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The only way forward is together.
How collective action is the antidote to isolation, hopelessness and despair.
Fall is upon us and the days here in Sweden are getting shorter as the darkness progressively takes over. For the past few weeks we’ve been trying to navigate the new terrain of working in climate in a country governed by parties who are less than up to speed with their climate politics, we’ve been dealing with increasingly aggressive twitter trolls, journalists who confuse communicating climate research with having a hidden political agenda, and meeting teachers and school kids struggling with feelings of hopelessness and isolation. 2022 is indeed keeping us busy, on both a practical and emotional level!
Today we’ll focus on what simultaneously seems to be a recipe for coping with climate delaying politics, handling internet trolls and feelings of hopelessness: Collective action.
In our second newsletter we described the importance of expanding the range of behavioral changes to include behaviors of active citizenship in order to facilitate the large-scale change needed to tackle the ecological crises. There are numerous reasons why collective action is essential not only to mitigate the consequences of climate change, but also to nurture psychological resilience and emotional sustainability.
Globally, there is a rather large majority who are concerned about climate change and are willing to do something, but only a small percentage of these are engaging politically or collectively. The following picture illustrates statistics from the US, a country with quite a high proportion of climate denial. Even there, an increasing majority is motivated to act, far more than those dismissive of climate science.
Whilst these numbers are encouraging (many people are concerned and alarmed!), the feeling of loneliness is still common amongst people in these groups. Not only is the feeling of loneliness present, there’s no direct correlation between being concerned and taking action. In the study above around 10% of the people in the Alarmed group noted that they were willing to engage politically or in non-violent civil disobedience. Which means that in terms of actual behavior we can most likely count an even smaller group.
If so many people are worried, why do we feel alone? And why do we fail to make progress?
Large and complex problems cannot be solved by isolated individuals. It’s as simple as that, and yet - it seems - as complicated as that.
Even though many people are concerned, far fewer regularly talk about climate with friends, family and colleagues, which in turn leads us to think that we’re alone in being concerned and wanting to take action. This is called Pluralistic Ignorance: the tendency people have to rely on information about how other people are reacting to an ambiguous situation in order decide how to act themselves. We tend to think that everyone else is thinking in line with how they’re acting, making us act the same way as them, even if we don’t agree. For example when we see no one acting for climate and interpret that as no one caring about the climate crisis, and thereby refraining from talking about it ourselves.
This tendency can be enhanced by the big focus on individual action over collective action. We do as we’re encouraged and as we see other people do (imitating the behaviors of others is in psychology called model learning or observational learning). What we practice generally becomes more familiar to us, thereby lowering the threshold to repeating the same behaviors. In everything from using climate calculators to reading articles labeled “5 quick things you can do for climate” we are constantly reminded and primed to think about climate engagement as something that is done alone.
Most people we meet in our work are interested in breaking this pattern of small-scale individual action, but few feel well versed in how to go about it. There is a general insecurity and lack of knowledge about what kind of behaviors are needed for the collective part of solving problems.
We’ll try and break it down a bit: Let’s imagine Elsa, who invests a lot of her engagement into political consumerism, by refraining from different kinds of pleasures, only buying fair trade and organic goods. She is frustrated that her actions don’t translate into larger societal changes, and that her friends and family don’t follow her actions. Sometimes they argue. She feels rather lonely, even though she has a lot of friends, and even though her climate actions are meaningful to her. The more she’s invested (and as she also feels it: sacrificed) on this kind of lifestyle, the more it hurts to realize that political consumerism only can play a limited part in the overall solutions in transitioning into a sustainable society. Some people argue that small actions will lead to large scale actions later on. But as psychologists, we know that it’s better to practice the behaviors we want to get better at, instead of practicing something else in the same category. E.g. If we want to get good at running a marathon, we don’t have to start by riding the bike the same distance.
But how bad is it, for one’s psychological well-being, to put most of your engagement into actions you do on your own, like Elsa and many other people do? Looking at the research on loneliness and social support, it’s clear that lacking help from friends and social support can be damaging to one’s mental health. This seems to be more evident when it comes to handling difficult situations, such as coping with the emotional and existential dimensions of the ecological crises.
Studies show that social support is one of the most important factors to help us recover mentally from traumatic events. Good social support can be the difference between developing PTSD and being able to process trauma in a healthy way. Having good social bonds to one’s family, friends and acquaintances is connected to living a long and healthy life.
But merely having people around us is not enough. We need to perceive that we are given the support we feel in need of. People who experience low social support suffer the same negative effects regardless of how much support they actually get. Looking at Elsa in the example above, it’s clear that even though she has a lot of friends she still feels she needs to navigate the climate emergency mostly alone. Her friends are there, but still unsupportive, not joining in and not encouraging her. In her engagement, she is alone.
Feeling sad, afraid, hopeless and discouraged by other people’s passiveness are common themes that come up when we see and meet people struggling with climate anxiety.
Now, this is not to say that individual actions don’t serve a purpose (they make us more believable as messengers, are a way of adapting to sustainable lifestyles, are a way of living in line with our own values - to mention a few things).
We have yet to come across research that’s specifically looked into whether perceived loneliness in general also accounts for the kind of loneliness that can occur in the fight for a sustainable and safe environment. But, we can confidently say that if we want to take action in a way that is sustainable both for ourselves and the planet, we need to work together.
Practice engaging together. If you are already engaging in collective action: make it easier and more welcoming for new people to join in.
Let's use the impact arrow (read here for a longer explanation of it!) model to explore how we can amplify the effect of our actions by doing things together, and create social support at the same time.
For example: you want to work with the problem of land use in your country. Small scale actions with a short term effect can be to choose organic food when it’s not too expensive. To move up the scale on the short term axis, you need to completely change the way you eat, preferably grow most of your own food, and write emails to politicians and companies. It will be a full time job and will definitely change your life and experiences, but there is no evidence your work will spread to a larger group of other people. Looking for long term change, we need to analyze the situation from a systems level. One of many solutions to dysfunctional land use, is small scale farming and stopping the clear-felling of our forests. Joining a group of local farmers to talk to politicians about giving urban people access to land where they can grow some of their food, is a good way to start working long term, progressively moving forward on the impact arrow, tackling the problem of land use. It will help you remember that you’re not alone in your endeavors, that there are other people, who might possess complementary knowledge and skills to yours, and who share the same climate feelings as you are.
For the highest long term effect, you probably have to work on changing EU subsidies to not just benefit the largest and richest farmers with the biggest machine parks - changes that can be carried out by the people who are actually in the parliament, but that can also be speeded up by collective pressure from engaged citizens and social movements.
Examples of how the impact arrow can be used, and how interventions that result in long-term change usually involves collective action.
A few things to remember when aiming higher up and further along the impact arrow:
The more long term effect we’re after, the more we shift from isolated behaviors into multitudes of behaviors. We won’t be seeing the long term effects immediately, which means that we - in order to endure and stay motivated - need to break down our main goal into smaller goals and remember to celebrate wins and progress as we move along.
When working together, it matters a lot how we work together and how we support each other. Just putting a bunch of amped up activists or sustainability managers in a room doesn’t automatically lead to a supportive environment (collective action needs to be combined with functional strategies for emotion regulation - but more on that another time)
NEW RESEARCH ALERT!
Taking collective action as a way of supporting young people’s climate emotion
Just the other day a new research paper dropped, co-written by 23 young people all engaged in climate work, the majority of them personally affected by consequences of climate change.
The paper outlines the vastness of the emotional toll living through the climate crisis is taking on young people and their everyday lives.
But they also outline how others can offer support:
A wide range of actions can be taken to help young people like us to cope with our feelings; these actions include small validating gestures that can be done by anyone in our lives; emotional support in education, activist or disaster-response settings; or, of course, people in positions of power taking climate action seriously.
Working towards structural change, and using the power and mandate you might have is not only beneficial for the mitigation of climate change, but can also act as a way of supporting young people in their emotional well-being.
Policymakers and business leaders can help us cope by showing genuine commitment and taking meaningful, binding action, particularly at structural levels [.....] Many of our feelings (such as sadness, worry, grief and frustration) derive their intensity from the knowledge that the crisis is still not being taken seriously enough. If policymakers were more ambitious then we would only need to grieve the impacts that are already ‘locked-in’, rather than feeling worried and angry about the potential scale and impacts of continued climate neglect
In line with previous research the authors clarify that community based support can help people to cope with climate related distress, and that intergenerational collaboration can help maximize the use of available skills in combating the crisis. Collective action and emotion regulation go hand in hand - we need to act collectively and we need to support each other collectively.
Ref: James Diffey, Sacha Wright, Jennifer Olachi Uchendu, Shelot Masithi, Ayomide Olude, Damian Omari Juma, Lekwa Hope Anya, Temilade Salami, Pranav Reddy Mogathala, Hrithik Agarwal, Hyunji Roh, Kyle Villanueva Aboy, Joshua Cote, Aditiya Saini, Kadisha Mitchell, Jessica Kleczka, Nadeem Gomaa Lobner, Leann Ialamov, Monika Borbely, Tupelo Hostetler, Alaina Wood, Aoife Mercedes Rodriguez-Uruchurtu & Emma Lawrance (2022) “Not about us without us” – the feelings and hopes of climate-concerned young people around the world, International Review of Psychiatry, 34:5, 499-509, DOI: 10.1080/09540261.2022.2126297
That’s it for now. Remember that you’re not alone, and that the only way forward is together.
This newsletter is written by us: Frida Hylander, Kali Andersson, Kata Nylén and Paula Richter, Climate Psychologists, licensed psychologists specializing in climate psychology. If you like our work and wish to support us, please share this newsletter and tell people to sign up!