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“Sustainability is also about sustaining yourself”

Words: Amber X. Chen

Photos: Emli Bendixen

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Climate change is bad for our mental health. Activist Tori Tsui knows all too well the toll that eco-anxiety can take, and in her new book It’s Not Just You, she offers ways to navigate it and stay healthy while taking positive action. We met her to find out more.

Imagine5: What do you hope will be the impact of your new book?

Tori Tsui: The goal is to use the framework of the book, and the conversations around mental health and climate change through climate justice, to gain a deeper understanding of why we need to do the work, and then hopefully, encourage people to take action for the climate. In fact – and my publishers might not like to hear this, but – I would consider it more successful if more people signed up for different climate causes than bought my book.

Eco-anxiety is one aspect of your book, tell us about what else it covers.

I would say it’s more of a book about mental health and climate change, and mental health injustice in a time of climate change. I use this as an invitation to look at how, actually for a lot of people, eco-anxiety isn’t a term that resonates with them. For instance, many of my friends in Colombia who are land defenders, where it’s the most dangerous place to be a land defender in the world, they wouldn’t describe their hardships as eco-anxiety.

Tori Tsui’s book Its Not Just You: How to Navigate Eco-Anxiety and the Climate Crisis is out now. You can order it here.

The book is also a look at neoliberal capitalism and how it has not only produced a crisis of the climate, but also how it has contributed to the mental health crisis. I make the case that you can’t talk about mental health and climate change without getting to the root of why this crisis exists in the first place. Then you begin to realise that not only is this system deeply incompatible with a habitable future, but it’s also deeply incompatible with a healthy and prosperous life for people and their communities.

Why is it so important for the climate movement and climate action to be rooted in this collective support?

People power is unparalleled. You can’t change the world on your own. It also lends itself to this idea of a cult of personality and hierarchical thinking, that one individual is gonna save us all. Acting with a community lens in mind is something that challenges that. This system is trying to separate us. We don’t live in community: a lot of people do nine-to-fives and that’s it, they go home to their respective places, and that’s been orchestrated because of the demands of neoliberal capitalism. This isn’t normal, and it’s deeply antisocial. I’m not meant to survive like this, and it shows. We’re experiencing profound levels of mental health illness that I would even argue are not so much of an illness as a sign of the illness of the system that exists. Stop blaming people for trying to survive under deeply traumatic circumstances. Collectivism is a radical act of challenging the systems that exist.

You’ve been a figure in the climate movement for a while, but how did you get into it, and what was that journey like for you?

I grew up by the sea in a small fishing town in Hong Kong, which definitely impacted how I viewed the natural world. It was part of the place that I lived, but at the same time, every time I ever tried to take action for it, it was really deeply discouraged and made fun of by my family. 

It wasn’t actually until I moved away from home and started working at one of my first jobs – I worked as a science communicator and researcher – and I think that really just opened up to me how deeply problematic the climate crisis is and how urgent it is as well. It just got so overwhelming to me, the science of it, all of that I found it really deeply hard to ignore, to the point where I actually walked away from a career in wildlife filmmaking. I was just like, I cannot spend the rest of my life trying to climb a career ladder that I know will just make me miserable. I’m just going to try and find a way to take action for the climate.

Why is it so important to safeguard mental health within the climate movement and what are good ways people can do that collectively? 

Our mental wellbeing deeply impacts how we have capacity for action. I think it’s a no brainer, right? If you have bad mental health you can’t take action – for every single activist that I know or have spoken to. Mental wellbeing deeply informs our capacity to take action. I think far too often people don’t see mental health injustice as part of the climate justice conversation, but those who are most marginalised through mental health, illness, or otherwise, or those who may describe themselves as having a mental disability as well, are more prone to the impacts of climate change. 

In my case, I’m on a medication that makes me deeply sensitive to heat. I’ve had so many heat strokes in my life that could have easily been my last heat stroke. The medication impacts my mental health, and my ability to tolerate a world which is getting hotter and hotter. It shouldn’t be such a radical thing for people to have access and live a healthy and happy life. It would be great for everyone to be thriving on this planet, not just surviving, but actually thriving.

“What are you fighting for, if not for the people that you love?”

How do you take care of your own mental health in the climate movement and hold space for yourself? I feel like you’re just so busy, Tori!

I think it’s a good point to reflect on the fact that I’m not perfect either. I’m constantly reassessing my relationship with my mental health and the burnout that I experience in this space. I’m part of the Climate Resilience Project, which supports young people with their mental health, especially with regards to the climate crisis. The thing that I love the most about the Climate Resilience Project, is that the point isn’t to talk about what we do in the climate movement, it’s actually to find out who you are outside of it. 

My friend Samia asked when we were doing this session together, what has brought you joy in the last few days? It doesn’t have to be about climate or climate organising. I was just like, I fucking love the ocean. I love just laying in the sun listening to music. That for me is pure joy. There is so much joy around us. There is so much that we can tap into and this is so worth fighting for. It’s so worth living for as well. There are a lot of people who are trying to focus on things that keep us inspired and make us want to keep going. What are you fighting for, if not for the people that you love?

That’s incredible. I love to hear about these things so much and I guess my last question for you is, how do you stay resilient?

First and foremost, it’s understanding that sustainability is as much about greening the planet as it is about sustaining yourself and doing things sustainably. That also means your mental health and that also means pacing yourself. I’ve come out from being very burned out to being on the other side, that life’s too short to not take care of yourself.

Doing every single thing because I’m freaked out about the state of the planet or thinking that I need to do more, it’s actually a really big disservice to the communities that are doing the work collectively. It’s obviously worth fighting for the planet, but not at the expense of your happiness and your wellbeing. I’m not perfect, I still have moments where I’m really burnt out. And maybe this is something that’s perhaps a little bit more relatable to anyone who has ever gone through hardship or identifies as marginalised, but I’ve lived through some pretty crazy times and I’m not even 30. I survived those, and I’m still here.

What you can do

Find ways to cope with eco-anxiety

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Get Tori Tsui’s book It’s Not Just You

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