Magazine reporter Gisele Weishan examines the relationship between climate activism and its impacts on an individual activist’s personal well-being.
“History is the long struggle of man, by exercise of his reason, to understand his environment and to act upon it. But the modern period has broadened the struggle in a revolutionary way. Man now seeks to understand, and act on, not only his environment, but himself; and this has added, so to speak, a new dimension to reason and a new dimension to history.” – E.H. Carr
Whether regarding the fight for civil rights, human rights, climate action, or other issues, the image of the activist has historically been contentious. Depictions of angry faces, clenched fists and screaming men and women are often branded under words such as “riot”, “disruption” and in some cases, “criminality”. All this to say that, across the decades, the most prevalent representations of activism in the media have not been short of their largely negative connotations. However, like all binaries of light and dark, good and bad, this image of the activist allows for little nuance to the individual. The activist must necessarily be, at least to the majority of the general public, strong, militant and unsusceptible to the seeming vulnerabilities of those who speak more quietly. Yet behind this dehumanized veneer, activism is nothing if not the voice of a people. Thus, within this layered negotiation between the fight for change and the maintenance of personal well-being, one might wonder how the individual activist could ever find that illusory state of healthy “balance” we so often hear about.
In recent years, environmental and social justice issues have catalyzed a resurgence of activism and caused increased mental health deterioration, notably in children and young adults. According to the World Health Organisation, mental health conditions and substance abuse have increased by 13% worldwide in the last decade alone. Two of the most common among these are depression and anxiety. Studies further show that terms such as “eco-anxiety” and “climate grief” have emerged into the public’s mainstream vocabulary. They have become global phenomena in their own right. Considering that activism places people at the forefront of causes triggering this decline in mental health, it is worth investigating if activism is beneficial or detrimental to the individual activist’s well-being.
Vivian Konijnenberg, a freelance activism coordinator working across various organizations within the Netherlands, stressed that “it’s not possible to engage with these topics without it having an impact on you.” She talked about potential challenges that might arise for activists’ long-term well-being, notably that the sense of urgency driving activism might cause activists to overwork themselves in the hopes of speeding up the process of change. However, she noted that partaking in activism allows for a beneficial shared experience and outward expression of concern rather than suffering under the weight of such global issues alone. “I think the moments when we come together on the streets as a movement gives immense power […] Every time we stand there it gives a feeling of collectivism and of community and this sense that you can fight together […] I think that will always give me a sense of positivity to do this together with an amazing group of people that is only growing. That [experience] gives so much to all the people involved.”
Rosemarijn Vanteide, an active member and organizer of Extinction Rebellion, also expressed the sense of power stemming from her activism, which alleviates rather than exacerbates the concerns behind it. “I have the feeling that in the climate movement [itself] we might be less anxious because we are doing something. I think anxiety has a lot to do with helplessness […] Anxiety is like being a deer in the headlights. But if you know this is a dire situation and you can decide how to act in it and that your actions can have positive outcomes [which] might prevent damage then you become, not someone who this is happening to, but a player in the game.”
Activism alone might help ease anxiety stemming from issues by giving the individual a sense of power and control over chaotic global events surrounding them. However, the external responsibilities and pressures of being an activist have their own consequences for the individual’s mental health and well-being. The activist as presented in media today has become somewhat of a persona, like the increasingly stereotypical representations of on-screen millennial liberals. The term ‘activist’ has thus become somewhat of a loaded term, as Vanteide notes: “Being in the media, I can’t separate [my activism from my personal life], I always have to be ‘the activist’ and explain myself.” This relationship between the activist and the media is a complex one. Social media offers an essential platform for grassroots movements to render their message more accessible to a broader, younger demographic. Yet, it also gives voice to some of the movement’s harshest, arguably non-constructive, critics. Remarking on this, Vanteide recalled a recent incident: “People use [the word “activist”] as a curse word […] It’s depressing when you check [platforms like] Twitter. Two weeks ago, I was on a talk show and got so many hate tweets, it’s just painful. I try to ignore those and block people because you have to [just] filter those out. [But] I think it sometimes makes me less certain of how I say things […] For example, the day after the talk show, I was really sad […] so it put me off doing other things. But it doesn’t repel me from getting back on the streets.”
The relationship between activism and well-being is multifaceted. Activism can serve as an outlet for global concerns plaguing one’s well-being, while the external pressures this role demands can bring about their own set of hurdles to overcome. As E.H. Carr wrote: “Change is certain. Progress is not.” Between the constant ebbs and flows of personal change, as well as the work of activism to ensure the upward trajectory of progress, the individual activist may not, in the end, be able to achieve a perfect sense of “balance”. Maybe because this state remains elusive even to the best of us. Though perhaps most of all because activism is, alongside every fight for change, an act of unbalancing the way things are now, in the hopes of creating a new and fairer order for others and for oneself.
Gisele Weishan is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.