Climate anxiety and the importance of people: an appreciation letter to the Sustainability Manager

6 March 2024

An open thought on the sustainability landscape

Working in the sustainability field exposes us to a daily onslaught of negative press. Be it the latest and most destructive natural disaster, more exploitation of ecosystems, or another instance of short-sighted political decision-making. 

I cannot speak for everyone, but I have found that I respond in one of two ways. Either I bury my head and try not to think about it, generally denying the extent of the tragedy. Or I think long and hard, considering the magnitude of the impact this has on human and non-human life. Inevitably this ends in some pit of negative spiralling thoughts resulting in a reconsideration of my career in the hope of never having to read or hear of such things again. I would say both responses aren’t the healthiest or most useful reactions.

I have been thinking hard about finding the middle way so I can both keep abreast of the ongoing climate discourse and provide sound sustainability advice to my clients.

Amidst a world where hope seems to be dwindling, a resilient spark persists from an unlikely source

Perhaps you’re expecting some big reveal about coping mechanisms… afraid not. Rather, I have found a relatively simple solace. It is the people I am working with each day that provides hope in an ever-hopeless world. I’m met with daily reminders that I am not alone in the way I feel, and the blockers to change are the same challenges facing my peers.

Hope and struggle: the guardians of sustainability in the corporate world

My hope is rekindled in many instances but none more so than those interactions I have with the ‘sustainability manager’. I may be generalising a bit here, but these individuals tend to be hugely passionate about climate change and protecting our ever-dwindling natural world. Perhaps they feel they have sacrificed some of their ideology and ‘extremism’ for a corporate life. They have hung up their campaigning capes, put down the green spray paint, and paused the civil disobedience. Replaced with collared shirts, exquisite PowerPoints skills, and the art of biting their tongue. These are the individuals that give me hope. These ideological moles within the corporate world slowly but surely present the business case for a low-carbon future. What’s more, unlike me and my comfort blanket of like-minded colleagues, they are often doing it in isolation.

While admirable in their ambition, I have found in many recent interactions that these individuals are struggling. They often are the sole preacher in a cacophony of agendas dealing with constant underappreciation, oversight, and a general feeling of disdain. Too often this passion for change combined with the resistance faced towards any meaningful action results in a feeling of overwhelm to the point of breaking.

A recognition of a shared struggle

As climate change becomes a lived experience for more and more people, these negative emotions are likely to increase in severity and commonality. Under many names like eco or climate anxiety, these general feelings of fear, anger, worry, guilt, shame, hopelessness, or despair are not uncommon.

In acknowledging these emotions and experiences, it’s crucial to remind ourselves and others who resonate with this sentiment that these feelings are valid. The frustration, doubt, and impatience we may encounter are not unique to us alone; countless others navigating similar paths can empathise with these struggles. Recognising this shared experience can provide solace and a sense of solidarity, reassuring individuals that they are not isolated in their journey. It further reaffirms the significance of our efforts and contributions to effecting change in the world.

 Collaborative action fuels collective optimism

It is important to understand that meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight, especially within complex and entrenched systems like large organisations or societal structures. Progress is often incremental and nonlinear, requiring sustained dedication and perseverance. While it can be disheartening to witness apparent stagnation or slow-moving progress, it is essential to recognise that this doesn’t equate to wasted efforts. Rather, it reflects the intricate nature of systemic change and the need for time to unravel deeply ingrained norms, policies, and attitudes.

Maintaining hope amidst challenges is paramount. Despite the obstacles and setbacks, there must remain a collective optimism. This optimism is founded on the notion that with concerted effort and (mostly) unwavering commitment, we can cultivate a more equitable and just world. This vision extends beyond anthropocentric concerns, encompassing the well-being and rights of all living things, both human and non-human. It is a vision grounded in compassion, empathy, and a profound sense of interconnectedness—a world where every individual and species can thrive and flourish in harmony with one another and the environment.

While the path ahead may be arduous and uncertain, the belief in the possibility of such a world serves as a guiding light, inspiring continued action, and solidarity among advocates for a just planet for all life to enjoy.

Author details

Sebastian Howarth

Senior Consultant