Mental Health and Climate Activism: it’s a double-edged sword, but it doesn’t need to be

Photo By: Hector Vasquez

We know a topic has hit the big leagues when Teen Vogue writes a story about it. The latest from this remarkable magazine is a story about the mental health benefits of climate activism. And it’s not just Teen Vogue––The Independent in the UK published a recent article making similar claims, and the recent A-Z of Climate Anxiety in The Guardian included collective action as a way to address the climate crisis and also help us feel better. These articles claim a number of mental health benefits to climate activism, including building a sense of community, countering eco-anxiety through a sense of purpose, even figuring out how to incorporate a neglected artistic hobby into your activism (and the creativity, talent, and humour on display at many recent protests is truly delightful).

Overcoming a sense of isolation and powerlessness in the face of truly grim predictions about the future––not to mention the ever-increasing disasters in the present day––is a powerful promise. I also believe it is a legitimate one. Activism does have the potential to build a wonderful community and provide a strong sense of purpose and agency. As a youth climate activist in the 2000s, I experienced these benefits myself. But there are some hidden assumptions in these promises of the power of climate activism (and other forms of activism) to improve mental health that are not guaranteed.

I grew up in the campus sustainability movement and was part of the transition from the language of sustainability to climate change to climate justice. In the campus sustainability movement, youth were engaged in the organizationally complex but relatively straightforward work of creating change on our own university and college campuses. The Sierra Youth Coalition (now called Sierra Youth), thanks to the leadership of my predecessors at the organization, had created an intensely practical youth-led framework for action on campuses. We were not creating the revolution, but we were sorting garbage and building wind turbines and retrofitting old buildings. We did good work. I participated in the Sustainable Campuses Program as a student, and then went on to coordinate the program nationally as my first job when I graduated.

At the same time, youth climate movements were emerging around the world. Youth were organizing into justice-oriented climate coalitions. Youth leaders in Canada, many of whom had participated in COP 11 in Montreal (shedding a small tear that COP 25 just started and we aren’t further along…), gathered in Toronto in the fall of 2006 to found the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. I had not been at COP 11, but was able to attend the CYCC founding meeting and ultimately volunteered to be the coalition’s first chair/meeting facilitator. The Sierra Youth Coalition was also a member of and funded through the US-based Energy Action Coalition (now PowerShift Network) which fortunately stepped in to replace our abruptly disappeared One Tonne Challenge funding, and I participated substantially in both coalitions. After a few years working in Ottawa, I moved to Washington, DC, to work at Energy Action. And would be remiss to mention a subsequent lovely summer spent in Athens, Georgia, working at the Southern Energy Network.

My time in youth climate activism did everything for me that the articles promise. I was part of a wonderful community of colleagues and friends, many of whom I anticipate I will be close friends with for decades to come. I had a much stronger sense of purpose than I have in the near-decade I have spent in graduate school (perhaps this is not surprising). I also gained a ton of skills! It turns out working for perennially under-resourced youth organizations means that you learn how to do just about anything. We were ambitious, we were creative, we were changing the world. And we were tearing each other apart in the process.

My memories of epic photo ops come alongside epic listserv battles. My memories of late-night dance parties come alongside being publicly yelled at by a stressed colleague for a logistical mistake. My memories of long but inspiring coalition staff trainings (I’m in the blue, looking serious!) come alongside early days and late nights spent on the phone lobbying coalition partners when we had to make a difficult decision. I still remember being told I was the glue holding Energy Action together––and, believe me, it’s not great to be the glue. The sense of purpose and camaraderie I experienced from participating in collective action came hand-in-hand with a lot more stress and anxiety than I anticipated in my campus sustainability day.

Here’s my take, at this moment. That transition I mentioned earlier––from campus sustainability to climate change to climate justice––was important. Diversity and wellbeing were part of our definition of campus sustainability, but we weren’t striving for justice. We had kept the social pillar of sustainability that many had abandoned, but the norm was your stereotypical white-vegetarian-second-hand-clothes-wearing-lug-a-mug-train-taking young environmentalist. If you brought a Tim’s disposable cup to an Sierra Youth Coalition conference, you would be signalling that you weren’t one of us. And if you had a cold, half a dozen people would offer you raw garlic to chew on from their patch-covered backpacks.

No one with a little analysis will be surprised to hear that this was not necessarily a welcoming group for everyone. I will never forget that a few students who I believe had come down from Nunavut for one of the conferences left without a word after the first day. It’s not that we weren’t friendly––it’s that our cultural norms in that version of youth activism were only comfortable to a narrow group. Looking back, the coalition battles and high levels of conflict at Energy Action in particular took place in a transition moment from one version of youth activism to another. The logics and practices of mainstream white environmentalism were all there, including but going way beyond lug-a-mug, and were failing to be reflexive when encountering Indigenous and environmental justice worldviews and practices that contested white supremacy, colonialism, and elite power.

Today’s climate justice promises something quite different from mainstream environmentalism. Climate justice takes into account the historical inequities that created the climate crisis. It talks about white supremacy. It takes positions against nuclear power and carbon pricing, approaches that the more mainstream in the climate movement declare necessary. Climate justice makes connections to migrant justice (Teen Vogue again!) andto prison abolition. It has widened view of what it means to be a climate activist. The climate justice movement is not perfect, and I have observed in the youth climate movement today an emphasis on having the correct analysis and using the correct words on entry to the movement that I think risks alienating interested newcomers. But this can be overcome with awareness and care, and certainly in some spaces this is being done. The transition to a climate justice movement is big and will take time, and it must happen.

My years in youth climate activism were important, but they were not easy. I burned out of climate activism in 2011, with my sense of self entirely destroyed, and it has taken me quite a while before I’m prepared to re-enter. If I’m honest with myself, I still haven’t done more than dip a toe. I don’t blame myself for the mistakes made (ok, I do, but less than I used to). When you wake up every day and say to yourself that climate action is the best, only, and most important way to spend your time, it creates an environment ripe for burnout and unproductive conflict. And here’s the thing: my experiences are not unusual. I recently interviewed thirty anti-pipeline activists for my dissertation. Burnout, conflict, callouts showed up time and time again in the interviews, even though I wasn’t asking about them.

I want climate activism to be the place of wellbeing, community, and purpose that Teen Vogue believes it can be. And I believe it can be. For me, this means being part of a movement where the mistakes that systems of power lead individuals to make (people being racist and sexist in often semi-subtle ways) can be assumed to be inevitable and are overcome with collective education and care. Where the movement is run by Indigenous and Black leaders and there is a place for all the rest of us to use our skills and talents. Where, yes, you can bring a disposable coffee cup into a room without judgement. In many ways, I believe it may have been the pursuit of perfection that caused so many wounds. I’m here for imperfect but improving climate justice activism. Maybe one of these days I’ll even join your group.