There is something incredibly special about spotting a hummingbird. A fleeting moment when one pauses at a flower in your garden, zooms by your window as you enjoy your morning coffee, or takes advantage of the sugary treat in the feeder. The iridescent greens and purples with a splash of ruby on the throat are truly one of nature’s greatest masterpieces.  I’ve always been so impressed by hummingbirds. They are always zooming, continuously on-the-go, foraging for food with utmost speed and efficiency.

These little birds are the epitome of the American workforce; they embody everything a CEO wants to see in their employees.

We live in this hustle culture every day; we praise those who dedicate themselves to the daily grind and push themselves to climb the ladder of success. Our minds are cluttered with schedules, to-do lists, spreadsheets. Our email inboxes haunt our dreams, while on the farthest backburner we place breaks, days off, and leisurely weekends.  

In the world of climate action, there is an added sense of urgency to stick to this hummingbird-esque level of diligence. We know that time is very, very limited. As I write these words, the entire island of Cuba is without power due to Hurricane Ian, which is now bombarding Florida in a way that the state has never experienced before. Puerto Rico, (barely recovered from Hurricane Maria five years ago), is in shambles after Hurricane Fiona. Flood waters have submerged about one-third of Pakistan, displacing upwards of eight million people. Alaska is in a state of emergency after Typhoon Merbok submerged entire towns. These are just a few of the climate disasters to impact the world in 2022.  

Time is limited. The planet continues to endure fossil fuel pollution, causing temperatures to rise, natural disasters to intensify, oceans to acidify, and ecosystems to suffer in countless ways.

Being aware of such vast amounts of suffering has knocked me off my feet with grief, sent me spiraling into depression, sparked a fiery rage in my heart, and eventually instilled in me a need to act. There is no other option for me – I can no longer sit idly by and do nothing as the world burns.  

With this surge of inspiration fueling me, I channeled the hummingbird and got to work. Flitting from one room to another in my home, I took note of every source of plastic, every wasteful purchase, and every environmentally damaging item and found healthier, non-plastic, zero-waste replacements for all. I stopped eating meat, stopped shopping at fast-fashion stores, stopped banking at a fossil fuel-supporting bank. Petitions were signed, letters were written to my city council, money was donated, postcards were sent to hesitant voters, protests were attended.

I became the hummingbird of climate action.  

Section of the very extensive “Zero Waste Guide” I created for myself and my friends as I dwelled constantly on my contributions to climate change. 

The physiology of a hummingbird is remarkable. With such a small size, every cell in the body must work very hard to stay alive. Hummingbirds have a humungous mass-specific metabolic rate, with flight muscles that consume 10-times more oxygen than the most powerful of human athletes. That oxygen-use translates to energy expenditure – it takes a LOT of energy to keep that little bird warm and airborne, flapping its wings over 50 times per second when hovering. With such an energetically costly existence, it is no wonder that hummingbirds are constantly on-the-go, flitting from one flower to the next in search of food. After all, a hummingbird is always within a couple hours of starving to death. How can they sustain themselves, spending so much energy to stay alive all day long?

Here’s the kicker – hummingbirds rest.  

Beginning at dusk, the hummingbird will nestle down in a safe place, and the body will begin to shut down. Oxygen consumption will decrease steadily to a small fraction of its regular pace. The heart begins to slow from 500 beats per minute to less than 50. The lungs will cease to breathe. Body temperature sinks by dozens of degrees. The hummingbird remains in this state until the next morning when the warmth of the sun’s rays helps to arouse the bird back to business. 

Graph of hummingbird metabolism throughout the day. Credit: Integrated Principles of Zoology, 18th edition, Hickman 

This physiological process is not sleep – it is called “torpor.” Many animals utilize daily torpor to conserve energy, from marsupials to bats. It is the animal kingdom’s evolutionary gift of rest. It is rest as a survival mechanism. This slowing down, shutting down, abandoning the energetically expensive tasks of the day, is absolutely necessary for the sustained resilience of the animal.  For that reason, I think we can all learn a lesson from torpor.  

In the American workforce, the word “rest” is practically a dirty word.

Rest is not considered to be a productive activity; therefore, it should be avoided. In the climate action sphere, there is the added urgency of limited time. How can I rest when climate change is here, now, affecting us all?

For several years, I refused to incorporate rest into my schedule. I would not allow myself to take a break. I would fill weekends with workshops and webinars and protests galore. But after such a long period of working at this unsustainable pace, I hit a brick wall. My body ached, my nails were bitten down to the quicks, my jaw was sore from being incessantly clenched. My motivation and willingness to act seeped out of me like water down the drain. There was nothing left – my energy stores were long-depleted. I actually found myself thinking one day, “I wish I could be a hummingbird.” I wished that I could go into torpor – shut my body down for a bit.  

Humans, unfortunately, can’t go into torpor. What we can do, and should do, is stop cringing at the word “rest” and instead learn to embrace it! Rest, just like torpor, is productive. It supports long-term survival.

It builds resilience. Powerful healing comes from simply sitting in the grass at the base of a tree, lying in a hammock and gazing at the clouds, or dozing along the bank of a creek. Restoration can happen by taking a warm bath, having a cup of tea on the patio in the morning, or focusing on absolutely nothing but the sound of your breath. This is essential for our survival. This is absolutely necessary for those who wish to be a climate activist. And there is zero shame in this, as resting is just as productive as any letter-writing campaign.  

Take it from the hummingbirds, who feel no shame in spending half of the day resting. It is the only way they are capable of being the 10-gram little bad-asses they are.  

Briana Anderson

Briana Anderson is on a journey to find her place in environmental activism. Wildlife has been her passion since childhood, and she is on a continuous quest to learn everything she can about plants, animals, fungi, microbes, and the environment. She has researched best practices for coral reef conservation in Belize, pioneered non-harmful methods of researching bats with white-nose syndrome, and the relationship between the microbiome and cancer. She currently works as a veterinary technician at her local animal shelter and a teacher who gets to talk about wildlife all day. In her free time, she loves hiking, kayaking, cooking, drawing, and finding new ways to be plastic-free/zero-waste.