Travel Log Redux: How Can We Assess the Success of Climate Activism?

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Climate activism: how can you be involved as a mental health clinician?

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As the warnings about the harm of climate change escalate around the world, I have wondered more and more about what sort of climate activism is helpful or not. Almost by definition, it seems like climate activism is not effective enough to date.

More specifically, my concern came to the fore after returning to Milwaukee from the Toronto area on a vacation that was documented in my Travel Log columns. Our use of fossil fuels in driving back and forth did not seem overly inappropriate, even for a climate activist like me.

I have considered myself a climate activist for over 16 years, since my 3rd grandchild was born and I had an epiphany about the risks of climate change for her future. Since then, I focused on developing groups of fellow psychiatrist activists, as well as writing and speaking on the subject.

Over time, the psychiatrist climate organizations that I helped start seemed to take the academic route to responding to climate change. As helpful as that might be for education and treatment of climate-related conditions, I came to think it was not effective enough in slowing climate change, so I dropped back some from participating. I was thinking that press releases or psychiatrists marching in protest were more necessary.

Some climate activists outside of medicine and psychiatry were taking a more drastic public path of protest. Over time that has included blocking roads, publicly harassing the ultrarich luxury travel, plugging holes in golf courses to protest the heavy water usage, and threatening to deface or damaging priceless artworks.

The Canadian artists called “The Group of Seven” are favorites of my wife and myself. While in Ontario, we were fortunate to see a special exhibit of one of them, Tom Thomson, as well as find 2 older, used books about him and his groundbreaking works. This group was renowned for going into the forests of northern Ontario and painting their interpretations of what they saw.

The day after we returned, I read that a climate activist splashed paint at one of Thomson’s paintings in the National Gallery of Canada and then glued himself to the floor. He was arrested, exclaiming that “we are going to continue to do this.” Thankfully, the painting was not harmed because it was protected by a glass panel. The group he was part of mentioned that this was a response to the damaging climate-related fires in the north. So, was this sort of activism helpful to the cause or not? Do the ends justify the means?

Those questions and concerns led me to examine the literature on what makes such activism successful or not, and how does that apply to psychiatrists? Surely, researching outcomes for broad social problems is much more complex and difficult than double-blind medication studies for patients. Nevertheless, the literature I perused does offer some useful guidelines, in my opinion best summarized on the website Effective Activist, which was developed by activists who burned out when their tireless work did not seem to be working well. Based on hundreds of studies from around the world and examining social movements over centuries, here are some of their general conclusions1:

-As an activist, you will automatically produce some positive social contagion and ripple effects by using compassionate methods.

-Use a variety of actions strategically, including messaging, education, protests, and mobilizing voters.

-Promoting good behavior is more effective than condemning bad behavior.

-Both individual activists and organizations can be effective.

As psychiatrists, we have done some of this over the last 16 years: we have dramatically increased the number of psychiatrist climate activists, there has been some variety of strategies, and there has been an emphasis on beneficial climate behavior. Add on our psychiatric expertise in the human thinking and behavior that has led to climate change, as well as identity the serious health and mental health adverse ramifications and how to treat them, and we have uniquely crucial roles to play.

My gratitude for today? Having the opportunity to contribute to containing the climate change challenge.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

Reference

1. Rogers T, Goldstein N, Fox C. Social mobilization. Annu Rev Psychol. 2018;69(1):357-381.

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