Burned Out People Will Keep Burning Up the Planet

Why achieving a sustainable planet starts with living sustainable lives.

Westend61 and Lucas Ninno / Getty Images
Westend61 and Lucas Ninno / Getty Images

In the last few years, two major issues have moved to the center of our collective conversation. One is climate change, and the other is well-being and mental resilience. It’s time we connect the dots and bring the two conversations together. They’re not just both existential threats, they’re also deeply connected: simply put, burned out people are going to continue burning up the planet. It’s clear that the way we live and work is not only burning us out, but causing us to make decisions that are destroying our own health and the health of our planet.

The scale of this crisis is staggering. First, the health of the planet:

  • The last seven years have been the hottest seven years on record.
  • Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than they’ve been for the last 800,000 years.
  • Coming into 2020, the biggest story in the world were the wildfires in Australia, which killed 34 people, burned over 44 million acres of land and killed or displaced an estimated 3 billion animals. 
  • In 2020, the planet lost 100,000 square miles of tree cover — about the size of Colorado, and nearly 7% more than were lost in 2019. 
  • 2020 saw the most named storms in the Atlantic ever, and was the worst California wildfire season ever, as was each of the previous 10 years before that.

And then there’s the destruction that’s been wrought on our individual and collective health — including our mental health, which was already in crisis by the time the pandemic arrived and intensified it: 

  • According to the C.D.C., an estimated 90% of our healthcare spending goes toward treating mental health conditions or stress-related chronic conditions that can be managed or prevented, like heart disease and diabetes, which by the year 2035 will afflict nearly 600 million people. 
  • Worldwide, over 264 million people are struggling with depression.
  • In May of 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as a workplace crisis.
  • According to a study by Asana of 13,000 knowledge workers across eight countries, an astounding 71% had experienced burnout in the past year.

The connection between what we’re doing to ourselves and what we’re doing to our planet isn’t metaphorical. We know the science on climate change. The consequences of what will happen if we don’t change how we live are dire. So if we know the science, why aren’t we acting? Because it’s hard to break out of habit and embrace any new ideas and ways of living when we’re burned out.

We need to acknowledge both the science of how the planet works and the science of how humans work, because we’re not just ignoring the science of climate change, we’re ignoring the science of how we make decisions when we’re burned out. When we’re burned out, exhausted and depleted, we operate on short-termism and day-to-day survival, just trying to get through the day, or even just the next hour. We’re not just less able to create new and more sustainable habits, we’re also unable to think about the future, make the wisest decisions for the long term and come up with creative and innovative solutions to complex challenges — like climate change. We’re much less likely to spot the iceberg before it hits the Titanic. Or to stop living in a way that melts the glacier the iceberg is attached to. In our always-on and screen-saturated world, we have a hard time looking up, looking out, looking forward and being part of the solution. So the best intentions and climate targets remain just that: intentions and targets. 

Dealing with the realities of climate change is going to require a culture shift, but not one based only on how we burn fossil fuels. It’s also going to require a shift in how we burn energy as individuals. The solution is renewable energy at every level. That’s why achieving a sustainable planet must go hand in hand with living sustainable lives.

It’s all the more amazing that so much of our culture is still based on burnout denialism, given that the truth about how to live our best lives and perform at our best can be found in ancient wisdom going back centuries. And the latest science has validated that wisdom by uncovering how we think and make decisions under stress.

The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain that governs higher-order cognition and decision-making. It’s what allows us to plan and organize for the future, regulate our emotions, be flexible in response to change and make long-term decisions. But as Yale neuroscientist Amy Arnsten, who studies how the brain responds to stress, explains, the prefrontal cortex is taken “offline” during stressful events, and our brain’s more primitive and reactive regions come to the forefront. This can be helpful if we find ourselves suddenly being chased by a lion, but not in a situation “which requires thoughtful evaluation and planning for survival.” Even worse, under chronic stress, neural connections to the prefrontal cortex can be weakened, and connections to those primitive regions can grow. “Thus, we can be more reactive than reflective at a time when we need thoughtful responses to survive,” she says. Like, for instance, when we’re facing an existential threat like burning up the planet.

Then there’s sleep, which our culture has held in contempt since the Industrial Revolution and Thomas Edison, who declared that “nothing in this world is more dangerous to the efficiency of humanity than too much sleep.” In fact, there are few things more dangerous to both humanity’s efficiency and humanity’s future than sleep deprivation and burnout. The growing science of sleep has now proven sleep to be foundational for our physical health, our mental health and our cognitive abilities. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation impairs attention, long-term memory and vigilance. And the list of sleep deprivation’s side effects, compiled by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, includes reduced empathy, reduced impulse control and a greater reliance on magical thinking. Not exactly a recipe for the kind of clear-headed, long-term decision-making required to deal with climate change.

A study by researchers from the University of Surrey found that being burned out makes us less likely to engage in rational decision-making and more likely to hew to “avoidant decision-making.” It’s hard to come up with a more concise description of our approach to climate change in recent years. Or in recent months. In the Texas blackout in February, officials said the state’s power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from an even more catastrophic shutdown that would have left large parts of Texas without power for months. At the same time, it was also revealed that experts had been warning Texas leaders about the vulnerability of the state’s power system for a decade. And yet, year after year, those same leaders chose short-term gain over the long-term health of their state and their people.

Our health is also directly affected by our stewardship of the planet. And we can see this in the pandemic itself. For years, Dennis Carroll, one of the foremost experts on pandemics and zoonotic diseases, has been warning that continued human incursion into wildlife habitats is going to lead to more “spillover events,” like the coronavirus. “It was predictable” he says, noting that just knowing the science isn’t enough if we don’t translate it into action: “Your thoughts can be absolutely right on, but your practices can be completely divergent.” As Fareed Zakaria, put it: “There’s no question that the way we live now is, in a sense, a kind of invitation to various reactions that nature is going to have. We live at a pace and a scale that is really unprecedented in human history — because we are just one species among many.”

Another example of this two-way relationship: plastics. Right now, we produce an estimated 350 million tons of plastic each year. And yet in the U.S., less than 9% is recycled. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by the year 2050 our oceans could contain more plastic than fish. And that’s not just bad for the fish. In the ocean — and on land — plastics get broken down into microplastics, which end up in our drinking water, our food supply and our bodies — we ingest a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. John Oliver recently did an entire segment on how little plastic actually gets recycled despite all our good intentions, and how impossible it has been to bring the industry in line with the science we’ve known for decades now. “We have to make them change,” Oliver concludes. “And if not for our sake, or the sake of future generations, let’s at least do it for all the fish who are about to be outnumbered by plastic in the ocean.”

So why have so many of our leaders — political leaders, business leaders, media leaders — been making such terrible decisions when it comes to our planet? Why are we addicted to short-termism and magical thinking, even as we know what that will mean for the planet and for us? It’s not a lack of I.Q. And it’s not a lack of money. As John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, said in January, our short-term thinking means we’re spending huge sums of money on the downstream consequences of climate change, like hurricanes and other natural disasters that are on the rise: “We’re spending more money, folks. We’re just not doing it smart. We’re not doing it in a way that would actually sustain us for the long term.”

And it’s not a lack of data. The problem is that we’re drowning in data but starved for wisdom. To stop simply dealing with the increasingly costly, deadly and catastrophic downstream consequences of climate change, we need to go upstream, where we can tackle the causes of burnout. When we begin leading sustainable lives, we’ll have the foundation from which to build a sustainable planet. As Archimedes put it, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.” Burnout and exhaustion make it impossible to find that centered place of strength and wisdom on which to stand.

Fortunately there are more and more leaders in business who get this. The pandemic accelerated the realization that the long-term health of every company’s bottom line is increasingly connected to the long-term health of their employees. And that we can’t separate our health from the health of the planet. As Lisette de Jonge, Global Health and Wellbeing Leader for IKEA, put it, “One of my main goals is to ensure that we operate in an environmentally sound manner while protecting and supporting the health and wellbeing of our co-workers.” On my podcast “What I’ve Learned,” Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff spoke about how meditating informs his decisions as a leader, including his work on climate change. He recounted a lunch he’d had with Jane Goodall at an environmental conference. He was talking about his projects for clean oceans, and she asked what he was doing for forests. He didn’t have an answer, but that conversation led to his project 1 Trillion Trees, using trees to trap carbon. “That was a meditative moment,” he told me, a reminder that “I need to listen more deeply.”

And even if we don’t run companies, we can take action in our own individual lives — both for our own well-being and for the planet’s. As Laurie David and Heather Reisman argue in their new book, Imagine It!: A Handbook for a Happier Planet, that’s how culture shifts happen. “Many people making individual changes ultimately leads to a collective will and inevitably business and government action,” they write. “Making small everyday changes helps develop our overall mindset and ultimately results in shifting our attitudes on the big issues.”

Climate change is real. Burnout is real. We can fight both crises the same way: by committing to address our own burnout, which will give us the energy and the wisdom to address the burnout of the planet. By leading sustainable lives we can create a sustainable planet.

Subscribe here for Arianna’s On My Mind Newsletter, where you’ll find inspiration and actionable advice on how to build healthy habits, resilience and connections in our unprecedented times.

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