Jessica Brown, founder of the non-profit climate change collective Co-Benefits that works to empower Kiwis to take kinder climate action, on the importance of imperfect environmentalism.
Last week, I caught myself trying to live consciously at a frenetic pace. Running late and literally running across town. A slow leak from my lunchbox seeping last night’s curry into my laptop. My internal monologue panting through it all, “Must... Live... Lightly...”
Sometimes my pursuit of the slow-life feels anything but slow.
It can be exhausting, but it is also entirely unsurprising. Our screens bombard us with doom about our changing planet. Scroll up, and our feeds become glimpses into perfectly curated zero-waste lives and bamboo toothbrushes that ‘save the planet’.
As a longtime sufferer of social media comparitivitis, it seemed obvious to me that the perfect #ecolifestyle, maybe even the cure to global warming itself, was just within reach. All I needed was more time, more money and more motivation. If I could just create an urban eco-utopia complete with a verdant veggie garden and a plastic-free pantry, we would all be saved.
I am a textbook perfectionist. It was only a matter of time before my growing anxiety about our changing world found itself a home in the high-standard setting, people-pleasing part of my brain.
It initially manifested itself as a coping strategy: “Scared? Do all the things”. But, over time, it proved to be less helpful: “Scared? You’re not doing enough”.
Eventually, and somewhat paradoxically, the unattainable #ecolifestylegoals became discouraging: “Scared? Don’t even bother”.
Eco-perfectionism feels like you can only have a credible environmental impact if you live a flawlessly sustainable life. It is telling yourself, “Unless I can do the perfect job of it, why even try?”
It sets you up for feelings of failure, powerlessness and despair and can lead to apathy, inaction and burn out. Long story short, trying to live a perfectly sustainable life may be a rational response to the climate crisis, but it is a completely unsustainable way to live.
I know. It is all painfully privileged and reeks of fragility. Obviously, sustainable perfectionism is a luxury for those rich in time, money and power. For millions of people around the world today, the climate crisis is a life or death stressor often heaped upon a pile of other pre-existing stressors. In a particularly cruel twist, these are typically communities who are far less culpable for warming the planet than we are. That’s a whole other level of climate mind f*ckery I struggle to imagine as I scour the supermarket for vegan cheese.
Yes, we are lucky to be looking at the climate crisis from a place of relative safety. Yes, we need to be wielding every tool we are given to help stop the planet warming. Yes, we should be trying to balance out the inequity.
But yes, we should also be able to have a lie-down after meticulously labelling every glass jar in the pantry. Why? Because no-one can help if they are completely worn out from operating a label maker.
My curry-keyed reality check last week was a reminder to chill, to keep a reign on my perfectionism despite myself. To not try to do it all at my own expense. I’m learning that being an imperfect environmentalist can be a form of self-care, and long-term, you can’t care for the planet unless you also care for yourself.
In case you’re on the same plant-based gravy train to burnout, I’m sharing some mantras I found constructive in lifting me out of my funk. They got me feeling hopeful, a little excited for the future. I hope they help you too.
Reminder: you can change your mind
According to Clover Hogan, a 21-year-old eco-anxiety researcher with a killer TED talk, “the single most powerful thing any one of us can do for the planet and for ourselves” is to change our minds.
She reasons that “solving climate change is not your responsibility because it is outside your control. What you are responsible for is the thing inside your control, indeed the only thing that has ever been inside your control - your mindset”.
Taking control means rewriting the stories we tell ourselves that get in the way of us taking climate action. It involves catching limiting thoughts as they happen and flipping them on their heads. For me, it meant reframing, “I’m too busy juggling work. I can’t do enough” to “I’m doing all I can.”
It is tricky, and I’m still struggling my way through it, but just becoming aware of the narratives I tell myself and knowing I can change them has been hugely productive.
Reminder: don’t get bogged down in the detail
‘How to fight global warming’ guides are often riddled with tips that, in reality, do very little to reduce global carbon emissions. To have a meaningful impact, we need to be prioritising the big wins, the acts that drastically reduce carbon emissions. Instead, spending our days sweating the small stuff only leaves less energy, time, and headspace to do things that matter.
Taking a step back and prioritising climate actions based on their actual impact (with the help of a carbon calculator like Future Fit) has helped me get a leg up out of the quicksand. It means I don’t despair if I forget my reusable grocery bags at the supermarket. Not only is it better for my mental health, it means I can make better decisions for the planet.
Reminder: it’s not just about you
The climate crisis isn’t just about one person; it’s about everyone.
I sometimes find myself blindly focused on my own carbon footprint when I should be looking at community-level changes. Unless we are influencing what others are emitting, we cannot have much of a global impact. By being self-centred, we lose sight of the bigger picture, something Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson calls ineffective navel-gazing.
Thinking about the wider collective impact of an action is an easy way to reprioritise spending your time. It might mean setting up a compost bin at work or helping low-carbon projects like those we fund at Co-Benefits. It also turns out that working with others can be way more gratifying than fixating solely on yourself.
Reminder: you do you though
The climate crisis is an intersecting web of issues full of nuance: it is so much more than the weather; it is food and fashion and fuel. It’s impossible to be across it all, so why are we trying to do it all?
Surely our efforts are best spent zeroing in on the one area where we can be most useful. That special spot that aligns with our personal values, circumstances, barriers and privileges and is where we can have the most significant impact.
Rather than look at what others are doing, I found it helpful to think about where I could personally do the most good. Recognising that it’s okay to do my own thing in my own little niche has freed me of the feeling that I need to do everything right all the time. There is a jazzy Venn diagram framework for thinking about this if you need some inspo.
Reminder: it should be fun!
Any climate action we’re taking should be from a place of care and not from a place of guilt. If it’s a drag, it’s not going to stick.
According to Sarah Jaquette Ray, a core lesson we can learn from indigenous populations is that joy and hope are the ultimate keys to sustaining and maintaining resilience in the face of a crisis. It’s not fun if you’re wearing yourself out.
For me, it’s asking someone else to do the composting because worms make me squirm. It’s realising that with all the global brainpower and burgeoning political will directed at solving the climate crisis, the future is looking rosier every day.
There is a silver lining to it all. Zooming out to look at the bigger picture led me to co-found Co-Benefits - a nonprofit climate change collective making it easier for Kiwis to have a meaningful impact - and I’ve never felt more optimistic.
We crowdfund for low-carbon projects that both help vulnerable communities build resilience and remove tonnes of emissions from the atmosphere. For the price of a coffee a week, joining us means saving more than 3x the emissions of swapping to an electric car for a year, for around 1/200th of the cost.
It’s proof that you don’t have to be the perfect environmentalist to have an outsized positive impact; helping others reduce their emissions (while you work on reducing your own) can make a massive difference too.