How climate activists avoid burn out

Ro Randall climate psychology Alliance
Rosemary Randall of the Climate Psychology Alliance talks to NICK BREEZE about coping with the stress and the sustainability of activism.

So before you start to talk about climate change, you really need to have had to come through to the other side of your own terror. Otherwise, people won't respond to the message, they will respond to the messenger!

Nick Breeze: Is there enough informed psychological discussion about climate change going on in civil society?

Rosemary Randall: I think there isn’t enough conversation going on about climate change in civil society. Where the psychology comes in, is in the how. It is about the process of a conversation, wherever it happens. 

There was a lot of concentration, about 10-12 years ago, on behavioural change as a solution to climate change, on the idea that if you could just get the population as a whole to change what they did, then that was going to be an answer. There was a lot of focus on the mechanisms for that. A lot of focus on whether behaviour drives values or, values drive behaviour? 

Those are very different psychological conversations to those that psychotherapists have because psychotherapists, on the whole, are much more interested in conflict and ambivalence. What goes on when, with one part of the self, we think that it is a good idea to do something and, with the other part of ourself, we would really much rather not. 

How those conflicts get played out and resolved, and how we can export them in a process that psychotherapists call projection, in which we see all that is bad in someone else and all that is virtuous in ourselves.

So, the kind of the psychology that the Climate Psychology Alliance is interested in, is in the psychology of understanding that conflict, that ambivalence, that resistance, which makes it difficult to do the things that individuals might do about climate change, or to be the person who stands out at work, or in the trade union, and demands things be done.

So wherever you are, those psychological factors come into play.

NB: And those kinds of actions that you just outlined, standing up and so on, in 2018 we have seen a lot of that, and I think it has surprised a lot of people, even people who are in the climate change area have been quite shocked that people are actually doing it. What are the positives and negatives that you see around that? What is your response to this wave of activism?

RR: I was really encouraged to see it because I think we have gone through a very bleak period. If you go back to the period running up to the Copenhagen negotiations, there was a lot of direct action, climate camp people were very active, closing down stations, airports, all kinds of things. There was a huge public conversation going on, which government was, in part, initiating in that period when the Climate Change Act was passed. 

Post Copenhagen, post-2010 general election, silence descended in the UK, certainly, about climate change, and it dropped right off the bottom of any public poll about the subject. So if people were deliberately asked about climate change, they would say it is somewhere in their list of concerns but if you asked, ‘what are your concerns?’, climate change was nowhere.

So before you start to talk about climate change, you really need to have had to come through to the other side of your own terror. Otherwise, people won't respond to the message, they will respond to the messenger!

That led to a lot of despair among people who were working on climate change issues at that time, that opportunities were not taken during this period of austerity that we have been living through. So for me and a lot of other people, the resurgence in activity around climate change has been hugely encouraging. I think it creates a lot of opportunities for conversations to develop.

The need for talking well about climate change remains and I don’t know if this generation of activists is any better at knowing how to talk about it than any previous generation of activists.

NB: We have seen a lot of young people, very young people, taking a stand on climate change. Are there any traits that you think could be built on from the psychotherapeutic point of view?

RR: I think what we have seen is bravery. The young Swedish school student, who started going on her weekly demonstrations, certainly caught peoples imaginations. There is a sense that, as she does that, she tells a story in which she says, ‘I am 14 years old and you have messed with my future and I am not putting up with it, and what are you all going to do about it?’ and that story is very powerful. 

I think that has given people more hope perhaps than they had before. 

NB: If you take that piece of activism, and you take, for example, the Extinction Rebellion, these things have got a lot of momentum, but can that be sustained among the individuals who make up the collective doing? How do you view that from a psychological perspective?

RR: One of the things that we observed in the research that we did, is that people go through what we call an activists journey. Initially, there was a period of frenetic activity in the period where you first found it out and you felt this was a life changing experience to know about climate change. It was often quite frightening, it made you very angry.

There was a process of trying to work out what you personally were going to do about it. The people we were interviewing were people who had been involved in direct action in the run-up to Copenhagen. We were talking to them some years beyond that and what you could see was for those people, who had been mostly in their twenties at that point [of activism], there was a risk of burn out. They had all settled into something by the time that we interviewed them that was more manageable. I think that was very important really. 

Some of them were still involved in direct action, some of them were not, and some of them had gone into jobs in the environmental sector. They all had certainly been changed by what they had done and what had happened to them. Their continual involvement was quite varied.

What you can see there is that there is always the possibility that it is unsustainable at a personal level, to be involved with that intensity. So there is a necessity to find your own place. I think the thing that struck us about the activist movement at that period was that they were very sophisticated in their ways of support for each other. 

One of the criticisms I think of Extinction Rebellion is that so far they are not so sophisticated as previous generations of activists. That may come. I think they are now doing more training than they used to do. 

Certainly, among some activist circles, the importance of being able to provide support to your comrades has certainly been recognised.

There's another point about what happens to people when they first become aware of climate change. They have a sense of urgency about it and they tend to talk about it in a way which is sometimes unhelpful. They can’t stop talking about it, and they want to go and tell people. They tell people with such a sense of terror and urgency in their voice, that what they are actually telling people is that they are absolutely terrified about something.

What people respond to is not the content of what you are saying but what they perceive about your mood, which is that you need to be calmed down, you need to be reassured, and you need to be comforted. 

So people will say things like, “I’m sure it is not as bad as you think it is’, or ‘just give it a break, or a rest’. They will try to support you in some way by changing the subject or offering what reassurance they can.

So before you start to talk about climate change, you really need to have had to come through to the other side of your own terror. Otherwise, people won't respond to the message, they will respond to the messenger!

NB: From a psychological point of view, is there a characteristic or behaviour that worries you the most, especially if it becomes more widespread, at a collective level?

RR: I think apocalyptic thinking is a shortcut people take when they are faced with something very difficult. I think it is very important to be clear that we face something very important, we face an emergency, a crisis. 

It is also very important to try to create sufficient safety for that to be addressed. If there isn’t enough safety, one of the things that happens is that people become very alarmed for a short time and then they go back to whatever their own form of business-as-usual is, or their form of disavowal or defence happens to be.

The other thing that can happen is that they take it on with a great sense of panic and they jump to some sort of apocalyptic, we are all doomed scenario, which is a place from which you do nothing. Some people react by saying, 'we are doomed so we may as well party to the end. I’ll take whatever flights I want, I eat whatever meat I want, I’ll drive my car into the ground, there is nothing to be done!’ That is one version of doom.

Another version of doom is the survivalist version where they decide they are going to head to the hills, they are going to process their own aspirin, or learn how to use a gun. Because actually the work of continuing to argue about climate change, to decide whether you can take some form of direct action, to decide whether you are going to perpetually pester your member of parliament, take flack at work for the stance that you take, or talk about climate change every day to everyone you meet, these things are sometimes unrewarding, they are difficult and sometimes exposing.

It is the ability to repeatedly place yourself in that middle place of hard work about climate change. I think it is really difficult, so one way to avoid it is to get into apocalyptic thinking. 

NB: Are we as humans, especially in the developed world, ready for the changes we will have to make or that will be forced upon us by changes in climate?

RR: Certainly not. We are not prepared in practical terms, in terms of what could be done in terms of adaptation, and I don’t think we are personally prepared, or psychologically prepared. The personal preparation is about being able to see that your life will not have in it some of the things that your life has in it at present. 

So there is a psychological process of letting go of the idea that you will always be able to fly somewhere for a foreign holiday, and that, if you have relatives in Australia that you will regularly visit them. It quite possibly means coming to terms with ideas like rationing.

Ideas like the loss of civil liberties as states move towards imposing some of the things that need to be done. Those conversations are not happening. Governments are not doing the things they need to do at the moment. 

But personally, I think we are not prepared for those painful and difficult conversations about things that frighten us and things that will require us to live differently to how we do now.

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Nick Breeze is a climate change journalist and interviewer posting also on He is also organises the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series ( where Rosemary Randall will be speaking on 7th March 2019. Follow Nick Breeze on Twitter at @NickGBreeze

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