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We need a climate movement that addresses the trauma of fighting for a burning planet

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I used to think trauma was something that only applied to people exposed to extreme situations like war, genocide, abuse or crime. Yet, living on planet Earth pretty much guarantees you some trauma. 

Trauma comes from the Greek “traumat,” which means “wound.” It is an emotional wounding that results from experiencing or witnessing a highly stressful, horrifying event or series of events where one feels a lack of control, powerlessness, and threat of injury or death. This sounds disturbingly similar to what humans are increasingly living through with climate change. 

Being pushed beyond my own limits by the climate crisis forced me to take its traumatic impacts more seriously. As I witnessed the continent where I live burn to the ground during one of Australia’s worst bushfire events, I felt utterly overwhelmed. I’d spent the past decade helping to build the power of the climate movement, hoping to avert disasters like these. It was as though everyone’s work was burning to the ground, taking lives, homes and livelihoods with it. 

The months that followed were like a dream. I moved through the world numb, unaware that the trauma of the experience had sent me into a dissociative state. As often happens in trauma, my brain switched off my capacity to feel as a way of trying to protect me. 

Previous Coverage
  • There’s no place for burnout in a burning world
  • I struggled to know what to do or how to respond. Decisions about tiny things felt momentous, and yet nothing felt like it really mattered anymore. Just months before, I had helped organize the largest national climate mobilization in Australia’s history. As people around me exclaimed that maybe this was the social movement tipping point we had been waiting for, I couldn’t feel a thing.

    I kept believing I was OK, as I watched my body break down. It, more than I, knew I couldn’t keep going. As trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk teaches, “the body keeps the score.”

    But trauma is not felt equally. There is a deep inequity in its distribution. In his book “My Grandmother’s Hands,” therapist and somatic abolitionist Resma Menakem reminds us of the greater trauma load being carried by bodies of color. The trauma of oppression doesn’t disappear upon death. It carries on across generations. As such, people from marginalized backgrounds tend to have a much bigger load to bear. 

    If I, a middle-class white person living in an affluent country, could experience what I did during the bushfires, I could only begin to imagine the trauma experienced by those on the frontlines of climate injustice — the Black Indigenous and People of Color facing climate impacts first and worst, who are also being required to forge some of the most courageous solutions. 

    Experiences of trauma are becoming all too common among those of us working on climate change. Being repeatedly exposed to an existential threat takes a toll. The trauma of this experience needs somewhere to go. If it isn’t processed or given an outlet, it stores in our bodies, layering atop trauma we had already accumulated prior to arriving at this work. 

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    The four trauma responses in a movement context

    There is scant understanding of trauma in the climate movement. Consequently, people are seldom provided with the support to recognize and process their trauma healthily. And so it builds, eventually manifesting in one or more of the following ways:

    1. Fight. This occurs when someone responds aggressively to something they perceive as threatening. That could be climate change itself, people they perceive as obstacles or a particular experience that triggers past trauma. Examples of a fight response in a movement context include: attacking or blaming, bullying or gaslighting, power-hoarding, unhelpfully polarizing situations or campaigns, and discriminating against people (consciously or unconsciously). 

    2. Freeze. The freeze response is where someone, realizing that resistance is futile, gives up, numbs out into dissociation and/or collapses as if accepting the inevitability of being hurt (much like the overwhelm I felt during the fires). Movement examples of the freeze response include: decision/analysis paralysis, scarcity mindsets, stagnation, complacency, apathy, hopelessness and depression. 

    3. Flight. The flight response is where someone responds to a perceived threat by fleeing from it, or symbolically, by launching into a state of hyperactivity, in an effort to ward off the threat. Movement examples of the fleeing mode include: avoidance of feedback/conflict, burnout, and quitting. Examples of the hyperactivity mode include: workaholism; urgency/crisis mindsets; pursuing extreme tactics and strategies; anxiety and obsessive/compulsive tendencies. 

    4. Fawn. The fawn response kicks into gear when someone responds to a threat by trying to be pleasing or helpful in order to appease and forestall an attack. In a movement context, this often manifests as putting the advancement of others’ needs — or the causes’ needs — ahead of one’s own wellbeing. Examples include: code-switching (particularly among folks from marginalized backgrounds responding to discrimination and/or micro-aggressions), people-pleasing, over-working, marginalizing one’s own needs and chronic issues with boundaries. 

    As I reflected on these four responses, I realized that aspects of the climate movement’s culture can inadvertently encourage or incentivize at least three of these responses — fight, flight and fawn — more so than freeze.

    With fight, belligerent language is peppered, almost subliminally, throughout our vocabulary: “fight,” “battle,” “weaponize.” With flight, we are constantly in motion, unintentionally or otherwise, glorifying over-work. And with fawn, we love people who are willing to “step up” to the challenge, to be of service, contribute their all. Putting the issue ahead of the individual is our currency, even when doing so jeopardizes that individual’s wellbeing.

    Over time, as more trauma builds and more people respond in the four ways outlined above, movements come to perpetuate the very systems they exist to transform. Trauma begets more trauma. Hurt people, hurt people. People burn out and leave. Unresolved conflict ends groups. Campaigns stagnate. Activists, now jaded and exhausted, settle for centrist, complacent outcomes rather than the transformative change that movements seek.

    Building a culture of care and healing from movement trauma

    We need movements that support people to process and heal from their own trauma so that we can bring transformed mindsets to the work of transforming injustice. As the saying goes “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” To build an impactful climate justice movement, we must first build cultures that care for the people doing the work.

    Already, there are so many amazing people, programs and groups working to weave cultures of care and wellbeing into systemic justice work — much of it led by First Nations people, people of color, women, gender-diverse folk and others on the frontlines of injustice. What would it look like to lean into their wisdom, to grow care rather than illness, stress and burnout? 

    The origin of the word “care” is from the proto-Germanic karo meaning “sorrow, cry” and the proto-Indo-European gehr, meaning “shout, call.”

    Previous Coverage
  • As we confront the climate crisis, is bigger and faster always better?
  • Riffing off this etymology, to center care in the climate movement’s culture, surely we need to create space for people to healthily navigate their emotions about climate injustice. We also need to ensure people, particularly those marginalized by the mainstream, feel seen, heard and valued. And we need an active commitment to repairing and not perpetuating further harm and injustice.

    In trying to sketch out the different ingredients that a culture of care might center, a few elements emerged. This is just the beginning of a recipe. As we add more ingredients, the outcome gets richer: 

    1. Space. One of the most damaging aspects of unjust systems and trauma is the lack of spaciousness. The renowned psychologist Victor Frankl once said: “Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

    A culture of care would protect time and space for people to rest, reflect, recover and repair. As emergent strategist Adrienne Maree Brown says: “There is always enough time for the right work,” and Nap Ministry Founder Tricia Hersey reminds us: “Rest is resistance.” 

    What could this look like in the climate movement?

    • Shorter working hours / 4-day work weeks
    • 80/20 time for reflection, experimentation and creativity
    • Campaign plans and timeframes with ebbs and flows
    • Communities of practice and learning circles
    • Sabbaticals and long service leave for both staff and volunteers

    2. Love. Cornell West said that “justice is what love looks like in action.” At the heart of injustice is an absence of love. Healing climate injustice requires us to love ourselves, others and the earth. bell hooks reminds us: “to begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling.” It is, as M Scott Peck says, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” If we don’t act with love towards ourselves and others in our work, we can’t bring more love to the systems causing climate injustice. 

    What could this look like in the climate movement?

    • Regular praise, positive feedback and celebration of people and their work (I distinguish people from their work, as we need to get better at celebrating people’s inherent worth, independent of their work)
    • Investing more capacity in people’s leadership, growth and development
    • Regularly checking in on people’s wellbeing and building communities of support for people when they are going through difficult times
    • Time and space for people to attend to their own inner work 
    • Eldership, mentoring and buddies

    3. Diversity. Diversity is life. Insight and learning lies in understanding not just the things we share in common but how each of us is beautifully unique. According to social movement research, a few people connected across difference have greater potential for creating the social growth of an idea or process than large numbers of people who think alike. 

    Diversity enables greater sense-making, because it widens the pool of vantage points and sense-makers. This is especially beneficial when navigating the complexity of climate change. A culture of care would encourage and celebrate diversity in all its forms — race, class, gender, sexual orientation, body type, health and all their intersections. It would also actively encourage divergence of opinion, rather than rushing to convergence and unity. 

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Leaders from a wide range of different backgrounds
    • Time and space given to building relationships across difference
    • A movement ecosystem comprising a diversity of theories of change, strategies and groups, each of which is respected by the other
    • Actively encouraging a diversity of perspectives, feedback and opinions 

    4. Boundaries. Therapist and political organizer Prentis Hemphill defines a boundary as “the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” We have arrived at the unjust juncture we find ourselves in today precisely due to a lack of boundaries — of treating the world and ourselves as limitless resources. A culture of care would celebrate and foster a practice of boundary-setting to help bring us all back within happy and healthy limits.

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Respecting work hours and supporting people to switch off when not working
    • Asking rather than assuming someone can take on more work/responsibility
    • Limiting exposure to vicarious climate trauma 
    • Setting and holding clear goals to avoid feeling the need to do everything
    • Encouraging everyone to set their own personal boundaries and communicate these to those they work with

    5. Awareness. We can’t change what we can’t see, yet our most painful trauma is often stored subconsciously — our worst biases often hidden from view. A culture of care would provide support and space for everyone to build greater individual and collective awareness of their blindspots and pain, so that we can move forward in the world with more holistic perspectives. 

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Providing support and resources for everyone to process their trauma. In certain sectors this takes the form of supervision. We need a version of this for climate trauma, and we need to build networks of climate-informed mental health practitioners to support those who spend their days addressing climate injustice
    • Training and communities of practice to address unconscious bias 
    • Creating space for regular feedback and reflection

    6. Compassion. Compassion is the sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s or our own suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved. It has four components: 1. noticing; 2. feeling; 3. caring; and 4. doing. Compassion is different to empathy in that it moves beyond feeling to doing, however it is not about fixing others’ suffering for them, rather creating the conditions for suffering to be alleviated. Like love, a lack of compassion is at the heart of injustice. By building a movement’s compassionate capacity, we strengthen its capacity for justice.  

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Seeing mistakes as a crucial part of learning, rather than fuel for shame 
    • Being clear about each other’s needs and supporting one another to ensure those needs are met
    • Learning to let go of judgement — of ourselves and others; in Buddhism, negative judgement about our feelings (the “second arrow”) is viewed as more damaging than the original feelings themselves
    • Checking in when we can see someone is struggling
    • Coaching to help people build capacity for their own solutions
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    7. Vulnerability. When we share deeper parts of ourselves, the parts that are not “resolved,” we open up a door in other people’s hearts to feel a little more able to do the same. And in the sharing of the deepest parts of ourselves, we build greater compassion, space for diversity and in turn more transformative movements. Vulnerability also calls on us to work on/for the things we know are needed, even if we know these things are likely to be attacked or ridiculed by the mainstream.

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Leaders who act with radical honesty about when they are struggling, have made a mistake or don’t know what to do 
    • Properly welcoming new people into movement spaces, taking time to really understand and support the whole person — their strengths, fears and needs 
    • Campaigns and movements that demand and strive for what is needed, not just what they think they can get, despite fear or external attack

    8. Joy. Why do this work if not to generate joy? How we feel when we work, matters. It determines whether or not people keep showing up for the long arcs required to sustain social change. In her book “Pleasure Activism,” Adrienne Maree Brown says: “Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.” 

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Building play — defined as “time without purpose” — into work
    • Regular social time and celebration
    • Identifying the feeling states associated with different types of work and ensuring that everyone has plenty associated with pleasure and joy 

    9. Fluidity. Change is constant. The most effective movements seek to “be like water,” evolving as the issue does. But movements only evolve as effectively as their members do. Cultures of care ensure space and support for everyone to evolve and grow over time, avoiding the creep of stagnation and resentment.

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Strategy, groups and campaigns that have ambitious goals but are always open to change and responsive to what is going on around them
    • Reflective practices to learn and iterate strategy
    • Support for people to develop in their roles and evolve over time
    • Sharing and learning to enable cross-pollination of knowledge and skills

    10. Imagination. Imagination is an act of both courage, and intelligence. Far from naivety, it arises from a place of deep sensing — of how the world is, how it was, and how it could be better. Imagination can never end at the point of sensing, it must extend to action, not only one’s own, but the inspiration of others to act collectively. Imagination is a form of care because it refuses to accept the way things are, and instead dares to both dream of and create different systems, structures and worlds. 

    What could this look like in a movement?

    • Celebrating ambitious ideas and plans and those who generate them
    • Creating space in our work to dream, reflect and co-create new ideas together
    • Welcoming more art and artists into movements
    • Seeking to learn from spaces outside of our immediate circles

    This is just a starting point. Building more of these 10 ingredients into the climate movement will be an iterative and emergent process. But one thing’s for sure, we can’t afford to shy away. The more traumatic load we build, the more conflict, burnout and status quo outcomes we will get. Showing the climate crisis the care it is calling for starts with caring for ourselves and each other. 

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