Burning Out When Fighting Climate Change Is Your Job

Photo: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

I didn’t realize I’d hit the wall until it had shattered me. My exhaustion had seeped past my flesh, through my bones, and into my spirit. The muscles around my hips had hardened into stones, pulling my entire body into an all-the-time spasm. My brain fog was so thick I couldn’t read so much as a text message without the letters lifting off the screen and scrambling themselves into nonsense. I was living through a one-person hurricane with winds so loud I couldn’t hear my own voice in her.

This was burnout, and I knew it.

It had been a while coming. For eight years, I’d worked behind the scenes in climate communications. In 2018, I wrote my first essay for a national outlet. From there, I went from being a Climate Person to a Public Climate Person. I found myself spending the next four years writing, podcasting, teaching, and speaking about climate change, climate grief, and climate justice. That was all while holding a full-time job — and living through a pandemic and all the regular stress of life like family drama and relationship trauma.

I wasn’t famous by any means, but I wasn’t anonymous anymore either. I was in a place where strangers on the internet cared what I thought and read into my silences. There was a certain wing in the incredibly white climate movement that increasingly seemed to look to me to give the “Black take” on any given climate issue. It felt like the climate movement was trying to fit me into a box labeled “The Black Friend.” I’ve never been good at setting boundaries, so I was chronically overcommitted, juggling calendars and time zones. By 2021, I felt consumed, depleted, eaten alive.

I was in good company. After all, we live in the time of the Great Resignation and quiet quitting. But what if the thing that’s burning you out is the same thing burning the planet up? What if you can’t quit — quietly or otherwise — because to do so would be to give up on the future? When the fate of the planet is on the line, it’s hard not to feel like the world is on your shoulders. Climate work creates a unique kind of burnout because of the ever-narrowing window for meaningful action, especially now that we’ve gone from “stopping global warming” to “preventing the worst impacts of climate change.” But “worst impacts” is a subjective and deceptive term. For some people, the worst impacts start at 2 degrees Celsius of warming. For others, 1.5 degrees is a death sentence. For still others, the world ended long, long ago.

That’s compounded if you’re doing that work in a Black woman’s body — the symbol recognized internationally as the superwoman. What happens when the magical negress becomes a damsel in distress? For us, burnout is not some gnawing fatigue that hums in the background of our lives. We are born with that kind of tired. The danger comes when we become sick and tired.

Last summer, after a year of running on empty, my body had one word for me: enough. Almost by compulsion, I cleared every calendar I could, arranged extended time off from my job, declined invitations and pitches, unceremoniously resigned from my seat on a nonprofit board, and gave up on any and all work travel plans. I started building a health team, including a Black woman therapist. I had decided to heal. And it wasn’t a road I could walk alone.

“It felt like there was a pit in my stomach, a knot that just wouldn’t unravel,” my friend Rhiana Gunn Wright told me. “There was a really overwhelming sense of dread. I dreaded getting up to do this work, I dreaded going to meetings, dreaded thinking about all the things I wanted to do and didn’t do.” I hadn’t seen Rhiana, a climate-policy researcher, since the pre-pandemic glory days when the Green New Deal seemed imminent. Since then, we’d both moved to places that felt more like home — her from Washington, DC, to Chicago, and I from New York to New Orleans. Like good millennials, we text often, but hearing her voice was a rare treat. As we talked, I imagined sitting at her kitchen table her, kee-keeing over coffee.

By Rhiana’s count, she’s burned out three times since she got involved in climate work in 2018. Her burnout was intrusive, overpowering, nearly tangible. In other words, it was like mine. We both broke into the public climate scene right around the time that the movement decided to “listen to Black women.” Today, we both have considerable platforms and profiles that give the appearance of accessibility — and consumability. We’ve bonded over the disorienting way that the broader, overwhelmingly white climate movement feels entitled to our time and energy. In my case, it led to one of the most maddening aspects of my burnout: not being believed.

When I was at my weakest point, I had the same conversation again and again. It would start with a request: to write an essay, appear on a podcast, speak on a panel. When I tried, with all my might, to decline, the request would turn into a negotiation. Often I would just ghost, but on the few occasions when I broke down and admitted that I was too burned out to take on new commitments, I was met with incredulity, as if “Black woman” and “burnout” could not exist in the same universe, let alone sentence. “So what I’m hearing is that you’re busy,” an audio producer once told me. “That’s interesting,” I replied. “Because I’m saying I need a break from busy.”

The climate movement is full of white men with savior complexes and white women who think replacing the patriarchy with girl power is a revolution. While I’ve never met a Black woman with a savior complex, I’ve also never met one who didn’t carry a savior’s burden. In the climate movement, as everywhere else, to be born Black and female is to be assigned “strong” at birth. Our spirits, it is believed, are indefatigable, our backs unbreakable. The assumption is so exploitative, so insulting it’s enough to make you want to holler and throw up both your hands. But, as a general rule, the immediacy of the climate crisis increases as your proximity to whiteness and maleness decreases — which is why Black women can’t just walk away. If we do, we could find ourselves written out of the future, just as we’re so often written out of history.

“America runs on Black people’s burnout,” Tamara Toles O’Laughlin told me. Tamara is trained as an environmental lawyer but has worn a million hats as part of the broader movement for more than 20 years. She recently launched Climate Critical Earth, which takes aim at the scourge of burnout in the climate movement. We met in 2018 when she led a workshop for women of color in the environmental movement that changed my life. Over the years, she’s become one of the first people I look for when I feel adrift.
At first, Tamara told me she’d never actually suffered from burnout. Still, she described moments of intense stress that sounded very much like the burnout Rhiana and I discussed, except she described it as being “burnt up.” She told me about a period in which her work stress caused her hair to fall out, when she found herself grinding her teeth during her sleeping and waking hours. That was how she knew it was time to move on, which she did again and again.

Our conversation mirrored one I had with Jacqui Patterson, a legend in the environmental-justice field, over plates of paella in New Orleans. Jacqui is known for her soft voice and strong conscience. She also has one of the most beautiful spirits I’ve ever witnessed. Although Jacqui remembered a period of such intense work anxiety that she developed a tic over her right eye, she hesitated to use the term “burnout.” “I was still able to do the work,” she told me in her signature calming tone of her. “I always had energy for that because I got to wake up every day and be accountable to Black people.” Once she decided to strike out on her own her, she said, the stress subsided. This year, she launched the Chisholm Legacy Project, which supports climate-justice leadership from Black frontline communities.

But while burnout may be pervasive, it is not inevitable. I learned that from talking to Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James, a formidable frontline organization in South Louisiana that has punched far above its weight taking on petrochemical plants — and won! I’d met Sharon once before and was overwhelmed by the aura of warmth and calm that surrounds her, much like Jacqui. Sharon credits her faith with keeping her flame alight. She says her father her, who led the way on integrating area schools, taught her how to pray. Sharon remembers how, on a night of violence from local whites, her father her turned to prayer to protect his family and their property his. It worked. “He always said prayer changes things,” she told me. “When I started doing this work, it kept ringing in my ear.”

My own grandfather was instrumental in integrating schools in Nashville, and as Sharon and I bonded over our families’ legacies, I tried to calculate the weight of all that generational trauma. But there are no metrics for that. When I think about the generations before me, I usually focus on their tenacity, ignoring the pain, the strife, the exhaustion. In other words, I ignore their humanity.

“When I first got diagnosed with depression,” Rhiana told me, “I was like, ‘My ancestors were slaves, what do you mean I’m depressed?’” She found herself questioning whether she had been raised by strong Black women or Exhausted Black women. But perhaps the best way to honor our ancestors is to break the cycles they couldn’t and to reject the notion that our bodies neither need nor deserve rest, care, tenderness. “I feel like I get more glances askance when I start wanting to do something about it,” Rhiana said. “I got the most pushback when I rejected burnout as the status quo.” Indeed, we live in a society that encourages us to give ourselves permission to feel bad, but never to feel better.

Sometimes the only people who can see your pain are the ones you don’t even have to tell where it hurts. As I talked to these women, I could feel myself healing. It wasn’t their strength that touched me, or even their intelligence. It was their love. It was bottomless. I let it wash over me, baptize me. Healing is a choice, a miracle.

I left those conversations reminded, yet again, of what I said when I first committed to climate work in 2014: These white folks can’t have my planet. I entered this space for the sake of Black people. No one else’s demands or expectations matter. I vowed never again to allow the neediness and entitlement of the greater climate movement burn me out, and certainly never to run me out.

Now, before I take on a new commitment, I ask myself: Will this benefit Black people? Black-led organizations or outlets have moved to the top of my priority list. It’s not a new praxis, but it is a deeper practice. Of course, I’ve not been able to extract myself from all white-dominated spaces, and possibly never will, but I’m making a concerted effort to limit my exposure, to reclaim my time. I’ve made it a point to strengthen my relationships with other Black women, including some in this story, no matter how busy I am or how busy I perceive them to be. I’ve taken smaller steps, too, like filling my home with plants and recommitting to my yoga practice, including the breathing exercises I used to skip. And, yes, I’m still going to therapy. As I’ve done so, my strength has come back.

Late in the summer, I built an altar to my ancestors and invited my grandmother — the woman I’d never met, but whose name I carry — into my living room. Since I was a small child, I’d believed her to be my guardian angel. I once saw footage of her as she guided my aunt down the stairs of the White Folks School in Nashville. As weary as she must have been then, I could tell that she would have maimed anyone who harmed her child. When I light the candle on the altar, she squeezes my hand with the same ferocity and helps me to stand straight again.

Climate change demands that we build a new world, so we might as well build one we want to live in. If I have anything to do with it, it will be one in which Black women can say, “I’m tired. I need help. I can’t carry on,” and where they’re not only believed, they are held. No longer the mules of the world Zora Neale Hurston lamented a century ago. Nor will we be martyrs. In this world, we will be whole, and free, and safe. Amen.