I’ve never seen an article spread like wildfire quite as much as Millennials- the burn out generation. There was so much resonance amongst people between the ages of 22 and 38 (the official “millennial generation”) as we all read and said “YES. This is me!” The main thrust of it is that we have been raised as busy folk, to strive to win, and combined with some huge structural influences (such as financial collapse and government changes to student debt) and societal shifts (the pressure we feel being faced with everyone else’s highlight reel on Facebook and Instagram) we feel a need to be constantly working, leaving us perched right on the edge of breakdown. We bring this burn out vibe to everything; our careers, our home life and our activism.
Since committing wholeheartedly to Extinction Rebellion I’ve been reflecting on how much more sustainable activism needs to become. This is partly because this is one of the features of Extinction Rebellion; they actively promote regenerative culture in their forums and strategy. But also because of the people I’ve met through it. I was at a roadblock on Monday with 40 people and every single new person I met there told me it was their first action! And then, when I’ve invited my old-skool activist mates to get involved they’ve told me they can’t because they are too exhausted from years of non-stop action. How can we make sure all these freshly-minted activists don’t end up like the second group?
The four Rs of Regenerative Resistance:
Do the activism that floats your boat. Don’t lock on and chant if the thought of it locks you up with dread. I know, I know, as an organiser that is scary even to TYPE! We worry that we won’t have enough people doing all the different things required. That everyone will just want to make the cups of tea and no one will want to be arrested.*
My friend went to an Empowered Activism workshop last week with a hundred other people. They had a long rainbow coloured piece of fabric and each colour represented something different – media, direct action, creative acts, communicating etc etc The facilitator asked everyone to take a moment to really feel what they were drawn to, and then to go and stand in that colour. My friend said that once everyone in place there was a palpable sense of awe in the room. Every colour in the rainbow was populated by people fizzing with energy. There were no areas less appealing. Each of our unique loves and quirks and gifts will be perfect for something, so let’s do the stuff we are drawn to.
Some social change theorists have suggested that there is no evidence that certain protests impact policy changes more than others. Some of history seems to suggest that revolutions take off according to uncontrollable features such as food price hikes. On one hand, perhaps this theory can be taken with a pinch of salt because often we’re not actually calling for revolution in our action. Often we are calling for a policy change (even though what we really want IS revolution, amiright) and the social sciences show us that there have been direct impacts from protests on policy – ie, the civil rights movement, same sex marriage laws.
Now, this IS complicated, there are a lot of unknowns in this. But I’ve come to believe that any successful action is almost always accompanied by Other Stuff. Shifts in public consciousness, economic collapse, uprising occurring in other countries, the right person at the right time. It’s rarely *only* the action. I raise this slightly messy thought in order to point out the problem with spending much of our time doing things we don’t actually like. If our activism is based on stuff that drains us, and then it doesn’t work because it’s not the right moment in history, then all we have is a bunch of weary, jaded folk and no change. Ugh. Nightmare. Common, common nightmare.
However, if our activism is an expression of one of our gifts, or if it builds up our communities, and gives us chance to meet our neighbours and have fun with our friends and dance and sing and makes us feel alive, and then it ends up not being the right moment in history, there is absolutely nothing lost. Even with a failed action, we’ve ended up as winners.
For me, part of the whole purpose of life is to connect with others and to connect with the earth. Activism is one of the many ways that I do this. If our world changes horrendously in coming decades, if it falls apart in war and hunger, as it is currently on the trajectory to do, really the only thing that will matter is the strength of our relationships and the resilience of our communities. The vibrancy of our love.
I invite you to really sense what parts of activism bring you alive. If it’s the face to face stuff – perhaps you could be the person that goes to the markets to tell people about your cause. If you love engineering, invent some new ways to get people locked on to machinery and gates. If it’s writing – could you do the press releases? If you are an artist, turn your basement into a banner workshop and screenprint the shiz out of the movement.
And I invite you to bring joy and fun to the weekly grind of your activism. Because there are planing meetings and strategy documents that have to happen. But you can you eat together beforehand? Can you have music and room for laughter? I invite you to look at your actions and ask “is there space here for MORE connectivity and MORE joy?” If you are doing a hardcore or somber action, book in an after-party so you can debrief and release the intensity of that.
A quick note about direct action. Make sure fear isn’t coming into play in a bad way. Getting arrested for trespass or obstruction (the usuals) doesn’t stop you travelling, in fact it impacts your life very little. A court date, a fine that the movement will help you pay, a bit of paperwork. I do sometimes wonder if the way we are raised to obey and comply and respect authority blocks us from being open to non violent direct action. Just for a moment imagine setting fear aside and joining the ranks of history makers who have been arrested. Exciting, no?
If we were more strategic, we’d burn out less.
I can almost hear the voices crying “of course you’re burning out if you’re okay with just doing community building and having fun! If you worked smarter you’d be more efficient and wouldn’t burn out!” Well, yes and no. We should absolutely employ all the tools out there. This great website has all sorts such as how to do a SWOT analysis which we use alot. We should do all that pre-work, yes, yes, yes. But also, sometimes it’s important just to turn up, not even knowing what to do. Simply to bear witness.
And if we feel like the success of our action depends solely on our watertight strategy, we’re getting into sketchy territory, where we feel unable to Rest and Rely on the other forces at work.
“If you get tired learn to rest, not to quit” says Banksy who has done a good share of righteous trouble making in his time.
Sleeping, relaxing, reading, zoning out to music, hiking, … these are all rejuvenating, restful activities. But we are so constantly plugged in (to our phones, our ambitions, our jobs) that it feels like truly resting is somewhat of a forgotten art.
We went to a Mumford and Sons gig the other week. Tim and I stood there, peering up at the stage, the only still ones in a sea of activity. All around us the other punters were texting their mates, trying to capture the best angle for Instagram, running back and forth trying to find other friends to get in this particular selfie. Everyone was bustling about, right in the midst of this moment of leisure.
One of the features of regenerative activism is relaxing into rest on a regular basis. Here’s this from an overview on rest and sustainability
“A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”
One of the things I found particularly interesting was the research showing that there is a strong link between having more holidays and not leaving a company! It seems clear that things like regular breaks, fully unplugged days each week, and a holiday allows us to be far more sustainable.
Last week I enjoyed a podcast with Srini Pillay, author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try about the power of the unconscious mind. It was all interesting but the bit that struck me is that every single day we check out for chunks of time. We all do. In order to try and get some balance our brains take us into an unfocused zone fairly regularly all day. Studies seem to show that one of the human beings design functions is to have a period of renewal every 90 minutes. If we just unintentionally let that happen then our minds will fill up with worries or to do lists or absolutely random stuff like what exactly was in that sauce on that pasta at Maria’s pot luck dinner? Was it, like, olives or those other weird little things that are like olives but kinda more fancy… tiny sour olive type things that telly chefs are always tossing in dishes… blimey what are they! Google is giving me nothing! Gah. I’ll text Maria. Or we use it to scroll through social media. (Or we override it with sugar or caffeine.)
Now, on one hand, that’s fine. But it’s not actually restorative. Our brains are checking us out from one thing, but we check in to another, unintentional act of busyness.
Pillay argues that we should schedule these check outs. Not just for efficiency’s sake, but to make sure we give our brains a chance to truly rest and play. So, once an hour, go for a walk or do some doodling. Lay down once or twice a day for a daydream or some breathing or a guided meditation. Don’t let your brain’s automatic rest function be sabotaged by your busy, busy mind!
I invite you to remember the art of rest. I invite you to carve out time for micro-breaks, protect our unplugged days, book in a holiday and remind the other activists in our groups about the importance of rest so we can create new cultures that make room for renewal.
I invite you to reject the idea that the success of our activism is directly related to busy-ness. There will be intense moments of activity, yes, but your path to a successful action should not be filled with little gremlins whining at you to keep checking how many people have signed up, or whispering that you are not doing enough. And if it’s accompanied by a palpitating heart and a sense of paralysing overwhelm, it’s possibly time to take a rest.
Rely on others. Trust in their work, trust in the possibility of a spiritual awakening, trust that all the time, every second of the day the movement towards love and justice is absolutely throbbing with growth.
Joanna Macy and the other thinkers and doers of the Deep Ecology sphere have so much to offer us as we seek to activate more trust in our activism.
This diagram of Joanna’s shows the three parts that will make up the revolution we are seeking. There are Holding Actions – this is the activism that leads to policy change; shifts in law that lift oppression and create justice in small ways incrementally.
Then there are Structural Changes – which is used to describe the creation of new ways of working, for example, farming methods that honour the earth, or communication principles such as NVC. Under this heading comes permaculture and unschooling, holacracy and socioacrocy and communal housing and transition towns and all the other radical ways of being. These are quietly blooming and offer us the structures we will require in the future.
And then: Shifts in Consciousness – this is where people step into new understandings of themselves and the earth. Bothboth poets and scientists can helps us doe that. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have done this for a lot of people I believe- allowing people to take the blinkers from their eyes. And then I’m sure the poems of Maya Angelou and Rumi and Kate Tempest have done this too- sparked a transformation in people’s hearts. It’s also where mysterious shizzle goes down. Psychedelics and meditation and yoga and dance and hiking and surfing and the random kindness of strangers can all give us the insight we need everyone human on earth to have: that we are one, that love is the only thing that matters.
Now, I used to be a full time activist. It was my actual job, AND my hobby. A proper activist geek. Then a couple of years after we had kids I left that job and we moved to New Zealand to live off grid, to try and have as little impact on the earth’s resources as we could. For five years we ticked along, and then at the end of last year the IPCC report woke me as if from a long slumber. HOLY HECK. I began scrabbling about, kicking myself for not campaigning night and day on climate change for half a decade. I joined Extinction Rebellion, devoting a day week to getting it off the ground here in Aotearoa.
But hearing Joanna Macy describe the three things that are imperative to the transformation of society gave me pause. I realised that I *had* been doing the important work all along. The way I raise my children with empathy, the way we give them freedom over their learning with unschooling, the way we live gently on solar power, our rejection of toxic beauty and cleaning products, all of these small things are a part of it. An intrinsic part. Somehow, faced with extinction and the panic that took hold of me, I’d lost the thread I’ve held since Ramona was a baby- that parenting can be a great source of world change.
We don’t have to see all the work that is not strictly protest as a waste of time. We don’t have to shake everyone and say “GET ON THE STREETS RIGHT NOW.” We can trust that people being them good selves is also important.
Of course, I do still implore people to get on the streets! I am a communicator and an activist so where my work intersects is to invite people, without judgement or demand, to join me in protest! But I have a lot more of a sense of joy and freedom in this, rather than overwroughtness that we aren’t doing enough.
And I also kind of think it’s possible that if activists had less of a bad rap (as burnt out, angry, judgementalists) and we moved about with more trust in humankind, more celebration of all the different ways peace and justice is being nurtured, with more joy and creativity and freedom, more people would be discover the activist inside them. More people would discover that activism could bring them alive too.
This one was hard to name. And it might be hard to express. Let me try!
It’s about seeing our activism afresh – less an arduous “gotta save the damn world” activity and more an expression of our identity as part of the earth and the one-ness of humankind- and then having markers that remind us of this.
For a while my favourite quote was “Activism is the price I pay for living on on this planet.” A bit of it still resonates with me, for sure. (*ahem* burn out generation) These days I have a different view. These days I see activism as an almost spiritual act. It’s an expression of who I am, as much as dancing or writing or singing might be.
John Seed, one of the original protesters who occupied the rainforest to stop them from being chopped down, said that a transformation occurred the longer he sat there, locked on to a tree. He moved from being John Seed protecting the rainforest to the “rainforest protecting itself.”
Many years ago we were in a remote country, stealthily going to investigate some exploitative industry happening in an area of ecological importance. As I walked through the rainforest I was at a loss. We were walking hours, yet what could we do once we got there? We had no plan. But as I walked, I felt the answer come to me, imprinted on the soles of my feet, as if from the soil. It was simply “You’ll know what to do.”
So we get there, and for some reason the drilling rig workers leave. I walk up to the rig, and the door is open, and the keys are in the ignition. So I reach in and take them and on the way home toss them away. It was all so matter-of-fact. Like the rainforest just found a way through me to eat up those keys for a bit of reprieve.
My hope is that we can all experience something like this. To truly understand that we are not simply earth-dwellers, but we are the earth itself. One of the organisms that makes up this living breathing planet as much as a forest or the coral is. Activism can bring us this realisation.
So now I choose to mark my activism in this way. I bring prayers of thanks, I might light a candle, I’ll certainly sing a song. These are reminders to me that activism is a sacred act and that it doesn’t all rest on my shoulders.
Starhawk, writer and activist of some forty years, tells a story in her book The Twelve Wild Swans, about being involved in the anti-globalisation protests of the 90s. She’s describing sitting in jail for five days after being arrested at the World Trade Organisation blockades in Seattle with a bunch of the other protestors “Lucy, a trainer and organiser who at 31 was an “old lady” in the group, remarked that the average life span of an activist was 3 years. So why was I there, at forty-eight, a little fat and creaky from sitting on concrete floors and mixing it up with the cops? Because for the more than thirty years I’ve been active politically, I’ve had rituals to sustain me, close friend to support me and participate with me, and a deep personal connection to the great powers of love and freedom that inspire us to work for change.”
How many burnt out activists does it take to change a light bulb?
Well, none, because they can’t change anything.
Let’s stop doing this burn-out thing, huh? Let’s work together, play together, rest together in joy and in trust. And then we’ll be on the streets together in forty years time. Little grannies and grandpas locked on, chanting, knowing we’ve done all we can for the dream of a more just and beautiful world.
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PPS- Video on what to do with the grief we feel about the climate.
Video from the back of a cop car the last time I was arrested