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January 13th, 2020 9:29:15 am

The Psychology of Successful Activism

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This paper supports the view that a necessary ingredient of public philosophy is a working knowledge of the psychology of successful activism. In particular, emotional dimensions of psychologically successful action are explored. For the last decade my research has centered on the question of the theory-action gap in ethics (Kretz 2012, 2013, 2014a, 2014b, 2015, 2017, 2018). The theory action gap points to the distance between espoused moral values and the practices that reflect such values. Numerous studies in the environmental literature illustrate that knowing the right thing to do regarding the environment does not necessarily result in action, and practical experience bears this out (Kretz 2012). Motivation from theory to action necessarily involves emotion, and more specifically emotions that support empowered activism (Kretz 2012). A poignant example can be found through examining the emotionally debilitating and resultantly disempowering psychological impacts of climate change which include solastalgia, ecoanxiety, and ecoparalysis. Given the importance of emotion to empowered action, I recommend that much like the orientation of positive psychology, it would be fruitful to focus attention on what works when it works regarding effective environmental action as it intersects with emotion (Seligman and Czikszentmihalyi 2000). For example, hope as an emotion that empowers is considered. I begin by outlining some of the emotions that tend to be associated with awareness of climate change harms, and the attendant threat of despair. Next, I explore emotional resources for empowered action as well as some of the practical orientations that support empowered action.

Psychological Impacts of Climate Change

There is a growing body of literature on the psychological impacts of climate change. The threats, risks, and impacts of climate change present challenges to both emotional as well as social wellbeing (Hayes et al. 2017, 7). The 2017 Report from the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica notes that oftentimes mental health is not automatically associated with climate change, while other challenges to health are; for example, worsening asthma and allergies, and various diseases (Clayton et al. 2017, 4). Mental health challenges presented by climate change, however, should be generally acknowledged as a serious concern given their far-reaching impacts (Clayton et al. 2017, 4). The implications of climate change generate “stress, depression, and anxiety; strain social and community relationships; and have been linked to increases in aggression, violence, and crime” (Clayton et al. 2017, 4). When individuals are multiply oppressed such harms are amplified; consider, for example, toxic imperialism, and environmental racism and classism (Attfield 2009, 231, Bullard 1994). Those who have the fewest resources to attend to the impacts of climate change are those who tend to face the most negative effects (Clayton et al. 2017, 4). Moreover, thus far, most of the interventions to support psychological well-being in the context of climate change are nascent, administered ad hoc, and are mainly accessible in “developed” countries, while sustainable mental health care is urgently needed in developing countries for those who are most marginalized through intersectional oppression (Hayes et al. 2018, 9). Also worrisome is that the psychological responses to climate change that are increasing include conflict avoidance, resignation, fatalism, helplessness, and fear (Clayton et al. 2017, 4). Such responses detract from the ability to adequately address climate change and the ability to provide the supports necessary for psychological resiliency (Clayton et al. 2017, 4). Additionally, ecological mourning and grief are topics of import gaining increasing recognition (Cunsolo Willox et al. 2012, Cunsulo Willox and Landman 2017).

In the effort to identify the emotional impacts of climate change, new terminology is being developed. New concepts help to map current, recurring, phenomena that cannot be adequately tracked unless they are named. Glen Albrecht highlights that mental and physical health, as well as an overall sense of wellbeing, is directly related to one’s home environment, and when such places are threatened it can lead to disease and distress (Albrecht 2011, 45). Somaterratic illnesses are illness of the body (soma) that pertain to the earth (terratic) and threaten physical wellbeing; think for example of pollutants (Albrecht et al. 2007, S95). Psychoterratic illnesses identify illnesses that pertain to mental wellbeing (psyche), and such disease maps the destruction of healthy links between one’s self and one’s territory/home (Albrecht et al. 2007, S95).

Examples of psychoterratic illness include solastalgia, ecoanxiety and ecoparalysis. Solastalgia “refers to the pain or distress caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the negatively perceived states of one’s home environment. Solastalgia exists when there is the lived experience of the physical desolation of home” (Albrecht et al. 2007, S96). For example, in the Upper Hunter region of New South Whales there has been expanding power industries and open-cut coal mining, and one Indigenous interviewee commented: “It is very depressing, it brings you down…Even (Indigenous) people that don’t have the traditional ties to the areas…it still brings them down. It is pathetic just to drive along, they cannot stand that drive. We take different routes to travel down south just so we don’t have to see all the holes, all the dirt…because it makes you wild” (Albrecht et al. 2007, S96-97). Solastalgia captures the times during which one feels the desolation associated with one’s territory/home being destroyed by oppressive forces that one is unable to stop and the attendant impacts on sense of belonging, sense of control, and community and personal identity (Albrecht et al. 2007, S96, Albrecht 2011, 53).

So too, do ecoanxiety and ecopararalysis help to map the emotional landscape. Ecoanxiety captures growing anxiety associated with an unpredictable and significantly changing environment (Albrecht 2011, 48). Not all failures to adequately respond to, for example, climate change are due to apathy (Albrecht 2011, 50). Ecoparalysis highlights that what might mistakenly be though of as disengagement, avoidance, or apathy is actually ecoparalysis (Albrecht 2011, 50). The theory-action gap, here and throughout, indicates times in which knowledge fails to motivate action. Albrecht argues that existing gaps between knowledge, values, and behavior, in which ecological knowledge fails to generate behavior that reflects this knowledge are a global source of ecoparalysis and ecoanxiety (Albrecht 2011, 50). The loss and despair many people experience regarding climate harms—much like large-scale traumas following natural disasters—can result in individuals questioning core beliefs about themselves, others, and the world more generally (Clayton et al. 2017, 45).

For individuals who teach topics pertaining to the environment the concerns mentioned above are unsurprising. Sarah Jaquette Ray, for example, says “her students find their study of climate change so depressing that she's added lessons to help them cope with their emotions” (Fahys 2017). Ray notes that if the goal is for students to in fact address the problems climate change presents, then they need the requisite “emotional skills and the emotional tools" (Fahys, 2017). Unfortunately, the prospect of engaged activism when one is weighted with such psychological challenges can appear bleak. As such, first I will attend to dimensions of psychological resilience and later I will touch on approaches to successful activism.

Resilience and Adaptation

Susan Clayton et al. define resilience as the ability, be that of a person or community, to “cope with, grow through, and transcend adversity” (2017, 40). To be sure, the ability to respond with resilience should never be taken as justification for generating or tolerating increasing immoral harms. However, when those harms are inevitable, or unavoidable, or immediately present resilience is a helpful skill. Methods of promoting resilience and minimizing suffering in the context of the environmental crisis occur at multiple levels of organization (Clayton et al. 2017, 40). To support the success of individuals in becoming resilient, the following suggestions address both personal attributes and support social cohesion (Clayton et al. 2017, 44). With regard to Personal Attributes and Action cultivating active coping and self-regulation, finding sources of personal meaning, building belief in one’s ability to respond with resilience, fostering optimism, and increasing personal preparedness are recommended (Clayton et al. 2017, 42-43). Regarding Social Connection it is suggested that one support social networks, enhance connection with relations and role models, uphold connection to place (if possible) and culture (Clayton et al. 2017, 43-44). With regard to Community Action the recommendations are to engage with community members, create opportunities for meaningful action, and work to increase social cohesion and cooperation (Clayton et al., 50-52).

Psychological adaptation also requires attention. Katie Hayes et al. argue that psychological adaptation requires the following sorts of responses: acknowledging the grave threats climate change poses and the resultant global crisis, coping strategies to manage the thoughts and feelings associated with climate change so that they are faced rather than avoided, and behavioral and psychological engagement wherein people adjust their behavior and lifestyle to reduce threats and increase protection (Hayes et al. 2018, 8) Adaptation measures that address the psychosocial impacts of climate change can take the form of, for example, “policies, practices, behavioral interventions, community-based interventions, specific training, and pharmacotherapeutics” (Hayes et al. 2018, 9). More general approaches to mental health problems and illnesses that are climate change related include: “primary care interventions, individual and group-based therapy, cognitive based interventions (including cognitive based therapy, cognitive restructuring, and, stress inoculation training), and crisis counselling” (Hayes et al. 2018, 9). Direct experience in nature, as well as preserving nature, can also be used to address mental health and wellbeing in the context of climate change (Hayes et al. 2018, 9).  Moreover, a deep connection to specific places and species can help provide a sense of personal investment and stewardship to help overcome feelings of ecoparalysis, ecoanxiety, and hopelessness (Hayes et al. 2018, 9). Moreover, biodiversity generally has a positive effect on cognition, attention and mood (Hayes et al. 2018, 9). Hopeful action as an example of psychological adaptation wherein hopeful intentions support climate change mitigation and adaptation behaviors (Hayes et al. 2018, 8).

Hope is an emotion that powerfully supports engaged action and works directly against the threat of despair. My working definition of hope is one where the achievement of the hoped-for goal is uncertain, in that if it is certain hope is not necessary and if it is impossible then hope would be epistemically invalid. For a hope to be justified it must be realistically possible, and one ideally tempers the strength of their hope with associated probabilities of the occurrence of the hoped-for outcome. Hope requires a sufficiently world-mapping belief if hope in a particular outcome is justified. Interestingly, it is those who lack hope who fail to adequately map existing states of affairs, rather than hope operating as a deterrent from seeing the world clearly. High-hoping people calibrate goal expectancies utilizing relevant boundary conditions, while those with extremely low hope tend to experience extreme delusions about reality that interfere with desired-goal attainment (Snyder 2002, 264-265).

Hope is generally contrasted with despair. Trudy Govier contends “To despair is to lose all hope, to be without hope, to be overcome by a sense of futility or defeat, to believe that there is no possibility at all of getting the desired object or outcome” (2011, 247). Despair involves disengagement, if one believes no action can make a difference the result is that no action is taken (Lueck 2007, 251). If hope in achieving a goal is absent, there is no rational motivation for action.

The strategy I will adopt in what follows is consistent with the approach presented by positive psychology. Although a disease model of human functioning is informationally helpful, a near exclusive focus fails to adequately identify all that contributes to thriving (Seligman and Czikszentmihalyi 2000, 5). An adequate methodology for cultivating hope in the context of climate change involves addressing what hopeful people are like and the activities in which they engage. What works and why it works should be foci. Psychologist Charles Snyder’s work is informative here. On Snyder’s account hope reflects “individuals’ perceptions regarding their capacities to (1) clearly conceptualize goals, (2) develop the specific strategies to reach those goals (pathways thinking), and (3) initiate and sustain the motivation for using those strategies (agency thinking)” (Snyder et al. 2003, 122-23). Highly hopeful people tend to adopt stretch goals that push one beyond previously attained goals (Marques et al. 2014, 36). Intermediate goal achievement supports additional growth in the direction in which one hopes (Marques et al. 2014, 36). Developing pathways thinking which indicates strategies to achieve goals, and agency thinking which involves initiation and continued motivation for utilizing those strategies, requires a mutually supportive relationship where planning creates action and that action informs expectations and future planning (Drahos 2004, 22). Hope is a process which supports cycles of expectation, planning, and action which enable agents to discover their agency and the power therein (Drahos 2004, 22). Agency, however, is always socially mediated.

Hope, like all emotions, is socially constructed and ecologically embedded. Social scaffolding is required if one is to achieve one’s hopes. Victoria McGeer discusses “peer scaffolding” which indicates how one’s agency is reinforced through others recognizing and supporting one’s hopes and through one supporting the hopes of others (McGeer 2004, 109). Achieving hoped-for goals is necessarily relational. If one wishes to fulfill and individual hopes one depends directly on other’s broader circles of action (Drahos 2004, 20). Growing hope for meeting individual and collective goals requires supportive environments (Snyder 1995, 359).

When climate change results in disempowering emotions, there are a bevy of concerning outcomes. Despair leads to terror management which is exhibited through ineffective coping mechanisms like hyper-materialism and down-played problems (Kelsey 2012, Andre 2015, 2). Lower hope is linked to avoidance behavior, suicidal ideation, and feeling stuck, while higher hope is linked to feeling confident and energized, challenged by life goals, low levels of depression, and experiencing positive and affirming internal dialogues (Snyder 2002, 261-62).

In contrast to disempowering emotions, hope is positively correlated with positive affectivity, perceived problem-solving capacities, self-esteem, and perceptions of control in life (Snyder 1995, 357). Those with higher hope have more pathways to their goals when they face blocks to those plans because they possess the agentic thinking to activate themselves and the imaginative capacity to conceptualize alternative routes (Snyder 1995, 357). Having high hope often assures success at reaching one’s goals and is associated with having greater amounts of more difficult goals and having superior coping skills (Snyder 1995, 357-58).

Although justified hopes must be based on achievable possible outcomes, what is hoped for today and the associated action today influence what becomes reasonable to hope for tomorrow. Justified hope requires a world-mapping description of existing states of affairs, but the interpretation given to that state of affairs can make a significant difference as to what sorts of futures are believed to be possible. An emotional response of hope facilitates motivation for action in a positive direction. In contrast, if one believes change is not possible, and resultantly refuses to engage in the actions required to achieve the hope-for goal, then failure operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy (Lueck 2007, 253). All this to say, there is a multitude of tools at our disposal to respond to the emotional impact of climate change that promote action rather than disempowering feelings of despair or of being overwhelmed, depressed, and anxious. Regarding effective action, we can gain understanding about how to build capacity by taking our cue from effective and resilient activists.

Activist Strategies that Work

Thinking more broadly about activist strategies that work, in Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds she communicates an impressive amount of activist wisdom. Her perspective is refreshing in that it is based on the messiness of on the ground activism. Brown observes a new way of organizing taking place which involves decentralized leadership. The benefit of having decentralized leadership includes the fact that leader-based movements can be devastated by the loss of a leader (Brown 2017 70, 98). Brown advises that we need to disrupt “the hero narrative concept that one person (often one white man, often Matt Damon) alone has the skills to save the world” (Brown 2017, 198). Once settler culture in the west lets go of the lone hero narrative, change can more fruitfully be imagined as “a collective, bottom-up process” (Brown 2017, 198).

Brown notes that diverse leaders must be cultivated to be “emotionally resilient and connected to high-trust networks that can act quickly with efficacy and integrity” (Brown 2017, 176). The foundational role of trust in viable relations is also reflected in Indigenous traditions (Whyte et al. 2018). These networks can “evolve and develop into functional self-organizing networks that can deepen their shared analysis to fuel strategic action, align around longer term priorities, and experiment with collaborative action, learn, and improve their practice” (Brown 2017, 176). Brown contends this approach is “the way to build lasting power and make long-term structural change for a more just and sustainable world” (Brown 2017, 176). Every person holds pieces of the solution, everyone has something to contribute (Brown 2017, 63). Also crucial is learning that “in organizing and relationships, accountability is key for building a lasting base; when folks see change, they feel their own investment is worthwhile” (Brown 2017, 63). Brown here confirms what hope theory indicates. Seeing change through manageable goals being achieved serves as a prompt for further engagement in that direction because it is clearly worthwhile.

In conceptualizing goals, starting with small manageable goals and building up from them through communities of support helps scaffold the emotion of hope which facilitates action. Those goals should not be construed linearly though, as that fails to reflect actual complexity. Brown argues that “Transformation doesn’t happen in a linear way, at least not one we can always track. It happens in cycles, convergences, explosions. If we release the framework of failure, we can realize that we are in iterative cycles, and we can keep asking ourselves—how do I learn from this?” (Brown 2017, 105). Rather than seeing things through the framework of failure, we can acknowledge that every “failure” operates as data we can build on for future success (Brown 2017, 14, 18, 54).

A hopeful direction for climate change action, conceived from the bottom up, is to listen first and foremost to the experience of those who are most oppressed. It is those who are currently marginalized and survive on the margins that “tend to be the most experientially innovative—practicing survival-based efficiency, doing the most with the least, an important skill area on a planet whose resources are under assault by less marginalized people” (Brown 2017, 198).  Ethically defensible forms of environmental and social action never speak for the groups who are oppressed, rather those who are privileged act in a supporting role (Freire 2012, Brown 2017, 64). It is the communities “most impacted by a political, social, economic, or environmental injustice” that must lead the visions, strategies, and actions (Brown 2017, 64). Brown envisions the activist story wherein there is a move away from direct action that is reactionary and touches primarily on surface-change, and a move toward direct action that is systemic-change-oriented (Brown 2017, 63). An additional ingredient supporting action in the face of climate change is the way in which radical imagination is being encouraged.

Radical imagination is necessary for envisioning better possible ways of being, it provides a direction for which to aim. Radical imagination moves humans from merely surviving, following, and flocking and instead invites the conscious envisioning of where we want to go as we fly (Brown 2017, 21). Brown candidly points out that, “At this point, we have all the information we need to create a change; it isn’t a matter of facts. It’s a matter of longing, having the will to imagine and implement something else. We are living in the ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance….” (Brown 2017, 21). Here the emotional dimensions of activism are clearly flagged.  Brown argues that is crucial to recognize that fundamental shifts require “small steps—having massive visions and making them attainable with specific goals that can be measured and felt both internally and by those who participate…” (Brown 2017, 65). Success affords an associated positive emotional experience that can be used to move from theory to action.  


For those of us interested in public philosophy, viable strategies for moving from theory to action matter. In particular, exploring the emotional consequences folks experience when they encounter ethical issues like climate change helps to illustrate the significance of tending to emotional impacts of ethical harms. It is worthwhile to cultivate emotions that empower, such as hope, which necessarily must engage with empirical realities but can help create the ground from which radical imagination can bear fruit. Activists benefit from activism that is sensitive to how emotion functions. Hope operates as one method for dealing with the emotional fallout from climate change, and it is a method that is reflected in activist communities. Exploration of the variety of emotional orientations that empower will contribute to a deeper comprehension of how theoretical understanding can lead to positive action. This is of particular import given research findings that indicate one only needs 3.5% of a population out and loud for a government to have to listen and reflect the will of the people, or dissolve (Chenoweth 2017).


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