Climate reporter burns out

Why I'm changing HEATED's publishing schedule from daily to weekly.

A picture of my friends and me in 2010, the year The List was created. I hung this picture in the hallway of the SUNY New Paltz journalism department, where it remained for at least a few years.

When I was 20, I made a list of things I wanted to achieve in my career, and a timeline by which I wanted to achieve them. For the last 11 years, every big decision I’ve made has been in service of The List.

Here’s how it went: I’ll be employed at a national publication by 25. By 30, I’ll do reporting that’s good enough to get me invited on cable news. By 35, I’ll be an editor, and by 40, I’ll have a team of reporters I trust. That team will win a Pulitzer or equivalent by 45. By 50, I’ll have to take a few years off because of burnout. And by 55, I’ll return as a professor, teaching journalism to public college students like me.

I’ll always love the audaciousness of The List. But I’ve recently realized it’s making me sick. For my entire adult life, I’ve been working from a set of goals that assumes achieving them will destroy my spirit by the year 2039. That means the closer I’ve gotten, the worse I’ve felt. Burnout is not just something I’ve planned for, but something I’ve strived for. Why would I do that? What was I thinking?

One reason was naivety. I knew what burnout was, but not what it meant. Now that I’m experiencing it—at 31! Overachiever, baby!—I understand. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. On the worst days it feels like a loss of identity. Like my outer body is living but the inside is dead.

The big reason, though, was that I wasn’t shown other options. From popular culture to academia to the economy, I learned that a noteworthy life required an extreme and unsustainable use of energy. If I wanted to both improve the world and be able to take care of my parents, I would have to extract from myself more than I thought I could bear. Eventually, inevitably, I would run out of steam. But it wouldn’t be that bad, and I would recover. The benefits would be worth it. There was no other way.

You see the parallel to climate change, right? The rationale I’ve used to burn myself out is the same rationale the fossil fuel industry uses to burn up the planet. Downplaying and denying the pain extraction brings. Overplaying the ability to heal from its wounds. Saying I’ll lose everything without endless growth. “Look at all the good things extraction has given you,” it says. “If you stop, you’ll never have good things again.”

I’ve long known these were lies when it came to the planet. I know now these are lies when it comes to work, too. As Susanne Moser wrote in All We Can Save: “Burned out people aren’t equipped to serve a burning planet.” To truly serve it, we have to end burnout culture completely, and create something more sustainable in its place.

Not everyone has the ability to fight burnout in their workplaces. But I have the unique privilege to try and do it here, thanks to the support of this reader community. That’s why, moving forward, HEATED will be publishing once a week, instead of daily. Paid subscribers will still get additional reporting, and exclusive access to discussion threads and comments. But I’m hoping the reduction in free stories will take some much-needed pressure off me, and allow me the time to do reporting that’s smarter, more thoughtful, more meaningful, and more impactful.

I’m hoping this change will be good for readers, too. You might have noticed that for the last few months, HEATED has not been hitting your inbox four times a week anyway—maybe three or two times, depending on the week. That’s been because of burnout, and I’ve been worried that my inability to meet the demand would drive people away. But surprisingly, no one has said one single word. I think it’s because readers are just as burnt out as I am. The vast majority of “unsubscriptions” I’ve gotten in the last few months cite “too many e-mails” as the reason for leaving. And last week, New York Magazine literally published an article that said “I subscribed to Emily Atkin’s climate newsletter and soon felt guilty because it was so long and came so often that I let it pile up unread.”

Readers also seem to respond better to the pieces I take my time on. Last week, for example, I published something that took two weeks to report and write. That piece became this newsletter’s second-most-read article ever, and got me a whole bunch of media calls. An editor from TED Ideas also asked to re-publish it. We’re still talking. We’ll see how it goes.

But I don’t want HEATED to make readers to feel guilty. I want it to make to feel pumped up and pissed off. So I’m going to stop fixating on the amount of work I do, and focus more on how it feels to do it. Hopefully, that change in focus will allow me to create something sustainable—something that will last far beyond the year I turn 50. I really don’t want to burn out anymore. The only thing I want to burn now is The List.

See you next week.


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