Words by Willow Defebaugh
Burnout has spread like wildfire. But we will not ignite long term change unless we find ways of sustaining our own flames.
“The fires of suffering become the light of consciousness.”
I know you have experienced it. I know that you have felt its warmth, been transfixed by the light it radiates. I know that you have used it to nourish yourself. It may have even scarred you, or at the very least sparked fear in you—but I know that you know it. Some might argue that it is inherent to what makes us human: the element gifted to us alone, whether by Prometheus or the procreative pyres of evolution. We all know fire. But do you know what it is?
Fire is defined as “the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame, and heat.” And while a flame’s exact ingredients depend on the circumstances that caused it, it most often consists of carbon dioxide, water vapor, oxygen, and nitrogen. Fire is more of a chemical reaction than anything else, giving off heat and light because combustion is an exothermic process—meaning that it produces more energy than is required to sustain it. In order for combustion to occur, three ingredients are needed: fuel, oxygen, and energy (heat).
Around the world, people are feeling the heat. Record temperatures and heatwaves this year have shed light on what scientists and environmentalists have been saying for decades: that the climate crisis is already here. In March, both poles reached record highs, as did India and Pakistan. This week, much of Europe and the United Kingdom have been sweltering through a heatwave and fighting off wildfires, with the latter hitting 100°F for the first time in recorded history.
Proving a direct correlation between climate change and specific weather disasters can be difficult, but the science is clear: climate change makes them hotter and more frequent, according to the IPCC. As the EPA states, the average number of annual heatwaves in the United States has tripled since 1960. Meanwhile, researchers studying the heatwaves in South Asia concluded that they were made 30 times more likely due to “human influence.” But for too long, vague language has masked the real threat: the fossil fuel industry.
I have received more calls and messages about climate anxiety this week than ever before. And I empathize: confronting climate change is distressing. Keeping our sights set on the ones who started the fire and are fanning its flames can help ease this anxiety. This is not a public moral failing; it is ecocide at the hands of fossil fuel corporations and the politicians who take their money. This is a crime being committed in our species’ name. Let that realization alchemize your anxiety into anger—anger that fuels demand for government action and accountability.
The problem is, people are exhausted. Burnout has spread like wildfire, a term that Psychology Today defines as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Who among us has not felt burnout, given all we have been through these past few years? Fire can be all-consuming, yes—but it can also be generative. After all, what we see as flames are excess energy given off in the form of heat and light.
We will not ignite long term change unless we find ways of sustaining our own fires. We need to carve out time for what fuels us, such as time spent in nature and community. We have to create space outside of our suffocating news cycle and remember to breathe. When our embers grow dim, we must return to what sparked our commitment to this cause in the first place, the source of all our passion and energy: a sense of love and justice for the Earth and all its inhabitants. And when we burn bright, we spread our warmth and light to others.