How to save the planet and stay sane: activists and psychological resilience
Alex Olivera is one man advocating for biodiversity in a territory of two million square kilometres. He tells us how he keeps going.
Wildfires in Australia and California, devastating tornadoes and hurricanes in the American Midwest, and record hurricane seasons in the Atlantic… In recent months, we’ve been bombarded with stories of environmental doom.
You’d assume that everyone – in particular those working to protect our environment – would be filled with a paralysing sense of dread. In fact, many of those working long-term at the front lines of environmental action have developed a response mechanism. It’s one that allows them to keep working, turning fear into action even when the odds are heavy-set against them and their work.
One of these individuals is Alex Olivera, who works alone in Mexico on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity. He is one man in a territory of two million square kilometres and 130 million people.
“I’ve learnt to not put the weight of giant or unrealistic goals on my shoulders. I use the tools within my reach. Additionally, I don’t make my work my life - I have to get away from it and engage myself elsewhere, so I engage in activities outside of this, many related to exercise and nature.”
Where some may regard this as a tactic of avoidance, Olivera disagrees: “It’s not an escape, it’s a reinvigoration. My boss is the environment, and it is an honour to work for the Earth, but if I am exhausted and depressed, that helps no one.”
Olivera’s observations raise important points about what it means to be an environmental activist in our current age, and how to best effect our roles in this sector. They remind us that solution-makers and activists can still be at their best whilst prioritising joy and rest, which in reality are two fundamental components of the environment’s role in our lives.
Equally important to recognise is that our current environmental challenges are systemic, brought about in full by our current social and economic structures. Individual work has an impact – but many of our harmful environmental choices stem from an unsustainable and exploitative economic system.
“Of course we’re here to man the barricades, against overwhelming odds, and maybe it’s a losing battle, but I have to be able to sleep at night knowing who I am. I know the path I have chosen, and I’m giving it my best shot. I measure where I am at by our successes, not by our defeats.”
Olivera’s comments expand the notion of environmental engagement and activism to the rest of us, and are an echo of the now-classic environmental maxim: “Don’t commit the error of doing nothing just because you can’t do everything.” Both silently dreading the fate of our future or conversely attempting to live perfectly sustainable lives are useless to solving the issues at hand.
Maybe, just maybe, learning not what environmentalists do but about how they continue to do it, day after day, can serve as our motivation to join in both their hope and unrelenting action.
Sophie Liebel is an environmental journalist based out of Rochester, New York, who covers topics such as wildlife and bird conservation and community activism.