Nothing ever really stays the same. But it feels like it does. Lately every day begins to feel a lot like the previous one. In the absence of alternatives, we’ve developed our new routines in our homes while we wait for lockdown to end — wait for things to change.
But the change already happened. The change is still happening. It’s hard to reconcile that in this state of locked-in limbo we are also experiencing one of the most enormous upheavals of our generation. News headlines glorify the system breakdown and shout: everything is changing. Things will never return to normal.
This might not be the last lockdown, and an economic recession seems inevitable. Everyone’s lives, jobs and futures are suddenly thrown into disarray. Industries are collapsing. It’s a state of constant and drastic change. And it’s terrifying us. Mental health issues are skyrocketing and there’s a limit to what help is on offer. The uncertainty is agony for — and sorry to briefly sound like an alien reporting on Earth — a species dependent on structure.
But I didn’t write this just to be depressing. I’m writing because I’ve been wondering how we can stay grounded when everything around us seems unstable. And when it comes to climate activism — how do we pursue our goals and keep fighting when it seems ambitious to predict what will happen next week? Some of the things we’ve spent so long demanding are simply not possible while everyone is stuck indoors, and governments slow down to prioritise saving lives above all other issues. For many environmental campaigns, their demands went out the window.
It’s true that we’re in a state of dramatic change. Just as we have always been. I couldn’t have predicted a year ago that I would be in Belgium in a pandemic-triggered worldwide lockdown. But I also couldn’t have predicted that I would be working at the NGO I do now, or that I would be considering moving to Ghent, or that I would have learnt some basic Dutch and enough French to just about wrangle a conversation about politics (no I will not prove it).
The point I’m making is this: we are always changing. If I compare myself to this time last year, or to 2018, the new experiences and things I’ve learnt and have all shaped both my personal life and my work.
The way I do climate activism and even think about climate justice is so different to how it was last year — and my work adapted. As a student I was single-mindedly focused on saving the environment and anti-plastic crusades. Then I graduated (check: huge personal change) started working for NGOs focused on poverty and fair trade (personal change two) and my views and life shifted accordingly. I lived abroad with a new government and new vocabulary for talking about climate. Environmental issues became one element in a great tapestry of global development issues, like a mosaic where focusing on one shard prevented you from seeing the whole picture.
At first this new avalanche of information and perspectives in my job held me back: it was like a never-ending exam you hadn’t revised for and the point driven home time and again was that I know nothing about climate justice. There is always a factor I haven’t taken into account, some science I don’t understand, some action I failed to participate in. Now it is difficult for me to talk about the environment without also bringing up the links to global poverty and inequality (I’d be a really fun guest at parties except there aren’t parties for me to not get invited to).
So my question is: faced with the constant personal change and the additional global uncertainty, how do I stay grounded and confident in my climate activism work? How do I pursue climate justice when there’s a chance that next year my interests have changed and the things I said today are no longer true or relevant, and the chance that I might not even want to write about climate at all?
There’s plenty of self-help guides for dealing with uncertainty in a mental health sense. I won’t rehash them all here — this is a good one to start with. But to be a climate activist is to work in a permanent state of uncertainty and change, and to be single-minded and confident despite that. No pressure.
External changes are inevitable and they don’t render climate activism invalid, even when they throw a spanner in the works: the lockdown doesn’t render the impact of the physical climate strikes redundant. They echo in the public memory and in the consciousness of politicians and have already shaped the narrative of how we talk about climate. No doubt climate strikes helped significantly with reframing climate change into a climate crisis.
Also, when we work for climate justice, we work driven by fundamental values, not external things. I value the environment, biodiversity, social and economic justice. Therefore the things I do, even if they change, are all driven by those values. Perhaps tomorrow I realise that the brand of tea I thought was the most ethical actually has microplastics and that I need to switch brand. I would have changed my behaviour, yes, but my values stayed the same.
The same is true with wider social change. We cannot be activists in the same way as we were pre-lockdown, but that isn’t a failure or really the obstacle it can seem. As long as you are single-minded in your values, external information or events that change what you can do, just inform how you fulfil those values, rather than disrupt them.
I said I changed a lot from last year to now, and I have. But actually I haven’t changed at all: I still feel that same determination to do what is best for the planet and that drive to sign every petition banning plastic and tell the world about it (as exemplified by this blog).
The things I have learnt have changed how I act, how I think. And outside of the climate, my general life experiences — because believe it or not I do have a life beyond rambling about the climate — have shaped me as a person, and that in turn has shaped my behaviour. It shapes how I work, what I work on, and how I think about my work. But my values remain the same.
This is how I stay grounded in my climate activism, even in a state of upheaval. Because this state is nothing new to me (although usually the government isn’t enforcing it). We are always changing, whether we know it or not. But as long as you have the same drive behind your actions, the same purpose, it keeps a whole host of seemingly disconnected and inconsistent behaviours linked together by that common purpose.
This got quite philosophical, probably because of my dramatic Spotify playlist. The point is this: climate activism, or any work you’re passionate about, isn’t about stubbornly remaining fixed on the same specific goal even in the face of overwhelming change and new information. Activism is understanding that these events and information will change your behaviour and your work. You should be able to change your mind about things and accept you were wrong or uninformed. This doesn’t undermine what you’re doing. The things you learn tomorrow don’t cancel out the work you did today.
Right now you can’t get certainty from the outside world. So get it from yourself. I tell myself that no matter what happens tomorrow, I will still try and do what I believe is best and say what I believe is true. I am grounded in my values and my ultimate goals — even if the specifics get swept up in the changes along the way.
I write about climate issues. If you want to hear more ramblings about sustainability or just want to chat, follow me on Instagram @coffee_and_casstaways, Twitter @casstaways, or email me at email@example.com