How to: beat green fatigue

G Magazine

Is your environmental enthusiasm waning? Check out our tips for staying a happy, active campaigner.


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The Murray-Darling water plan. Coal seam gas mining. Old-growth logging. That ‘great big’ carbon tax. Yep, it's a hectic time for environmentalists – and those are just some major campaigns. When you factor in the mental stress of making ethical decisions every time you shop, eat or travel, it’s easy to see how you can end the year suffering from a severe case of green fatigue.

But whether you’re an armchair activist sick and tired of signing petitions or a seasoned campaigner shell-shocked from months on the frontline, there are ways to beat ‘eco-burnout’ and stay committed to the cause.

First, let’s look at why people lose enthusiasm for environmental action. “What it comes down to is a lack of progress,” says Tim Cotter, an environmental psychologist at Awake. Not only is doing the right thing very difficult in our society, but your efforts can appear insignificant on a global scale. “The problems are so enormous and the progress seems really slow. It’s the perfect storm for a stretch of helplessness,” says Cotter.

Then there are the sudden setbacks, explains Dr Susie Burke, senior psychologist in public interest, environment and disaster response at the Australian Psychological Society. “One ingredient in people becoming disillusioned and demoralised is when they’re working hard on meaningful projects that they see as having great urgency and importance, and then large, sweeping, seemingly arbitrary political things happen that undermine all the work that’s been done.”

Finally, let’s not forget the perception that the public is anti-environment. A recent Griffith University study shows that fewer than six percent of people in the community are true climate sceptics, but that’s not the impression you get from reading the daily papers. The trouble is that even environmentalists fall for the hyperbolic headlines. “If you were to believe what the media’s saying, that’s also going to add to a potential for disillusionment and helplessness,” says Burke.

Thankfully, experienced campaigners have some tips and tricks for avoiding eco-burnout:

Look after yourself.

Victoria McKenzie-McHarg, the safe climate and smart transport campaigner at Environment Victoria, says she was so run down last year she developed post-viral fatigue. “But getting sick made me reprioritise the things I was doing.” Now she’s not working as many weekends or nights, and she’s putting aside time to catch up with friends or tend her garden. “I’m doing the things that sustain me as a person, because that’s what sustains my engagement as an activist.”

Toast the victories.

“Greenies are notoriously bad at celebrating wins,” says McKenzie-McHarg. She would know – the day she started at Environment Victoria in December 2007, Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol. “We had a round of applause, said that was great, and we went back to work.” The problem with not celebrating successes is you can feel like you haven’t made any progress. So remember to give yourself a pat on the back every now and then.

Think long term.

After decades in the environment movement, Felicity Wishart from The Wilderness Society has a phrase for activists who want to fix everything overnight. “We used to talk about the ‘six week wonders’, people who would walk in and go ‘I’m going to save the world in six weeks’,” she says, laughing. “It’s not like that. You have to have that long-term vision.” The same goes for personal goals – you need to recognise that changing habits takes time.

Remember you’re only human.

“Sometimes it is just not possible to do more,” says Anna Skarbek, executive director of ClimateWorks Australia. Of course, you should always try your best, but if the situation is out of your control, don’t beat yourself up over it.

Check your cynicism.

Yes, human beings can be a stupid, selfish bunch. But that doesn’t mean we should lose faith in the entire species. “Billy Bragg says cynicism is a cop out, and I really agree with him,” says Cam Walker, a veteran campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “Cynicism can be a tool that allows you to have a certain level of detachment, but when it starts to drive your behaviour and your mind frame, then it becomes ultimately destructive.” One solution is to think of your mood as a garden, weeding out negative thoughts and cultivating positive ones.

Spend time in nature.

Psychological studies show that a clean, natural environment can have a restorative effect on people. “In autumn I always go backcountry somewhere,” says Walker. “I just think that’s the best recharge you can have.”

Stay for the long haul.

Finally, we should all heed the advice of poet and conservationist Edward Abbey, who advocated being a “part time crusader”, saving the other half of yourself for pleasure. “And I promise you this much,” he said. “I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”