind of mask that grief and pain and channel the energy,” Richins explains.

“I think race comes into play a bit, in that activism, advocates of color, organize multiple crises into one. We carry the historical traumas of our ancestors in our bodies, as well as in front of this one.

When designing the program, Bhalla and SUTE recognized the importance of including fellows who may not identify as climate activists or even activists at all, aware that it is possible to avoid personal titles like “ecologist” or “activist” completely.

“A lot of us don’t really want it to be about us, we just want it to be about solutions,” Bhalla says.

As a law student at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, Gabby Aquino says she is learning to organize. This summer, she will write the bar and begin her internship while participating in the 3R program.

Gabby Aquino, a law student at Osgoode Hall who is also learning to organize, will draft the bar and begin her articling this summer while participating in the 3Rs program.

Like Richins, Aquino saw the inequalities in the world from an early age. She grew up in Scarborough but is deeply connected to her Filipino culture and family history in a country where safety and security were not always guaranteed.

Prison abolition is a priority for her and she volunteers with the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project. Although Aquino doesn’t know what life has in store for her after law school, she wants to do community service.

“I’m hoping to leverage the access to resources, the access to the different privileges that come with being a legal professional, a lawyer, or a community-serving lawyer,” says Aquino.

She says she’s still learning, but Aquino knows the importance of understanding the role of climate justice.

“Climate justice is fundamental to everything,” says Aquino. “There are very direct ways in which climate justice is at the heart of the various movements and struggles that interest me such as the liberation of the Philippines and the abolition of prisons. These things are connected because of the way prisons and criminalization in the Canadian criminal justice system are used to silence Indigenous land defenders in their fight for climate justice.

Indigenous Climate Action (ICA) is an organization that believes that rest, through healing, is essential to achieving climate justice. It is also one of his five responses to the climate crisis.

In 2020, the ICA expanded the Youth Wellbeing Fund to give 17 Indigenous youth engaged in climate activism paid time off. It also offered sabbaticals to its two executive directors, after decades of frontline organizing.

“We need to take care of the people who are fighting to protect our future generations,” says Erin Konsmo, ICA Healing Justice Manager.

Konsmo hopes to see more organizations like SUTE implement this type of program, support their communities, and model a better way forward.

“We’re not only trying to address extraction in the form of fossil fuels, but also the ways in which we organize ourselves,” Konsmo says. “We hope that others responding to the climate crisis and other inequalities around the world will also begin to integrate more healing justice.”

While SUTE’s Bhalla is excited to see how the 3R program is going, she hopes it doesn’t have to exist in the future. His passing would signal a shift in tackling the climate crisis, decoupling culture from restlessness through the normalization of rest and a connection to nature.

“I really hope it’s an integral part of society,” says Bhalla. “So much so that it’s not as altered as it is now and it’s completely normal to have paid rest structures in any corporate environment and it’s normal for people to say: “I have to go, nature is calling me. ”

Megan Robinson is a freelance journalist and documentary producer.


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