Reckoning with Existential Dread in Environmental Movements
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Photo by Paul Stremple
In 2019, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg took to the stage at the World Economic Forum and issued this now iconic quote: “I don’t want your hope… I want you to panic… I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Thunberg enunciated a potent theme within the climate movement—“time is running out”.
It’s this theme that fueled entirely silent “funeral procession” protests and die-ins mourning a future threatened by climate change. It’s what prompted hundreds of young people to take the “No Future, No Children” pledge vowing to not have children unless governments take serious action against climate change. And it’s this theme that led over 6 million people to come together in the largest climate strike in world history in September 2019.
While rousing and mobilizing, this theme is also what sparked newly coined eco anxiety, climate grief, and the all-too-familiar burnout. Little talked about is how these themes of impending apocalypse are inextricably tied up in colonialism, capitalism, and the continuation of oppression through our movements. It’s time for us to reckon with the role that existential dread plays in our movements.
The Violent Cycle of Burnout and Grind Culture
Most activists and organizers are familiar with burnout. Quite similar to the imagery it evokes, burnout is a sense of exhaustion, overwhelm, and hopelessness. It’s so widespread that the World Health Organization even includes it in their International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon”. They describe it as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. This perfectly communicates the dominant view on burnout—as an unavoidable reality. Activists are often told to guard against it and shown lists of ways to avoid or manage it, but most accept that burnout will come for all of us at one point or another.
We can’t effectively address burnout without implicating grind culture. Analyst and writer Lewis Nathaniel describes grind or hustle culture as “relentless and uncompromising personal achievement where the main metric is hours worked”. We usually see grind culture in relation to entrepreneurship or corporate business. This constant drive to constantly be “productive” is a child of capitalism after all (check out our blog post on “eating the rich” for more on capitalism).
But grind culture has undeniably found its way into our social movements.
Activists and organizers are no stranger to long hours. As a former climate organizer myself, I can attest to this. Four-hour long meetings late into the night planning the next strike, replying to dozens of notifications from active organizing group chats, and spending hours after events assessing and responding to media coverage and Facebook comments was the norm for me.
Organizing often does take a lot of work as a baseline. But when do we go from being driven by love for our communities to being driven by guilt and fear of not doing enough? Is fear-based work sustainable? Or is it simply a manifestation of capitalism—a system that pins our worth on how much we are able to produce or contribute?
As Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, says, “Grind culture is violence.” It strips us of humanity by reducing our purpose to machines of production. It rewards us for roboticizing ourselves—skipping lunch breaks, working late at night, waking up early.
And we feel that violence in our bodies as burnout.
Burnout reminds us of our humanity. It’s a call-in to reconnect with ourselves. In fact, it forces us to by stopping and slowing us. If we simply treat it with “self-care” we only temporarily assuage our burnout (more on self-care later). And we’ll be stuck in a continual loop of grinding once again before coming back to a place of exhaustion and repeating.
As Hawaiian artist and activist Celeste Emiko Kamaha’ō Rodero says, “Activism without healing replicates oppression.” As activists, we gotta heal too.
And it starts with looking at the fear that drives so much activism and the roots of the hopelessness we feel when we’re burnout.
Apocalypse as a Colonial Tool of Empire
As embodied by climate and environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion, a sense of crisis surrounds environmental activism—and rightfully so. The effects of climate change are already around us. While urgency does challenge the colonial insistence on diluting social movements with slow, incremental change, this notion of apocalypse is steeped in whiteness.
When we think of the apocalypse, we think of a world of total destruction.
The truth is, Black and Indigenous peoples have already experienced this apocalypse. Our ancestors experienced complete destruction of their culture and ways of life, enslavement, genocide, and other horrors—and against all odds, they survived.
So when we speak of an “end of the world”, who’s world do we speak of?
As healer Celia Sagas says, “Apocalypse is a colonial concept that implies the world will end when colonialism ends.”
In our current understanding of the apocalypse, the government has fallen and lawlessness, disorder, and destruction reign. In this world, the colonial state is at the centre and its downfall means ours.
Apocalypse then is a tool used to reinforce the colonial empire—whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. Apocalypse keeps us hopeless. And when we are hopeless, we can’t imagine new futures, nor can we work to create them. As the Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto describes, “Its an apocalyptic that colonizes our imaginations and destroys our past and future simultaneously. It is a struggle to dominate human meaning and all existence.”
The hopelessness that our existential dread or fear of apocalypse brings is why we so often believe we won’t see change in our lifetimes. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Academic Steven Salaita writes, “Dismissing movements for justice as impossible (abolishing police, decolonizing North America, liberating Palestine) isn't a concession to pragmatism; it's a failure of imagination. Anything is possible unless you kill the idea.”
Our existential dread and fear of apocalypse take us out of our power. It keeps us in a constant fear-based cycle of exhausted grinding and hopeless burnout.
Fear can only take us so far. And as Tricia Hersey says, “Exhaustion will not create liberation.”
Re-Imagining Care as an Organizing Principle
What does it look like to reimagine our activism outside of the confines of existential dread and grind culture?
There isn’t one answer. It’s going to take re-imagining our organizing efforts outside of colonial and capitalistic frameworks. It will take re-envisioning our activism in ways that affirm and centre our humanness.
The answer needs to be more than self-care. There’s nothing wrong with engaging in the typical acts we associate with self-care. But these acts alone will only keep us in the cycle of burnout.
Self-care as most of us know it is individualistic, elitist, and capitalistic.
Think of who gets to self-care and who is told to simply keep pushing. Think of how the common self-care suggestions are rooted in consumerism (face masks, manicures, Netflix). But most of all, self-care encourages us to internalize our stress as personal problems when most times (especially for those with marginalized identities), this stress is caused by colonial and capitalistic systems—not us.
So often when we’re encouraged to self-care, it’s just about getting us to a point where we can jump right back into the violence of grind culture.
We need to re-envision care as not solitary single actions every once in a while, but as embedded into our activism.
Just as fear and grind culture have been organizing principles for so long, we must reimagine and incorporate new ways of being an activist.
Rest can be an organizing principle.
More than a catchphrase, rest as resistance is an intentional framework pioneered by Black liberation thought. Tricia Hersey, Founder of the Nap Ministry, describes rest as deeply connected to activism:
“Our lack of imagination is intimately tied to our sleep deprivation. How can we imagine a world without police and injustice if we can’t imagine resting for 30 mins a day? We must be subversive and re-imagine rest. Our creation of a liberated world depends on our collective rest.”
Joy can also be an organizing principle.
As xóchicoatl of la mala yerba (intentionally lowercase) says, “Our joy is dangerous to colonization.” Our joy keeps us awakened. Joy acts as a guide to help us co-create a more just world for us all. Art, dance, music, movement, and more are just as integral to our movements as structure or politics.
Dreaming is an organizing principle.
We need imagination to co-create the sustainable future that we work towards. Afrofuturism is a form of dreaming that re-imagines the future for Black diaspora communities at the “intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation”, as writer Ytasha L. Womack says. Indigenous anti-futurism dreams of a fall to the plague of colonialism and a rise up of Indigenous healing.
For many of us, our fear was what led us to become activists in the first place. But fear alone cannot sustain us in the long run. It’s important for us to remain vigilant and aware of the realities of the issues and oppressions we resist. But hopelessness is a tool of empire that keeps us in existential dread and burnout.
Dr. Jenn M. Jackson writes, “I wish we praised softness, rest, and tenderness as much as we idolize strength, grit, and resiliency. Imagine how much longer folx would live.”
We need hope and we need care as an organizing principle—for the sake of ourselves and our communities.
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About the Author
Keneisha Charles (they/them) is a Black queer non-binary activist, storyteller, poet, and musician dedicated to co-creating a liberatory future. They currently live on the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee in what’s commonly known as Toronto.