“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."
When Audre Lorde wrote these famous words in the late 80’s, self-care was a radical act for a black lesbian woman with cancer. Lorde’s body and her identity was deemed unworthy of care by society, so caring for herself was a pronounced middle-finger to the structures of oppression; surviving, and thriving was an act of rebellion.
Since then, the term self-care has taken on various meanings, each inching further from Lorde’s initial use. Around the same time A Burst of Life, Lorde’s essay collection where the above quote comes from, was published, the concept of self-care got picked up by activist circles, especially feminist ones.
The new meaning self-care obtained was less existential but still revolutionary. People used self-care to describe the way they look after themselves, so that they can look after, and fight for, others. The idea of the revolutionary who thinks of everyone but herself was exchanged for the one who knew she had to be well herself in order to be of service to the other.
Nowadays self care is the massage treatment Kendal Jenner gets before handing out a can of soft drink to imagined protestors. Self-care shares the fate with many other anti-establishment movements, fashion statements, subcultures before it; it has been hijacked by the capitalist industrial complex
Within the context of the popular culture, self-care has gone from something to do for oneself to some thing to buy for oneself. The words have been uttered so many times by brands, influencers, and D-list celebrities trying to sell you weight-loss tea, they’ve been thoroughly hollowed out. When a radical political concept becomes a hashtag, it’s time to say goodbye.
Yet, the initial idea of self-care is still too complex and important to disregard. Audre Lorde and the feminists that came after her were right, surviving, in fact, doing more for yourself than surviving, to keep fighting for what one believes in is still indispensable.
Then how does one keep caring for herself without buying into the self-care industry? How do you change the world and stay well yourself?
The first time I’ve heard (and wrote) about Extinction Rebellion (XR) was within the context of climate change. The movement wasn’t as wide-spread as it is now but had already picked up speed. However, it wasn’t until later on, while following the London street blockades, that I dove deeper into their core value: maintaining a Regenerative Culture.
Regenerative Culture, in short, is tending to others and others tending to you; it is collective-care. Self-care, as befits its name, is defined by its relation to the self; within a regenerative culture, on the other hand, your well-being is connected to the well-being of the others, of the whole. Cultivating it means you, yourself also get taken care of in time of need.
In a still timely piece Laurie Penny penned for The Baffler five years ago, she writes about the threat the new and (un)improved understanding of self-care poses to revolutionary ideas. She underlines that a solution that focuses on the self also puts the blame on the individual (and to those even more marginalised than oneself) when it comes to the problem rather than the system. Thus, we end up in a loop of trying to mend structural problems with personal band-aids when what we need is collective action against systems that harms us all, albeit some (much) more than others.
The industry that has been built around self-care collapses systemic problems into personal ones. Regenerative culture does the opposite. Regenerative culture, as XR defines it, recognises that the main culprit of our civilisation’s decline is systemic oppression and goes beyond, it also pushes the idea that seemingly personal problems are not, in fact, personal but collective.
In the same Baffler piece, Laurie Penny writes, “ Real love, the kind that soothes and lasts, is not a feeling, but a verb, an action. It’s about what you do for another person over the course of days and weeks and years, the work put into care and cathexis.”
The idea of collective-care that stands at the core of Regenerative Culture, is exactly about what you do for fellow activists, for people whom you’ll never meet, for the animals, trees, corals, for the planet; “the work you put into care and cathexis”.
Regenerative Culture and collective-care has many meanings for XR. It’s about providing support to the activists who put themselves at risk, who get arrested be this support legal, physical, or mental. It’s about checking in on each other, tending to those who are grieving the loss of our ecosystems, those who are hopeless, who feel defeated.
XR defines Regenerative Culture as the bedrock of the movement, as” teaching and practising the change we want to see in this society […] challenging the power and privilege imbalance we don't even know we collaborate in maintaining.”
Regenerative Culture is the part of XR that will be crucial after the movement achieves its goal of halting climate destruction. Even if we manage to stop the urgent catastrophe we’re facing now we will still need a new way of looking after ourselves and each other because this one clearly isn’t working.
Maintaining a culture that is about love through action, through collective-care, a culture that is regenerative might just be what we need for the new society we must build.