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We lost the joy. How activists are bringing it back in the fight for the planet.

What does joy mean to you? How are you cultivating joy in your life? What are “joy thieves” and how are they stealing from us? What is “manufactured joy” and how is it different to authentic joy? How do we create joy in the pursuit of social and environmental justice? We’re reflecting on how to stay healthy and happy as green warriors in it for the long haul.


This urgency in climate activism is often fuelled by eco-anxiety, knowing we are running out of time to halt the worst impacts of our warming planet and despair at the lack of appropriate response from world leaders. Our own co-founder and editor, Steph Dickson, has shared her challenges and how she’s been embracing joy as an antidote for her eco-anxiety and as a strategy for sustainable long-term work in the face of our greatest challenge.

“After a gruelling few years of the pandemic and a very disheartening COP26, I found myself depleted, burned out and totally jaded. I was slipping deeper down the slippery oh so familiar slope of paralysing eco-anxiety. But this time it felt worse because there were layers of apathy and jadedness now too. I took a few very big steps backwards with the intention of getting out of that darkness, back into the light. For me, that was the guiding principle of following what lights me up or makes me feel alive. Because if all the joy is sucked out of life, what’s the point? It’s been a battle, facing the darkness and finding a new equilibrium. But, an entirely worthwhile pursuit. I can see things differently. My creativity has come back. My anxiety is melting away bit by bit, and life is full of fun, magic and sheer beauty again. Nature is a magical healer and brings me immense joy. As does deeply present moments with friends and family. When I feel the warmth of joy within, it trickles out to more and more of my life and work. That makes the fight worth it.”

And, Steph is by no means alone in this!

A remedy for burnout

Burnout is rife in the wake of the pandemic and people are in search of healthier, more balanced ways of working. This is also true in activist spaces. COP26 has left a lot of people slipping into despair. The remedy? Prioritising joy. For ourselves, for one another and in the spaces we inhabit. Increasingly the discourse has been focussing on joy, how to make it a priority and how things really shift when you do.

Who are the Joy Thieves?

Chelsea Webster, activist, marketer and sustainability advocate, spoke to GINTB about her project, “The Joy Thief”.

GINTB: What inspired the pivot from @lowaste.plantbased to @_thejoythief_?

Chelsea: “Ultimately it came down to health, both mental and physical. A couple of years ago, I was heavily involved in organising and making social media content. I was going to a lot of protests and I was leading a local Greenpeace group. I spent my days reading about the impact of climate change, both in Canada where I was living at the time and in the UK where I am from. And, of course, the global impact. It was a lot and then when I got sick, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was having to really conserve my energy. I was looking after my mental health, and working a full-time job. I had to cut back on something and that ended up being activism.

I’m quite privileged that I’ve been able to afford therapy and I’ve been able to work through a lot of my issues. I began to notice how much of it had been put on me from external power structures, like patriarchy or classism. Delivered to me from society, from parents, my peers and the media. I wanted to start talking about those powers and how we internalise them. So, I had a whole bunch of social constructs I wanted to talk about in my content. Then I got sick and I had to put that on hold. At that point, I began just prioritising joy and things that reenergised me. The idea for the “Joy Thief” just kind of came to me one day. So, now I write about joy and systemic joy thieves and how they constantly steal our joy. I want to talk about stealing it back.”

Manufactured Joy

GINTB: You’ve talked about the idea of “manufactured joy” in your newsletter and I’d love to hear more about that concept. What do you mean by manufactured joy?

Chelsea: “So, the term stemmed from the idea of “manufactured consent”. Noam Chomsky coined the concept and it’s essentially a term describing how power uses the media to influence public perception. Once you know about that you start to see it everywhere. Fossil fuel companies are a prime example – they hold a lot of power and influence over the global energy industry. They spend millions on media campaigns highlighting small “green” initiatives, meanwhile, the vast majority of their work is still on fossil fuels that are destroying the planet. They have so much power and money behind them that they can suppress negative stories about themselves and pay marketing agencies to create positive stories and through that, they can control how the public sees them.

This leads me to the concept of big “J” joy and little “j” joy. Power systems control big “J” joy. It comes from the things we need to sustain us like housing, clean water and air, nourishing food, access to health care and freedom from violence. We can create big “J” joy through designing systems and policies that are fair and equitable.

When there is an absence of these things, we are distracted by what I call “manufactured joy”.I see this in three main ways; consumption, productivity and validation. The idea that these three things are the source of joy is systematically handed to us in thousands of messages in media. We’re told we must be consuming or producing or receiving joy through others.

Through my activism and living low waste, I was already opted out of consumption as much as possible. I also had access to therapy which gave me the coping mechanisms and tools I needed so that I didn’t need other people to affirm me or make me feel good. And then when I became ill, I wasn’t being productive in the way society tells us we have to be. So I wasn’t participating in the distraction so much anymore and it freed up so much space for me to really notice all the little “j” joys in my life. Authentic joy can’t really be made or bought or given in the way these systems tell us joy is produced. Joy is internal, it’s what happens in those small everyday moments and it can’t be easily replicated or manufactured. I’m living in the moment more, which makes me feel more connected to myself, to other people and to nature. For me, true and authentic joy is so much about being present.”

This framing is important

This got me thinking, have we actually lost the joy or is it being stolen from us? I haven’t seen anyone else speaking about how that joy is being stolen and I feel so grateful to Chelsea for pointing it out in this way. I think it’s such an important way to frame it. And, when you stop to think about it makes injustice feel even more enranging because people are having their joy literally stolen from them by powerful institutions and systems. 

Understanding systemic joylessness allows us to see that the true villain in the story is our current power systems. Those that uphold white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, homophobia, classism, and transphobia. Rather than pointing the finger at one another, we can focus on dismantling oppressive systems and rebuilding a future that works for everyone. One that guarantees those big “J” joys.

In order for people to be able to experience authentic joy, you have to create the conditions for that to thrive. When that is absent, we lean on manufactured joy as a distraction from all of the joylessness around us. And we’re constantly being told that’s the right thing to do. Power systems use manufactured joy to deflect from the fact that our big “j” joy is being neglected and by doing so, they also rob us of our little “j” joy because instead of slowing down to notice and appreciate the small things, we are chasing external ideas of happiness through consumption, productivity and validation from others. 

GINTB: Why do you think it’s important to focus on joy in the environmental movement?

Chelsea: “The most obvious answer is to avoid burnout. Without rest and enjoyment, it’s a lot harder to continue fighting for systemic justice. It re-energises us and keeps us going. It’s important to do little things that are for ourselves so we don’t give all of ourselves over to our activism. We need to keep some of that joy for ourselves.”

This echoes the words of Rebecca Solnit, “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.” 

We are all so used to messages from society and the media that we have to earn our value as humans, work hard to earn money and spend that money on things that will impress people. It’s hardly surprising that these driving forces show up in the way that we do activism, too. Sure, the end goal is different – changing society, not earning money. But, the need to work at lightning speed and the desire to present ourselves in a certain way is social conditioning we carry over from Capitalism.

Radical contentment

What’s emerging through all of the discourse, is that joy seems to stem mostly from simply being present. It occurs spontaneously when we let go of expectations and just appreciate and savour the moment. While anyone can experience little joys on any ordinary day, we need the big joy of having our fundamental needs met so we have space for stillness and contentment. We are often told that contentment isn’t enough and that we should raise our expectations and ambition to strive for “more”. The US famously has “pursuit of happiness” as though happiness is something we have to search for, rather than just allowing it to show up in the everyday magic moments. 

Jamie Varon, author of “Radically Content: Being Satisfied in an Endlessly Dissatisfied World” explores the idea of contentment as a rebellious act. Varon encourages revolting against social conditioning that would see us always striving for more, to do more, to be more. “We’ve learned to be terrified of contentment, thinking it will lead us to complacency. Yet, being content in a world that profits off our dissatisfaction is not complacency. It’s revolutionary.” she says. (You can hear more from Jamie in this recent episode of Live Wide Awake.)

Joy and contentment shouldn’t be radical, but in a world that is always telling you that you are not doing enough, buying enough, or impressive enough – embracing the simplicity and wonder of life truly is an act of rebellion. And like Steph said when you are filled with joy it spills out into everything you do so take time to fill up your cup and let in a trickle into every space you inhabit. Savour your morning coffee, feel the sun on your face, notice birdsong in the morning, be present with your loved ones. Not just because it might you a better activist, but because you are human and joy is your birthright.

IMAGE: Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A woman is sitting in a field surrounded by deep green grass and bright orange blossoms. She is looking up towards the sky and smiling joyfully. Her hand are also open to the sky.