Late in the summer, while out walking, I often came across a woman and man swiftly and purposefully tending young plants in a recently revegetated area of a local park. They carried bottles of water in their bike panniers, swiftly anointed each plant, checked the mulch, pulled a few weeds and were on their way. Guerrilla gardeners perhaps. They were there and then gone.
I’ve thought of them often since then. It’s been an intense few years, with awareness of bushfires, COVID, erosion of democracy, and overseas wars hovering. Like many, I’ve been left with a sense of fatigue. Part of this has been a feeling of personal failure. Have I made a difference? It doesn’t feel like it. I’ve come to realise that to some extent my sense of personal equilibrium has been tied to external factors: politics, social inequality, and climate change among them.
It is not surprising that environmental concerns affect us in Australia, as they do globally. The American Psychological Association reports fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness and exhaustion as typical responses to the climate crisis: emotions that can lead to anxiety, apathy, burnout and effects on our immune systems. No wonder people often prefer to look away.
It turns out that such feelings are common across a range of activist networks. Conservationists working to prevent species extinction can have years of work destroyed when a precious remnant habitat is slated for development. Like that, a species, millions of years of evolution, is lost. It would be easy to despair. There are parallels in educational and institutional settings, where carefully thought-through developments might be abandoned for apparently arbitrary reasons.
We are each of us only one person; we are not personally responsible for all the issues we care about, and can’t solve them alone.
The close identification activists and innovators feel with their causes leads to further problems. A setback can leave people feeling as if they are, themselves, failures. Burnout and inaction can follow.
What to do about it is the question. “It’s all too much,” a friend said to me recently. “I’m better off in the garden watching the chickens.” It turns out that this is quite a helpful response, in the short term at least, since taking a break from a stressor and having other interests does make a difference. What works to defuse will vary, of course. Going for a walk, reading a book, gardening, yoga are a few things recommended. My great grandmother used to smash a glass, which I imagine shifted everyone’s attention.
But it’s not always about what we do; sometimes it’s about how we think. We are each of us only one person; we are not personally responsible for all the issues we care about, and can’t solve them alone. That, in itself, is a liberating thought. If we turn off for a while, action continues without us.
While it’s easy to become trapped in a ruminative loop of handwringing and distress, it doesn’t help anyone, least of all ourselves, even if there is some comfort in realising that we’re not alone. The truth is that looking after ourselves increases resilience, thereby enabling ongoing, sustainable action. It’s an approach that applies as much to institutional as to social and activist settings. Success is not the inevitable result of action, and failure is not personal. We are not defined by it. There is other work to be done.
After all, taking action, regardless of outcome, is a form of action itself. It is an affirmation to ourselves that what we do as individuals matters. Perhaps more importantly, it is a signal to others that they are not alone in caring about the world. It’s why I still think of ‘the gardeners’ so many months later. They expanded my horizons.
I occasionally check on the plants they tended in the summer, about half of which have survived. They acted when and where help was needed in a way that was practical and efficient. They had accepted some losses or damage as inevitable, but not as a personal failure. The more I think of it, the more I see the value of this unsentimental, though not uncaring, approach. As they said to me one day: “We do what we can, right?”