Climate campaign failure and mental health

Campaigners addressing the greatest threat to ‘the future of all living things on the planet’ can experience big impacts on their hearts and minds. Tony Mohr shares his story and insights about sustaining activism. 

Say Yes Polar Bears

Say Yes campaign action, 2011.

Lately there’s been a little talk and even some media articles that start to open up discussion on mental health, climate change and campaigning. Often the discussion is in extremely general terms with people reluctant to share too much. I’ve had patches of poor mental health over the years so I thought I’d share some of my experience.

Many people are drawn into the climate campaign because of the scale of impacts it has on the future of all living things on the planet. Most climate activists know the science very well, and just carrying that knowledge is terrifying, but there are some aspects of being a campaigner that amplify that anxiety.

For me, one aspect has been that feeling that no matter what we do, it’s never enough. I find myself caught between hard science and good campaign planning. The science demands decarbonisation as fast as possible. Like smoking, every tonne of pollution does our planet and children harm. On the other hand, basic campaign training says that your campaign needs to set achievable goals. This tension has often left me feeling guilty rather than proud of the campaign work that I’ve done, and has soured most campaign wins I’ve ever had. Perhaps this is just my own version of the common refrain “The problem is so big – what can I possibly do that will make a difference?”

Psychology describes this kind of thinking as a cognitive error. The first of many I have had! This one includes an erroneous belief that I have control over other people’s actions. All campaigning is about changing somebody else. Whether it’s changing the mind of the people you doorknock or the Prime Minister at the height of an international negotiation, as campaigners we set ourselves the task of influencing other people. At times I have lost sight of the fact that in the end, I cannot control what other people do.

The narratives we tell ourselves about why we campaign can also turn toxic. When we tell ourselves that our campaign is really urgent, has massive consequences, and that we have the power to make a difference, it’s easy to blame yourself and feel guilty when, despite our best efforts, our campaigns fail, and there are massive consequences.

In my case, the theory of change which I used every day to build support for the climate campaign I led was this:

“Our campaign will put pressure on the Government to listen to Australians, not big polluters, and set an emissions target that’s our fair share of the global effort. This will ensure that Australia doesn’t become a deal wrecker on the international stage, and other countries do their fair share. We need the world to act because if we fail, many animal and plant species will become extinct, millions of people will die over many generations and millions more will endure hardship and poverty.”

Slowly, over time, this theory of change changed subtly into something quite toxic. I ended up telling myself;

“If the campaign I lead fails to put pressure on the Government to listen to Australians, not big polluters, Australia will fail to set an emissions target that’s our fair share of the global effort. This will ensure Australia becomes a deal wrecker on the international stage, and other countries not do their fair share. The world to will fail to act and many animal and plant species will become extinct, millions of people will die over many generations and millions more will endure hardship and poverty.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I grew deeply anxious! And when it became obvious that the carbon price would be repealed and fair emission targets sent to a parallel universe, I felt deeply guilty.

To some extent, I still do. I made mistakes. But at times I’ve ended up seeing nothing but mistakes. Feeling that responsible for everything that went wrong makes it impossible to learn from real mistakes because there were so many imagined ones getting in the way.

Tony gets a visit from a canine friend while locked on to a truck at the Leard Blockade.

Tony gets a visit from a canine friend while locked on to a truck at the Leard Blockade.

I am still sorting this shit out, and don’t have any hard answers. Here are some changes that I’m making to prevent my mind from getting tangled up in the future:

  • Getting some good advice. There’s some good resources at Beyond Blue. Other mates of mine swear by mindfulness, and it does have an evidence base for anxiety and depression. For myself, cognitive behaviour therapy has been helpful.
  • Knowing my enemy. It sounds odd, but I’ve needed to remind myself that there are organisations and people who are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and the carnage that it causes. There are fewer than 500 companies that are directly responsible for more than 75% of Australia’s emissions. There’s a list of every politician who voted down the carbon price and I’m not one of them. Knowing who is really culpable helps me notice that blood isn’t on my own hands.
  • Knowing my allies. At the point my theory of change shifted from “our campaign” to “the campaign I lead” things were always going to get silly. It’s not all about me; it’s not all about you. It’s about us. By admitting I don’t have all the answers, I’m more open to the creativity and wisdom in other campaigners. Sharing the weight of a campaign prevents it from crushing you.
  • Re-writing my own campaign bible. Again. I’m an atheist. It took me a long time to find the campaigner within me, and to lay down my core beliefs about my role in the world. Some of those core beliefs have led to that corruption of a perfectly good theory of change, and a stack of cognitive errors besides. So I’m re-writing my core beliefs. This turns out to be taking some time.
  • Talk about it. I would have no idea if anyone else shares my experience because we just don’t talk about it at that level of detail. Whenever I have spoken about it people’s responses have been good, not bad as I worried they might be. I look forward to learning from the experience of others, and hope a few people might learn something from mine.

 

TonyMohrAbout the author

Tony is Climate Campaign Manager for the Australian Conservation Foundation. In 2014 he’s on sabbatical, learning new tricks in campaigns, community organising, business, teaching, learning and kiteboarding. If you’d like to swap skills, ideas or experiences you can find him at tmohr4(AT)gmail(DOT)com

 

Do you have something to share about how climate campaigning has impacted on you? Have you ever found yourself ‘tangled up’ in a distorted story about your activism? What have you figured out about getting clearer and looking after yourself?

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4 Responses to “Climate campaign failure and mental health”

  1. Thank you for a brave intelligent caring contribution to an important issue.

    As a person called to faith I offer prayer as another option for concerned conservationists citizens consideration.
    If you don’t mind I will include you in our prayers.

  2. Thanks Mack, I appreciate your thoughts and am happy to in your prayers. Many campaigner mates have a spiritual aspect to their lives and work. See you on the hustings, Tony

  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts Tony. Depression, anxiety and other significant emotional experiences (and mental health issues) are far more common amongst climate campaigners than gets generally acknowledged.

  4. George Woods also commented on Facebook:
    ‘Thanks for your candour as always, Tony. One thing that I think we’re forgetting when it comes to sustaining activism is accepting loss: in coal and climate activism, it has become de rigeur to be upbeat, perhaps because people believe that emphasising success wards against burnout. I think the opposite. Accepting your failures, mistakes and limitations is at the heart of healthy activism. I wish that there was less taboo in our circles around this. The fashion is to boost and boast, but closing your eyes to loss and failure doesn’t make it go away. Your candid article may help. I, too, have failed in what I was trying to do.’