The article gave me confidence that some of the symptoms of burnout it describes were not unique to me, but are instead the result of growing up in a society driven by the fantasy of eternal economic growth on a finite planet. Symptoms like being overwhelmed by mundane tasks and feeling like I should be constantly working.
Why is this relevant to the climate emergency? Because, 31 years after James Hansen’s testimony to Congress, 27 years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 13 years after An Inconvenient Truth, and four years after the Paris Agreement, global carbon emissions are still rising with no real end in sight.
The result: We have “climate burnout.”
Just like it’s difficult to avoid paralysis while you’re drowning in student loan debt, working multiple jobs, and resenting the racist and patriarchal culture that surrounds you, it’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed in the face of climate change. It’s tough to stay engaged in any kind of fight for that long — even if it’s a fight for planetary survival.
Our standard climate solutions, like carbon taxes, don’t match the scale of the problem. The idea that we can just add a few policies just further enforces the status quo.
And when those uninspiring fixes fail to catch on, we fret about individual actions like giving up meat or traveling while knowing full well that the entire system needs a reboot.
As the article’s author, Anne Helen Petersen, put it: “[I]ndividual action isn’t enough. Personal choices alone won’t keep the planet from dying, or get Facebook to quit violating our privacy. To do that, you need paradigm-shifting change.”
That “paradigm-shifting change” should be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to climate politics over the past several months.
The Green New Deal has gone viral like no carbon tax ever could. In just a few short months, the pairing of labor and environmentalism has been discussed on 60 Minutes and has become a litmus test for progressive politicians. It’s what our generation calls for — a complete overhaul of the system itself. It promises a deeply personal sense of relief, a better world for each of us individually and for the planet at the same time. Will our generation get there? As Peterson puts it: “Our capacity to burn out and keep working is our greatest value.”