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Helpless to Helpful: how to make a real difference

I think about climate change daily. It’s a cause I am deeply invested in, like people across the globe, and thus I spend a large chunk of my time reading, writing, and talking about it. While sometimes I find this inspiring and hopeful, most of the time I’m left in despair. And I am not alone. Young people are increasingly likely to report feelings of grief over the loss of a healthy planet. Many climate activists now report suffering from burnout and eco-anxiety. Studies have found that scientists studying climate change often suffer from depression, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness.

After a year of being confined to our homes, many of us have spent more time on our screens than ever before. And it has been exhausting. The pandemic has caused massive death, suffering, and poverty across the world in a deeply unfair way. In the UK, scandal after scandal has exposed the corruption at the heart of our government, corruption that remains unpunished from politicians that remain in office. We turn on the news at night, and whether it be police brutality or war, we can almost be guaranteed to see violence. So, after being bombarded with atrocities for a year, I have found myself increasingly frustrated. Not just with the state of the world, but with my total inactivity in response to it.

How are we supposed to make real change, when there are infinitely many problems that deserve our attention? How can we move away from feeling overwhelmed to galvanising ourselves into action? The key might be to understand framing. Framing “involves emphasising certain elements of an issue over others, shaping the way the issue is understood.” If we frame climate change, or any other cause we are passionate bout, in a way that inspires hope, we might reduce burnout and make others more receptive to our cause.

Friends of the Earth UK encourage those suffering from eco-anxiety to reframe their fears and burnout, recognising that it is normal and healthy to be worried about a global crisis set to completely disrupt our way of life. Psychotherapist and lecturer Caroline Hickman argues that ‘eco-empathy’, or ‘eco-compassion’ might be better terms, as it connects us to the fact that there are real people suffering from this crisis; it is not a sign of a mental health condition to care about that.

Information is not neutral, and the way it is framed will significantly impact how we respond to it. Studies have found that in the U.S., using the phrase ‘war against climate change’ rather than ‘race against climate change’ makes people more likely to act. Why? War is a man-made phenomenon, and thus framing climate change in this way makes people more likely to view it as a human caused problem that should be fixed. War also has connotations of struggle, destruction, and death. Again, the connotations of this choice of phrase emotionally motivate people to change. This shows the importance of language in affecting how we feel.

As part of the Instagram activist generation, I have fallen into the trap of reading endless infographics about an event or crisis, without actually doing anything in response. This is likely because what I was reading was crafted to get attention on social media; it was probably short, snappy, a bunch of facts and very little nuance. There is a time and a place for an infographic, but it is not the way to gain a solid understanding of complex issues. Last summer, in the height of the Black Lives Matter movements, many Black racial justice activists advocated for people to get off Instagram and read books about a topic as multi-faceted and historically created as institutional racism and white supremacy. Books not only financially support and compensate those who educate us, but provide a detailed and nuanced conversation that social media simply does not provide. Taking the example of climate change, books will often frame the issue in a particular way or emphasise solutions so that a reader not only feels knowledgeable, but hopeful.

The most important thing that most of us can do is join a local community group advocating for change. In an increasingly disconnected world, millions can join mass movements can join mass movements, but as soon as it stops trending the movement disappears. History tells us that we need consistent pressure for change at a grassroots level. The will of real people will always be more important than hashtags on a screen. At a personal level, the solidarity and camaraderie of those in grassroots organisations can provide a support system for when feelings of despair arise.

The key message from framing is that we must feel hopeful. If we don’t think we have any agency to enact change, then we are unlikely to try. Let’s connect the old-fashioned way, people coming together to give their time in support of a cause. I think we all need reminded of the power of people.


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