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Niki Harre 2016

Questions to ask yourself if you’re a climate change activist – or know someone who is

How do you fight for a sustainable, carbon neutral and equitable future without getting despondent or losing hope?

Being humble, joining with others and regulating your exposure to “bad news” is critical says Dr Niki Harré, of the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland.

Dr Harré says there is a tendency for people to see themselves as warriors for climate change who must “face the truth” by keeping up with the latest news and repeating it to others, sometimes leading to a mixture of anger and fear that can be exhausting and demoralising.

Dr Harré says it reflects a “double-apocalyptic narrative” where the world is seen to be ending and those in positions of power are not doing anything to help.

"This is extremely destabilising because not only are we in a bad way, the structures that govern us are deemed useless. That’s the primary rhetoric of many environmental organisations... So it’s almost impossible to maintain a consistent optimistic and hopeful outlook - there is pretty much nothing telling you that’s an appropriate response to the problems we face.”

So when it comes to taking care of your health and wellbeing, Dr Harré suggests we ask ourselves this question:

“What can I do to manage this?”

There are two sides of this, she says.

"One, is how do I manage it for myself. And the other is, how do I take my place as a social actor caring for others?”

In terms of a person’s own response, it’s about identifying how these issues make you feel, so you can step back from it when you need to.

“It’s about saying ‘welcome anxiety', ‘welcome despair’, and recognising that is part of the package that comes with caring deeply about these issues.”

But it also means taking breaks from news media and heated discourse that focuses on worst case scenarios.

"There really is no need to stay up to date every day with whatever is going on in the world. Take a day or a week to not expose yourself to this stuff – or more. If you want to expose yourself then go ahead, but don’t tell yourself it’s necessary to be absolutely up to date in order to take action because it isn’t. The issues don’t really change, or at least not so fast that a month away from the news means you will miss anything crucial,” she says.

"I often take media breaks because, for me, keeping up is very psychologically taxing but when it’s needed I’ll be there. I’ll write a letter or be a body at a protest, whatever it is.”

When considering your role, and the discourse you’re surrounded with, ask yourself, ‘am I going to pass on this bad news and if I do so, in what sort of spirit am I going to pass it on?’

"How am I going to talk about solutions? Am I going to spread negative talk or am I going to come back to all the people who are committed to this, which includes older people,” says Dr Harré.

Dr Harré says children and young people in schools need to hear that the older generations "have got their back” because the opposite is just not true.

"In some circles it can be sacrilege to suggest that our elders, bureaucracies, corporations and government officials are trying to be part of the solution.”

Dr Harré says collective responsibility is a fundamental part of helping each other through this complex issue.

“Knowing that how we talk about climate change impacts the mental health of others can reframe the discussion and help us all feel more empowered.”

The next time you hear an alarming statistic or news bite, Dr Harré suggests taking a pause, consider if you are going to pass it on and if so, how are you going to do so. Will you project your own fear onto somebody else or are you going to do a little further research and see if there is another side to the story?

“We should change the conversation from ‘how do we look after ourselves’ to ‘how do we look after each other?'”

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