Running helps me clear my head. It’s a simple activity really, if you just omit the tired muscles and burning lungs that I’m personally still growing accustomed to. All you have to do is get up and go, take it one step at a time. In the chaotic, often overwhelming undercurrent of this past year, I’ve found (solo, masked) morning runs to be a surprisingly meditative routine. Until recently, I took for granted the clean, crisp air that made them so enjoyable.
As a Southern California native, I’ve gotten quite used to seeing the word “wildfire” in news headlines. But this September, I was jolted back to the reality that our burning coast is by no means normal. Of course, wildfires are necessary to an extent, but the magnitude at which the August Complex fires devastated the west coast was nothing short of heartbreaking – and terrifying. On the worst day of the bunch, the Air Quality Index of Los Angeles hovered around 200: categorically speaking, “very unhealthy”. And I consider Los Angeles to be extremely lucky, because regions farther north had it much worse than us.
With skies turning amber, ash piling up on car windshields, and the smell of campfires in the air, my neighbors and I retreated indoors, shut all of our windows, and left behind any illusion of normalcy, whatever that meant at the time. Without external distractions, I was then left to ask myself: how does one cope with the stress of the climate crisis when confined within the walls of their home?
On December 2nd, Our Climate hosted an event entitled “Resilience as Resistance: Mental Health and Climate Activism”. Myself and others my age had the opportunity to hear from seven mental health professionals on the importance of reflection and self-care within the climate justice space. Among the advice that resonated with me most was the emphasis they placed on allowing yourself to feel the difficult, uncomfortable emotions associated with this work. As Dr. Sara Walker reminded viewers, “Distress is a rational and valid response to something that’s distressing.” Climate change is distressing. Living through a global pandemic is distressing. Accepting these realities doesn’t make you defeatist, it makes you human. Validating your own emotions is a vital first step in prioritizing your mental health, especially because the complex intersections of these crises affect each individual so differently.
It should never be shameful to allow yourself to feel and ask for support where you need it. This fight is exhausting, after all, and no one has the capacity to give 100% 24/7/365. It’s so incredibly important to take breaks, find joy, and stay connected to loved ones – to protect both your own health and the longevity of your activism.
When I see pictures and videos of past years’ climate strikes and marches, I can’t help but long for that sense of community, of solidarity, once again. Nine months since Los Angeles instated its first county-wide Safer-at Home order, it’s surreal to see crowds of thousands gathered together without the concern of an ever-worsening public health emergency. Humans are social creatures by nature, and it’s intoxicating to be part of a crowd – part of a movement. So how do we foster connections during a time when physical isolation is the only safe option?
As activists, we are constantly searching for ways to sustain that same energy despite our circumstantial limitations. It’s important to remind ourselves that while the climate crisis is more present than ever, so is the drive of climate activists to contribute to solutions, whether physically together or apart. Our work may look slightly different in this moment, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be impactful. In the words of Dr. Joel Nigg, “This struggle goes on throughout history, and our part is to keep the light alive and make a difference in our time.”
Well, this is our time. As the “first responders” to climate change, it’s up to you and I to be resilient, take time to recharge, and stay in this fight together. So that as soon as it becomes safe again, we’re ready to hit the ground running.
Aja Burslem is an incoming freshman at Stanford University planning to study public policy, sociology, and environmental ethics. She has worked with Our Climate as a National Leadership Intern since September, an experience that has expanded her breadth of knowledge surrounding climate activism and policy solutions. A native of Southern California, Aja has witnessed the devastating impacts of the climate crisis firsthand – from heatwaves to coastal erosion to ever-worsening wildfire seasons. She wishes to pursue a career in the public sector that allows her to address not only the root causes of climate change, but its myriad of social and economic consequences as well.