Transcending ‘Apocalyse Fatigue’

Based on what has transpired in these first couple of months of 2022, I wonder if others have started to think about the phenomenon of apocalypse fatigue described by Swedish psychologist, economist and author Per Espen Stoknes (see his TED talk online from 2017)? While originating as psychological rationale for the climate change knowledge-action gap, this phenomenon applies well to the crisis themes in the news in 2022.

News-worthy crises comprise many of the big trends I think about as a Planner and sustainability practitioner. Each have high urgency, anxiety and calamity at their heart. There are the movements that are (long overdue!) raising awareness of equity, injustice and unconscious bias issues — #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #SurvivorsKnowBest, #Reconciliation, to name but a few. There are worries about our planetary home and non-human relations. I see people taking to the streets in environmental justice movements that include ExtinctionRebellion, FridaysForFuture, the Climate Emergency Declaration. Let’s not forget about political polarization, the pandemic and the peace-ending actions this past week in Ukraine. Indeed, Putin is but one of several dictators on the global stage capable of unpredictable and devastatingly scary behaviour. So apocalypse fatigue? You bet!

But while it has been difficult to execute my 2022 leadership goal to help empower people with their own agency for positive change, I found really good advice to take from Dr. Stoknes. He speaks about five strategies humans use as defense mechanisms when they feel overwhelmed. The first is distance; when matters are large and feel beyond what we can control in our sphere of influence, it is normal to feel helpless and retreat to a small social circle and the smaller concerns of day-to-day living. Remembering we are social animals, Dr. Stoknes reminds us of the power of positive social norms to help us identify tangible positive changes within our control. I think about the personal choices I can make with my consumption decisions, for example. As early-adopters of rooftop solar panels and an EV, my husband and I love to field questions from friends, family and neighbours and watch as more panels and EVs pop up around us. I also think about the simple manner in which I conduct my work as a Planner. I try to be present and watchful for opportunities to offer allyship and ‘megaphone’ the voices and good ideas of people who may otherwise be considered at the margins. It is heartening to observe my colleagues and others within my sphere of influence also raising up these voices and ideas and adopting new sensitivity in their language and approaches. These things feel so small in the grand scheme, but the power they have to maintain my optimism about the future is huge. I believe this is working for others, too. I see people taking pride in the small act of not buying Russian products since the invasion of Ukraine as my evidence that there is value in small acts.

The second defense people generally use in scary circumstances is to desensitize themselves to the doom. So many examples come to mind when I think about the fact I learned about climate change in 1986 and have experienced ebbs and flows of concern, apathy, outrage and determination since. This is emotionally exhausting! I also admittedly struggle along my Reconciliation journey to understand the truth about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada and work to be aware of the unconscious biases I carry as a result of the norms I am steeped in. It’s hard to be 100% aware and intentional 100% of the time. It’s exhausting! But Dr. Stoknes has good advice here also. He recommends focusing on supportive ideas wherever possible, suggesting that for every doom concept it takes 3x more benefits. With climate change there has been much learned about the business case and cobenefits of transitioning to a climate-friendly economy; from safety to health to jobs. Pursuing benefits is a normal business strategy. Doing what we normally do, but looking at broader metrics to ensure we are choosing the right actions, feels achievable! Including justice among the metrics watched by organizations may mean I need not be alone in trying to daylight unconscious bias. The business case for diversity is also becoming more clearly articulated as researchers are finding that diverse teams deliver greater innovation, faster.

The third defensive stance paralyzing people is dissonance, that inner discomfort with the hypocrisy our lives currently require (unless you live off-the-grid as part of a diverse and functioning commune, that is). Many of us know the behaviours that deliver better environmental outcomes, but it feels like a sacrifice requiring a tall mountain of willpower each time… exhausting! Here, too, there are solutions. Nudge theory has its background in behavioural science and indicates that choice editing at the system level has a huge impact on behaviour. I say ‘bring it on’! If it was easier to do the right thing, such as separating my food waste for organic processing all year round and doesn’t require me to be a martyr who toils alone on a backyard composting mission to find the perfect balance of wet and dry, stirring and resting, odour and pest management and winter and… sheesh! In my circumstance I have huge dissonance in my life around food waste. Without non-martyr options, many of my vegetable peelings end up in the waste bin through winter months and a part of my heart goes with them. It just shouldn’t be this hard… and emotionally exhausting! A convenient, community-level food waste program is an example of a nudge. It’s apparently coming to my city within my lifetime. I can’t wait.

Denial, or holding silent, seeking inner refuge and adopting willful blindness, is the fourth defense we are all prone to adopt in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Any who have filled the last two years of pandemic-induced isolations with binge-watching behaviour (or any other escapism activity) already understand denial very well. Dr. Stokenes’ prescription? Help people visualize progress that is being made on an issue in real-time. With the pandemic, receiving regular updates from public health leaders about the success of containment measures to ‘flatten the curve’ provides a nice example. In the world of climate-friendly behaviours, the power of information and data has been proven to affect a variety of pro-environmental consumption habits, from household energy and water use to meat consumption.

Lastly, it is our identity that comes into play in the face of calamity. In his TED talk, Dr Stokenes quips ‘values eat facts’. Many who have worked inside large organizations know that Peter Drucker correctly advises on the importance of culture and no clever strategy will succeed without considering fit with, or intentional change of, existing culture. Here, too, there is a solution that can lead us out of the darkness of apocalypse fatigue into the light of optimism for the future. Stories — compelling stories about heroes making a difference and stories providing compelling possibilities can help shift our mindset out of paralysis and back into creative action. Here I refer to another gentleman by the name of Per. Per Grankvist is a ‘chief storyteller’ whose day job is to communicate the possibilities inherent in a carbon-neutral future. How cool is that?!? Per speaks about daily life practicalities. Through stories the future becomes both more real and more positive. Those of us who take in the stories become ourselves more optimistic, able to rise our gaze enough to see beyond our circle of defenses to the community of people around us. We don’t need to make all the changes necessary to move past calamity on our own. We have each other. Now THAT’S energizing!

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Brenda Wallace

Brenda Wallace

I am a Planner and Public Participation Professional on a learning journey at the University of Cambridge (MSt Sustainability Leadership).