Overcoming Fatigue and Helplessness to Achieve Sustainability Goals

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

This semester, the Hixon Center launched its “Eco-Engage” Sustainability Dialogue Series. Since the series began in September, students, faculty, and staff from across the Claremont Colleges have come together for film screenings, panel discussions, and workshops – cutting across environmental issues on all scales, from the global context of the Paris Agreement and ensuing international climate action to how we might be more resourceful and eco-conscious with our food at home. In short, the series was designed to aid in both a personal and communal transition from critical thought and discussion on environmental issues to action.

Consistently, what prevailed in many of our conversations – even as we concluded the series – were feelings of helplessness and fatigue. In the final segment, a Sustainability Leadership Workshop co-facilitated by HMC’s Annenberg Professor Leadership Werner Zorman, we asked attendees to share with us which environmental issues concerned them most, and to describe obstacles they faced personally and interpersonally when addressing those issues. We found that people did feel helpless to act on the issues that concerned them, and for a number of reasons, including that:

  1. the issues were too grandiose for them to feel they could do something meaningful;
  2. their family, friends, or peers either didn’t care about those issues, or found those issues too negative to discuss in regular conversations;
  3. even for more localized issues (e.g., on-campus), it is either difficult to find the right people to talk to, or those individuals/groups serve more as gatekeepers than avenues for change

In tandem with all of that, we found that our attendees were exhausted or overwhelmed not just by the mere size and scale of the issues they cared about, but also by the frequency of negative news and discouraging current events – related to the environment or otherwise. As they scroll through their newsfeeds, people feel bombarded – leaving them too fatigued, or perhaps even too numb, to speak more to the issues or act meaningfully upon them. And as many of our attendees throughout the series have expressed, all of this sits on top of their own personal, academic, and professional obligations, leaving them with little time and energy to do much else.

Frankly, I can relate. Every day I experience the same struggle. I make it a personal point to read the news every morning and throughout the day, and oft-times I come across headlines that are particularly discouraging, frustrating, or downright sad. As a person whose personal, academic, and professional pathways have been profoundly shaped by serious interest and care for climate change and environmental issues, I sometimes wonder if it’s better to turn off the news. It does make achieving progress on those issues feel out of reach – as they sit on a scale where I don’t feel I can have much of an impact.

And when I bring these issues up to my friends and my family, I can see and feel the grimaces on their faces. They don’t want to talk about these things because they know they are distressing. When multiple students shared similar experiences at our leadership workshop, it cut deep for me. We all know these things are happening, and we all want to do something about those things. But for these reasons and more, we feel we can’t do much – including talk about the issues with people we care about.

If you are feeling helpless or fatigued, whether it be about environmental issues or otherwise, you’re certainly not alone. I can’t promise a singular way or path to overcoming those feelings, because there really isn’t one, but what I’ve picked up on throughout each segment of the “Eco-Engage” series is that people want to feel that they can meaningfully act on issues they care about and see an impact. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a couple of observations I’ve made throughout the dialogue series and offer a few ideas for how we might overcome the helplessness and fatigue that we feel to achieve sustainability goals.

First, I think many of us struggle to act on issues and feel that we can create change because we think and talk about issues on the highest levels. A common thread throughout our discussions at the Sustainability Leadership workshop was speaking about the issues at their highest and largest scales: suffering biodiversity and species extinction, environmental justice and pollution, climate change, political strife and opposition, etc. I found that speaking about these issues on those scales is a large part of what makes us feel so powerless to them. What I draw from that is that we have to start looking at these issues more bottom-up, and parse them out into smaller issues that we can address. One student at the workshop who brought up the issue of biodiversity also shared her passion for birds, and after some discussion with her peers, decided she would take on birdwatching and collect data on the species populations and migratory patterns of birds in the area.

And second, many attendees commented on their reluctance to talk about environmental issues because they felt many of the spaces they shared with peers or even with family were not warm to those discussions. By extension, they felt their immediate network did not necessarily share the same concerns as they did, and that this isolation was also discouraging. The reality is that nothing that truly matters is easy to talk about, and those discussions are inherently uncomfortable spaces. However, and as I shared in my previous blog post about my time at the AASHE conference in San Antonio, these conversations have to happen. In keynote speaker Katherine Hayhoe’s speech, her point was simple: to do something about climate change, we must keep talking about it – and to do that, we must start by empathizing with the people we speak to and sharing information with them that is relevant and important to them. I could draw this same point from our conversations at the workshop last week, when multiple students expressed they would make more sincere efforts to talk about the issues, which included sharing interesting documentaries with their friends or teaching about environmental issues at after-school and summer youth programs.

With all of that in mind, it seems to me that part of overcoming exhaustion and powerlessness is just not making our tasks harder than they have to be. When we keep thinking about the issues in towering ways, we will feel small. And when we talk about the issues in more argumentative or impersonal ways, we can’t connect with those closest to us. Reframing how we think about and talk about environmental issues – or any large societal issue – may do a lot for us psychologically.  Granted, it’s all easier said than done: reframing these issues is really an ongoing mental exercise, but I do think that it will serve to give us motivation to meaningfully act on the issues that concern us most. And if the motivation is there, we are bound to see results.