I recently visited Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda, one of the continent’s most ancient montane rainforests. As you enter the forest from the surrounding tea fields, its acoustics and grandeur are arresting. Not far into the forest, I had the privilege of witnessing a super-troop of over 300 Angolan colobus monkeys. They were crossing the newly resurfaced national highway that cuts through the park. Small groups hurriedly dropped down to the roadside and crossed at intervals between the passing of intimidating ten-ton trucks. It was a tense and bittersweet experience.
The beauty inherent in nature has a way of stirring up formidable passion and commitment amongst those who, by experience or study, are alive to it. The environmental sector is marked by passion. And yet there are roads that cut through this passion – very literal roads in many instances. Humanity’s current mode of development is eroding biodiversity at an exponential rate. As a result, the global environmental crisis is deepening and those promoting environmental protection and reforms face very real stressors and experiences of burnout. The task feels overwhelming at times.
Terms such as “climate trauma” and “climate pre-traumatic stress” are now being used to describe how climate change scientists and practitioners feel about understanding and communicating the irreparable damage that human activities are inflicting on ecosystems. This trauma extends across the environmental sector. In my own field, the pace of new linear infrastructure development (roads, railways etc.), together with the knowledge of how this will impact ecosystems in Africa, is deeply distressing.
One of the keys to mitigating this trauma is diversifying passion and knowledge– to mainstream it across sectors such that the weight of environmental protection does not fall on a few but on everyone. This is in motion globally, particularly around the climate change agenda where cross-sectoral collaboration is growing.
While momentum grows, however, those working directly for the environment need to have a strategy for managing their stress and preventing trauma. The environmental sector is significantly underfunded and understaffed relative to its goals. There is so much to be done, and so much to be done now that environmental professionals can find themselves speeding along for impact in a psychologically unsustainable manner. The strategy I suggest here is reducing our speed limit so that we can experience joy and hope along the way to securing ecosystems for future generations. I suggest three key ways to do this and encourage all of us, working in all sectors, to join in practicing these:
Be rejuvenated by nature: The links between nature and psychological well-being are well established. Environmental professionals can be so invested in working for nature that we forget that nature works for us. By setting aside time simply to be in nature (without an agenda for nature), we can be mentally and physically rejuvenated. Senior professionals can also create a positive work environment for younger professionals by promoting a daily, tangible connection to nature. This can entail anything from walking meetings on a nature trail, to sharing interests in species around the office.
Localise your passion: Environmental professionals can think and work at such large scales that the task can feel unmanageable. Set aside time to develop environmental solutions and impact at a local level in your home, at your office, or in your community. The results will provide a reference point of encouragement and possibility that you can take to scale.
Build with nature’s strengths: Many environmental professionals will say that nature’s resilience provides a reason to hope. Engaging in environmental restoration is a way to build with nature’s strength. It is a hopeful practice, being both inspired by hope and inspiring hope. Explore opportunities to restore nature with peers, family and friends – whether it be planting indigenous plants in your garden, restoring an urban wetland, or participating in a tree planting exercise. The results will give you hope and momentum.
Sarah Chiles is an independent consultant who works in environmental governance with the aim of harmonizing grey and green infrastructure (built and natural infrastructure) in resource corridors and cities in Africa. She is also co-author of Growing Our Reach – An Intergenerational Leadership Toolkit for Conservation, and is passionate about optimising organisations to support young conservation professionals. Sarah is South African and has lived and worked in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the UK.