Fallen tree in a forest
Climate and environment, Ethics and morality, Social and behavioural

‘I didn’t think we could change anything… But we stopped them, we saved the forest’

Emma Young digests the research on collective action.

19 June 2023

By Emma Young

When a group of protestors came together to fight against the quarrying of a region of ancient Swedish forest, their goal was to change the world around them. But through their protest, they also changed themselves. According to a study published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, the protestors developed greater self-esteem and confidence as well as physical and psychological wellbeing. This work, led by Sara Vestergren at Keele University, is one of a growing number of studies showing that collective action can benefit not just the cause, but the people taking part.

In some cases, the problem that people set out to change is itself taking a toll on their mental health. Research shows that environment-focused eco-anxiety and anxiety about the climate emergency, in particular, are having a significant psychological impact. A 2021 study in the Lancet, led by Caroline Hickman, found that 59 per cent of 10,000 children and young people from 10 different countries were extremely or very worried about climate change; 45 per cent said that these worries affected their daily life and functioning. Far from the carefree childhood existence, we might hope for, these children reported feeling sad, anxious, and powerless.

Plenty of adults share these feelings, too. But despite the mental health toll these feelings can take, research also shows that eco-anxiety and climate anxiety can be important drivers of collective action. One analysis of data from more than 12,000 participants in 32 countries, published by the University of Nottingham’s Charles Ogunbode and colleagues, found that climate anxiety was linked to pro-environmental behaviour (such as choosing to cycle instead of driving or saving energy at home) in 25 of these countries; and climate activism – defined as attending a climate protest at any point in the past year – in 12. These 12, which included the UK as well as Norway and Germany, were mostly more individualistic and also wealthier countries, the team notes. (The strongest association between climate anxiety and environmental activism was in Finland; the weakest was in China.)

Though choosing to walk to work and use less energy clearly helps the environment, research shows that it’s not just eco-friendly acts themselves that people find rewarding – participation in collective action really helps the individual, too.

A 2022 study of young adults in the US, led by Sarah Schwartz at Suffolk University, Boston and published in Current Psychology, found links between climate anxiety and symptoms of major depression among participants who didn’t engage in climate activism. For those with climate anxiety who took part in climate advocacy groups, peer education or community outreach, these symptoms of depression were absent. Taking individual action, such as recycling and turning off the lights, didn’t have the same capacity to buffer links between climate change anxiety and poorer mental health. This suggests a unique role of collective action in the face of overwhelming circumstances, the team argues.

Creating feelings of connection

Collective actions foster a powerful sense of hope, as well as feelings of social connection and support, the researchers explain. ‘These results provide initial quantitative support for previous qualitative research in which climate activists describe collective action as a way to manage their fears, build hope, and create feelings of connection,’ they write.

Qualitative studies have found that taking part in collective action can boost feelings of personal power and the sense of ‘agency’ – the feeling that you are in control of your actions and that these actions have an impact.

Alongside other positive changes like enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence, feeling empowered was one of 19 forms of psychological change identified in a review of work in this area led by Sara Vestergren, published in 2016. This theme continued in Vestergren and her colleagues’ work conducting in-depth interviews with 28 people who protested against the quarrying of part of Sweden’s Ojnare forest.

This 2012 protest culminated in a physical stand-off between some of the protestors and police officers, as well as the subcontractor hired to remove the trees. Whenever a protestor was forcibly removed by police from the scene, they returned as quickly as they could. After almost a week, the protest was successful, with the sub-contractor withdrawing as a result.

When asked about their thoughts on the way to the forest, versus how they felt afterwards, one interviewee said: ‘I didn’t think we could change anything. I was just going to go and check it out. But we stopped them, we saved the forest. It shows that if you are many that are engaged, you can do something… I mean, I think I can make a change, that we can make a change, and I still feel like that in everything everyday.’

Others mentioned improved physical and mental strength. ‘I feel like I’m thirty years younger,’ one said. ‘I think it’s been good for my rheumatism,’ said another. ‘I’m not in as much pain as I used to be and I can move more freely.’

Psychologically protective

The Ojnare forest protest was a relatively short-term – and successful – example of activism. But individual benefits from protracted collective action have been found in other contexts. For example, research on Palestinian schoolchildren living in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip found that group political activism – cooperating with one another against ‘The Enemy’ – had psychologically protective effects. ‘Both the scientific community and common-sense observers tend to frame children as weak, vulnerable, and incapable of acting autonomously, viewing them as lacking in political subjecthood,’ the researchers wrote. But they found that when children held political views and acted in support of these views, this was psychologically protective.

Other research also suggests that people don’t have to be members of well-defined protest groups to benefit from united action. One study by Mindi Foster in the British Journal of Social Psychology found that tweeting about sexism, which the researchers considered to be a form of collective action, brought general improvements in psychological wellbeing for a group of female participants.

These findings have led to calls to find ways to help people to take part in group protests. Creating opportunities for young adults to engage in community-based collective action, which should build feelings of agency and social connection, might be particularly beneficial for addressing climate change anxiety, argue Sarah Schwartz and her colleagues.

There are a few caveats, however. Most of the research finding individual benefits from collective action has been on people who chose to engage – not people who were randomised to a collective action group for a study. This self-selection could mean that the psychological benefits reported in the literature may not apply in the same way to everybody.

Also, activism does carry some potential personal risks. As Schwartz and her colleagues do acknowledge, climate activists typically spend a lot of time thinking about climate change and its impacts, and psychologically investing themselves in the cause. But, however the future unfolds, there will be significant environmental loss and change. For someone dedicated to action to protect the planet, this could lead to mental health problems down the line.

Certainly, there is work finding that if a protest or campaign fails to achieve its goal – or the journey is extraordinarily long – this can be debilitatingly stressful, as research on burnout among racial justice activists in the US has found, for example.

However, the main message of the research seems clear. For those who care about a cause and who want to make a difference, getting involved in group action – rather than just trying to change their own behaviour – can benefit the individual, as well as the world around them.

- Find more from our Research Digest