The Utility of White-Hot Rage

Living in the era of climate change might make us feel guilt, or grief, or anger. How do those who think about these problems every day keep going?

Demonstrators shout slogans during a global youth climate action strike in Madrid.
Oscar Del Pozo / AFP / Getty

Usually, a story like this starts with a quick roundup of alarming statistics and a reminder of all the latest climate disasters: heat domes, floods, hurricanes, etc. I’m going to skip that part. Most of us get it already. We understand with our rational minds that the climate is changing, and we feel that it is changing in the deepest pit of our gut, where dread and fury live.

A poll conducted by Yale and George Mason University researchers in September found that 70 percent of Americans are worried about climate change, and 47 percent describe themselves as “angry” about it. I’m in both of those groups. In my 15 years as an environmental journalist, I’ve always been able to ground myself on a bedrock optimism that humanity will get its act together. Lately, though, as the pandemic has dragged toward its third year, the West has continued to burn, drought has parched my part of the world, and climate action has stalled at the federal level even with Democrats in control, that has changed. I am burned out. For some people, this might manifest as fatigue, or disengagement. For me, it’s anger. On a near-daily basis, I can feel my blood sizzling in my veins.

Living in the era of climate change makes us feel lots of things: guilt for our own part in heating the planet, grief for what we have lost and will lose, fear about the future—and anger at selfish decisions made by the powerful people who got us to this moment. How do those who think about climate change every day keep getting up every morning? Taking care of their mind and body is a priority for all of the people I spoke with for this story, but so was something else: using their anger.

“There’s always either a slow burn of anger and, like, a raging fire of sadness, or vice versa,” Mary Heglar, an essayist and a co-host of the podcast Hot Take, told me. “When I’m deep in despair, I’m doing all the self-care … but when I’m deep in anger, that’s when it’s time to get active.”

When she’s sad, like many seasoned climate thinkers, she tries to show compassion to herself. But when she’s angry, she channels that fire toward her writing and podcasts, which share vital information about what is really responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. (Hint: It is not your daily commute or even your annual vacation. It is fossil-fuel companies and the politicians who have served them.) “You got to be petty!” she said, even if that means replying to inane, greenwashing tweets from fossil-fuel companies.

“There is such a thing as righteous anger, because that is not about you and your personal ego; it really is the anger you’re feeling on the behalf of the vulnerable,” Dekila Chungyalpa, the director of the Loka Initiative at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me. The initiative is a home for faith leaders who want to engage with climate change. Chungyalpa herself learned about transforming anger into love from her upbringing as a Tibetan Buddhist, as well as from Black women leaders such as the late bell hooks. “That kind of anger can galvanize and create change,” she said. “And the trick is to figure out how to direct it in a way that is productive.” If you ruminate on your anger without doing anything with it, it can make you snappish and irritable with those you love; it can boil inside you. It needs an outlet, and what better outlet than activism and advocacy?

That means showing up and doing the work: joining a climate-focused organization; donating time and money, if you can spare them; or pushing for climate action at your workplace, church, or child’s school. Doing collective work can also help with guilt—because you are actually doing something about the issue. Leslie Davenport, a psychologist and the author of Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change, would put this in the category of “external strategies” for staying mentally healthy. Note that these are all collective actions, which not only are more effective at stopping climate change than reducing our own emissions, but also place us in community with others who share these complex feelings. You don’t have to jump in the deep end of hard-core activism and protest, Davenport told me. No matter what your current skills are, there’s a way to use them to support climate justice. “Do what you are good at,” Heglar agreed. “If you can’t do the work, care for people who can.” And collective work can actually change things. The fact that the current worst-case scenario is only a “demi-Armageddon” is absolutely because of widespread social movements demanding action on climate change.

Anger can be directed outward in the form of action, but it can still singe the source. People engaged in climate work also need “internal strategies” for dealing with anger and other intense emotions—what Davenport describes as “more sophisticated forms of self-care” that can calm our nervous system. They include keeping ourselves physically healthy and well rested, and taking time out with tools such as meditation, exercise, and outdoor activity. For Chungyalpa, who this year is teaching a course on coping with eco-anxiety and climate grief, spending time outdoors in the very ecosystems she is most worried about is also grounding and healing. “The source of the greatest suffering is the source of your greatest strength,” she said. For Sarah Myhre, a paleoclimatologist who trains early-career scientists to be climate leaders, making prints on the subject of climate change has proved deeply therapeutic—it allows her a contemplative space to feel her feelings but also an opportunity to create a physical object that externalizes those feelings. “I don’t feel like it is sitting inside me anymore,” she told me. “It feels lighter.” Some (including me) may also need therapy or medication to cope with their rage—even if that rage is rational and justified.

Employing such internal strategies makes sense, but the fact that we need them makes me furious all over again. We shouldn’t all have to be investing time in complex coping techniques to keep ourselves from exploding with rage or going numb with despair. Advice on burnout often stresses that you can’t fix it with self-care—that you have to fix your working conditions. But what if the conditions causing burnout are a global pattern of fossil-fuel-based capitalism?

Davenport has said that climate change, an ever-present crisis, causes “ambient anxiety” that raises our background levels of tension and worry. But the pandemic is also causing ambient anxiety. For people of color, racism does the same, every day. For Indigenous people, colonialism exists as a constant present-tense stressor as well. Poverty creates an immense burden of ambient anxiety. Many activists are thus working under “ambient” stress levels that no amount of coping techniques can neutralize. The paradox of working toward a just, truly sustainable society is that you have to do it in an unjust, toxic one that makes both the fight and just living needlessly hard.

Anger can fuel action, but we can’t live on rage alone. I asked everyone I interviewed for this story to tell me about a moment of happiness or joy they had experienced recently. Myhre talked about the physical pleasure of skiing. For Chungyalpa, it was watching some dogs “just gamboling in the snow.” For Davenport, it was spending time with her grandchildren. For Heglar, it was walking the streets of New Orleans shortly after moving there this year. “I was so giddy and euphoric to be here,” she said. In all of these cases, joy was felt not as a sense of contentment with the overall state of things, because the overall state of things is messed up. But even in crisis, joy presents itself as sparkling moments, experienced as what Davenport calls “a visceral quality of aliveness.” Allowing ourselves to be energized by these moments without guilt is important. No one is going to fix climate change by being bummed about it 24 hours a day. That’s not how it works.

We should accept joy when it comes and enjoy it without a particle of guilt. But if we don’t feel a lot of overall hope right now, that’s okay. We don’t need optimism or hope to keep showing up for climate work. We can do it out of pure spite if we need to until our optimism returns. Even as I work on my own burnout, I plan to stay mad.