Campaigning for change, growing and sustaining political movements demands, more often than not, thankless labour. With no guaranteed outcomes, successes can outlive the lifespans of activists involved. One of the key challenges then, for organising toward social transformation, is fighting against activist burnout.
Burnout can take many forms – at New Internationalist, we often get letters from readers talking about climate anxiety – the feeling that the problems ahead, the spectre of total ecological doom, is too big a task to think about, let alone begin to unpick and fight on a local level.
It’s worth noting these tend to be from engaged, informed folks that care about climate change but aren’t necessarily on the frontlines of environmental defence work – still, a cause as totally all-encompassing as ecological breakdown requires, to some degree, mobilizing this constituency of people.
Make no mistake, climate anxiety is a real phenomenon – but there are tools to acknowledge, process, mobilize and appropriately utilize anxiety as a resource for the collective good. Otherwise, we risk letting our valid anxieties, descend into apathy.
To that end, there are three crucial strategies that I think, when embedded in the thinking of movements, keep people active in those movements.
1. Having a sense of history.
This seems like an obvious one – often social movements refer to the classic cases of political successes to morally appeal to the public – abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and so forth. But often these seem highly divorced from the present, or rather their link to today’s political moment isn’t sufficiently expressed. For instance, appealing to the abolition of slavery would be a powerful way to talk about the extreme disparity in black wealth in white-majority industrialized nations, but often I see vague, underexplored references to these classic cases.
The point is, organisers need to take it upon themselves to articulate relevant and powerful success cases to show that well, success in bringing about change is possible. Making use of activist wins in the recent past can be a great way to build confidence in this respect.
For instance, looking to the few hundred activists responsible for stopping construction of the Mid-cat gas pipeline that was due to be built across France and Spain this year.
2. Change doesn’t work in mysterious ways.
Often what I tell folks who feel despondent about the (seeming) impossibility of change is that there really is a method to the madness, and historical successes tend to show this. Firstly, common sense tells us that large-scale political changes simply can’t be brought about by a single individual, they require collective organization.
But perhaps less obviously, those collectives don’t need to be that large to have a meaningful impact. Social scientist Erica Chenoweth proved in her research that it takes at least 3.5% of a given population to overthrow bad, dictatorial regimes.
She collected data on all non-violent political campaigns to overthrow governments since 1900, where data covered the entire world and consisted of every case where there were at least 1000 participants. From 1900 to 2006, non-violent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. This was true even in those extremely brutal authoritarian conditions – a non-violent movement even brought down the Butcher of the Balkans in Serbia.
According to Chenoweth, a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, even with varying degrees of participation none of those campaigns with at least 3.5% participation failed.
The number itself is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s enough to offset the feeling that your movement isn’t ‘big enough’ to affect wholesale change. It’s also transformative – upending the idea that power flows from the barrel of a gun, meaning you can draw risk-averse people to get involved in activism.
To put the task in to perspective, in his 2015 book Wages of Rebellion , journalist Chris Hedges says:
Regardless of the precise source, there’s an appealing symmetry to that 3.5% figure, when placed alongside the conviction that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 must be kept below 350 parts per million (ppm) if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 3.5% means three and a half per hundred. Three and a half per hundred is the same as thirty-five thousand per million…achieving 350 parts per million in the atmosphere may require 35,000 active people per million.
3. Make care a priority.
Probably the most important strategy for avoiding burnout, and I can’t stress this enough, is understanding that movements are composed of people with real, specific and diverse needs.
Activists might deeply care about and depend upon the success of political projects, but they can’t be seen as tools to be sacrificed for demonstrations or any other political activity. To take an example, too often I’ve seen organizers encouraging others to be arrested, or seek confrontations with the police for the trade-off of favourable press coverage.
The emotional, physical and financial trauma that can result from this is hard to overstate and often can detract from the aims of the movement. Most recently, one of the Stansted 15 defendants admitted to feeling guilty that attention, finances and energy was displaced in trying to overturn their convictions, where the movement could’ve been pooling resources to stop asylum seeker deportations.
Prioritizing care within activism can even be as simple as strategizing about how everyone can be fed whilst on a demonstration, pooling together a strike fund or taking account of accessibility needs in logistics. Small adjustments like these make an immeasurable difference in removing the barriers to activism itself.
Even so, sometimes immediate, instant results fall short of the point of activism. As Angela Davis says:
You don’t only organize to see a material change in circumstance, you organize because the urgency of the situation demands a response.
Husna Rizvi is a journalist from London covering social movements, she works on the New Internationalist web editorial team.