Sustainable Activism: Managing Hope and Despair in Social Movements

December 14, 2016

In her study of ACT UP, the direct action AIDS movement in the USA in the 1980s and early 1990s, Deborah Gould noted the powerful role that emotions play in animating social activism. She observed that any movement that seeks to make things better in the world has to manage despair.

We believe that this emotion arises because activists are haunted by the belief that they might lack the collective resources to address the damage and suffering they see around them, and which motivates their action. So in addition to its external opponents, a movement always has an internal, emotional enemy—a gnawing, repetitive, low-level fear and hopelessness that accompany the struggle for deep-rooted social change.

Over the last few years we have been interviewing people in the UK who have been involved in direct actions such as the occupation of power stations and airport runways. We wanted to explore how they managed the powerful feelings that are aroused by any exposure to the disturbing truth of climate change. As one young female activist put it to us:

“I know if I let open the floodgates it’s there…I know what that depressive, overwhelming ‘I feel lost’ feeling is. I’ve had it. It’s not something I enjoy.”

In our own experience of movements for change from the 1970s onwards we’ve been struck by the way in which a failure to contain despair can lead to unrealistic hopes, built on a denial of and a flight from some difficult truths. The group ‘puffs itself up’ to make itself feel big. It overestimates its own strength and underestimates the power of opposing forces. It resorts to faith (‘history is on our side’) and magic (‘come on everybody, one last push’). It prefers to engage in wishful thinking rather than face reality as it is.

This state of mind is one we often encounter in our work as psychotherapists. It’s often referred to as schizoid—a state where everything is split into polarities: black or white, all or nothing. For someone in the grip of schizoid thinking the world is binary—there is no ‘in between’. Everything is either one thing or the other, and the coin is constantly flipped between one perspective and it’s opposite: either my marriage was the wonderful relationship I always imagined it to be or I was living a total illusion; either I have this special and exclusive relationship with my children or I mean nothing to them at all.

One of the most painful and destructive things about schizoid thinking is that it reproduces the very anxiety it tries to manage. By creating an ideal state of affairs that can never be achieved in reality it opens the door to further disappointments, more desperate self-criticism, a greater sense of failure and more crippling anxiety which can only be dealt with by further splits. In politics one obvious and much parodied example is the factionalism that often bedevils political groups and social movements.

However the problem goes much deeper than this: it can also affect the culture of otherwise healthy groups. In movements around climate change we can see it at work in a series of unhelpful binaries like this: ‘the only realistic thing to do is change the system’ versus ‘we are powerless to change the system, so must focus on achievable changes in our communities and in our own lives.’ Another common binary is ‘all or nothing.’ We throw ourselves into an all-consuming commitment which, because it is all consuming, demands an immediate return. Then, when reality proves recalcitrant, despair sets in. As one of our interviewees put it:

 “…there’s definitely a danger of tying your whole sense of worth and purpose to this challenge that is so much bigger than you and is never ending.”

This binary is often linked to another which is ‘now or never.’ In climate change work this manifests in the belief that we must all act now or it will be too late,’ a belief that can all too quickly slip into the perception that it is already ‘too late’, and that processes have already been unleashed which are irreversibly leading us to catastrophe.

However, one hopeful sign that also emerges from our interviews with the current generation of climate activists is that they are developing a much more emotionally-intelligent culture. Direct action places activists in vulnerable situations, and rather than resorting to a macho denial this generation seems much more prepared to acknowledge their vulnerability. Many activists also seem able to take up a more proportionate response: times of intense engagement are often followed by a period of taking a step back and giving due attention to self-care and self-reflection.

Many of our intervieweees described a kind of proportionality to their engagement, where they could let go of their painful knowledge for a time, relegating it to the background while continuing to work on a practical project. “I think I don’t think about it,” explained one. “I’ve accepted it, found my own kind of path of how I live my life with those kinds of things going through it.” Rather like someone who has learned to live with a life-limiting condition like diabetes, these activists were no longer obsessed with climate change but concerned to act as effectively and dynamically as they could to counter its worst effects.

There were a number of elements at play when this balance worked well. The first was a sense of excitement and pleasure in the actions themselves. “It’s just really fun…if you don’t have fun day to day, you are going to burn out way quicker,” explained one interviewee. The second factor was giving conscious attention to building a cohesive group with a high level of trust, with proper debriefing taking place after actions and support offered to anyone who is distressed or traumatised by their experiences.

Some of our respondents also emphasised cohesion: “there’s an incredible sense of solidarity that comes out of doing a direct action,” said one, while others focused on the capacity of the group to accept and understand each other’s vulnerabilities: “we have Activist Trauma Support, we have medical support, we have debriefings, we have a really good way of helping people. We know what burnout is now. We know what post-traumatic stress disorder is,” said another.

Another important element was an awareness of the kinds of practices that can counter the intensity of being involved with such a difficult subject—things like time spent outdoors, in meditation, or with family. For one activist it was her father’s presence with a banner at all of her court appearances that mattered. Others spoke of a profound relationship with nature, the inner practice of yoga, or time spent walking with the dog after an intense day’s work.

Finally, the sense of building a movement that might prefigure the kind of society they hope will emerge in the future was hugely sustaining to almost all of our respondents—the conviction that they could create a world in miniature that was more caring, more responsive and more inclusive; in other words, a community. As a result, many of those we spoke to have begun to talk in terms of ‘sustainable activism,’ one that can survive for the much longer term. As one of our interviewees put it:

“The struggle will always be there for justice and for those kinds of things …there’s no utopic end point is what I mean. It will always be evolving and changing and I see my… there will always be another struggle somewhere…”

Sustainable activism has what Gramsci called a ‘pessimism of the intellect’ which can avoid wishful thinking and face reality as squarely as possible. However it also retains an ‘optimism of the will’, an inner conviction that things can be different. By holding optimism and pessimism in tension, sustainable activism is better able to handle despair, and it has less need to resort to binary thinking as a way of engaging with reality. It can hold contradictions so that they don’t become either/or polarities and can work both in and against the system.

Whilst it believes there can be no personal change without political change it is equally insistent that there can be no political change without personal change. It insists optimistically that those who are not against us must be with us, and therefore carries a notion of ‘us’ which is inclusive and generous, one which offers the benefit of the doubt to the other.

Finally, sustainable activism holds that it is never too late. In the context of climate change it is able to face the truth that some irreversible processes of change are already occurring; that the two degrees limit in the increase in global temperatures agreed at the 2015 Paris climate conference may not be achieved; that bad outcomes are inevitable, and that some are already happening. Nevertheless it also insists that this makes our struggles all the more vital to reduce the scale and significance of these future outcomes, to fight for the ‘least-worst’ results we can achieve, and to ensure that the world of our grandchildren and their children is as habitable as possible.

Credit: Flickr/Takver. Some rights reserved.

Paul Hoggett

Paul Hoggett is a psychotherapist and was co-founder and first Chair of the Climate Psychology Alliance. He is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at UWE, Bristol. His new book Paradise Lost? The Climate Crisis and the Human Condition has just been published by the Simplicity Institute.

Tags: building personal resilience, building resilient communities, climate activism, climate change, social movements