Robin Boardman is a languages student and one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion. He helped to lead a successful campaign to get the University of Bristol to divest its portfolio of £2m from fossil fuels and has been an XR spokesperson on various outlets such as the BBC, LBC and Sky News. robinboardman.com.
When the paramedics came for me in the sweltering days of May 2020 it didn’t feel real. I had just passed out in the heat and collapsed headfirst into a radiator. I’d seen paramedics attend to friends and relatives, but in my feverish state, it didn’t sink in that they would come for me. My youthful sense of invincibility quickly faded. I found myself unable to lift my limbs or produce full sentences, and interminable headaches left me in despair. The after-effects are still with me today, in the form of Long Covid.
Now that I have regained some energy, I would like to share some of the lessons that illness has taught me about enduring difficulty in the climate and ecological crisis.
Lesson One: We Need Courage, Not Hope
Let the pain be your fuel. Let your total rejection of the status quo give you the courage to transform your life, to stand out from the crowd, and demand transformative action.
-Margaret Klein Salamon, Facing the Climate Emergency
For the first few months of my illness, I woke up every morning hoping that I would suddenly recover and have “my life back”. Rather than letting go of what I could no longer do, I kept trying to live as before. But this detachment from the reality of my situation only brought me more pain.
Once I had the courage to face the uncertainty of illness, I let go of anxiously awaiting a miraculous recovery, and relaxed into my situation. In facing my pain and isolation I was able to accept them. My vulnerability became a source of strength for navigating our bittersweet world.
The same is true for facing the climate emergency. If we hope that technology will save us or that criminally negligent governments will suddenly act responsibly, we are recklessly gambling our future on very poor odds. This can only bring pain. Once we start to tell ourselves the truth about the situation, we can find pride in our honesty and compassion in our grief. It’s from here that the resolve to take action will emerge.
Lesson Two: Follow Your Bliss
Joseph Campbell’s saying, “Follow your bliss,” is not an irresponsible phrase that ignores the pain of life but a reminder to receive pleasure and contentment, even in the depths of suffering.
-Toko-pa Turner, Belonging
In illness, every day feels like a struggle. When it shows no sign of improving, or worsens, I lose my morale to keep going. It’s an exhausting and depressing limbo. In the darkest and weakest hours, I saw my life flash before my eyes and began to dream of people and places I hadn’t seen for a decade. I saw the highs and lows that had shaped me into the man I am today. This gave me some space and perspective to see things from a different angle. From each challenge, there was a learning on how to face hardship. From each joy, an inspiration to live to the full.
Holding on to these feelings helps bring balance to life. In activism, we follow a true passion and through it find our fullest potential. But even this has its limits. Every step along the way we need to find that balance of difficulty and joy for our own wellbeing. Our struggle for climate and ecological action brings many challenges that can lead us to despairing inertia. In my sickness, a joy was as simple as the view from my bedroom window: a falling blossom, a scudding cloud, a wandering snail.
Such joys became my music, my dance, my poetry, my comedy and my sport: ways to relax into whatever challenge chronic pain brought.
Everyday joys can give us the resilience to keep facing what we must face. So as we rebel with all our might against the existential threat posed by the climate and ecological emergency, let’s also cherish what makes our existence so precious.
Lesson Three: Words Matter
“The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”
-Virginia Woolfe, On Being Ill
As I slowly regained my speech, I struggled to find the words to describe what I was going through. It struck me that there is a serious lack of language for both chronic illness and climate chaos. If you are unable to express a feeling, you are unlikely to find any solace for it.
For our society to be able to come to terms with the emergency we need a language to relate to in films, literature and TV. Some of the best I think we have so far are Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, a piercing portrayal of the rise of sexism and racism in an uninhabitable America; The Road by Cormac McCarthy, for its portrayal of the gritty end-point of mass extinction; and early Studio Ghibli films such as Princess Monoke/Nausicaa, whose heroines champion coexistence with the natural world.
However, the vast majority of current work focuses too much on apocalypse scenarios, produced to scare the shit out of us, instead of relatable everyday stories. How about a climate drama set in water scarce Somalia? Or a northern woman’s heroic adventure to save her hometown from flooding? We need more romances that argue over whether having kids is responsible and comedies that mock the insanity of our toxic system like The Yes Men or Simon Amstell’s Carnage.
Stories are key for an emotional connection to the challenges humanity faces. Our stories of rebellion can be cathartic for climate anxiety and stir a generation of heroes ready to speak out for their futures. Let’s start writing them.
Lesson Four: Belonging
“By reviving a community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can recover the best aspects of humanity. We can mobilise our remarkable nature for our own good and the good of our neighbours.”
-George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage
Being housebound and unable to hold conversations without paralysing headaches is extremely isolating. Yet even in the depths of my pain I was able to appreciate the love of our community. Rebels gave me cards, voice-notes, medical advice, paintings and – best of all – cakes, cookies and biscuits fresh from the oven. The feeling of belonging to and being supported by a community of kindhearted and extraordinary people gave me strength every step of the way.
Together we are building a community that can hold us through the dark days with pride, friendship and joy. We are showing not only the best aspects of humanity but also the solid foundations of a successful social movement. The climate and ecological emergency will shape the rest of our lives. So take every opportunity you can to nourish and prepare yourself and your community for the long journey ahead. You’ll not only be more resilient, but you’ll find more joy.
Robin Boardman is a languages student and one of the cofounders of Extinction Rebellion. He helped to lead a successful campaign to get the University of Bristol to divest its portfolio of £2m from fossil fuels and has been an XR spokesperson on various outlets such as the BBC, LBC and Sky News. robinboardman.com.