By Sarah Jaquette Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet (on sale April 2020)
Young people are more depressed, lonely, and suicidal than any generation before Generation Z. Anybody who works with this group, a generation beset with the fate of fixing the climate crisis, will tell you they sense a sea change in the mental health of youth over the past few years. We’re literally losing students to climate anxiety. The data reveals a grim picture, as Jason Plautz’s Washington Post article, “The Environmental Burden of Generation Z,” states—1 in 3 young people are anxious or depressed.
The climate crisis makes that context of anxiety and depression a lethal concoction of reasons to dread the future. These young people are the climate generation. The vast majority are worried about climate change, and many of them are even harming themselves in the process of trying to figure out what to do about it. I had a student who was so worried about the impacts of her consumer practices that she stopped eating entirely. Even Greta Thunberg went through a period of severe weight loss before she found some way to express her worry—striking on Fridays in front of the Swedish Parliament building.
But how can we expect the climate generation to face what has been called the greatest existential threat if their go-to solution is to erase themselves? How can we help them desire instead of dread their futures?
One of the most important things we can do is to reject the narrative that the planet is doomed, that the scale of the problem is too big for any one person to recycle their way out of, and that the evil forces are insurmountable. Our perceived powerlessness in the face of this crisis is our greatest enemy, and must be fought on many fronts.
We can fight it by finding solutions everywhere, by participating in those collective efforts so we can feel the power of community organization, by rejecting doom-and-gloom stories in favor of ones that focus our attention on things we love so we are all the more committed to their protection, and by focusing our efforts on the scales of our own “spheres of influence” rather than getting discouraged by the limitations of our individual impacts.
In my generation, Al Gore and other climate alarmists used the rhetorical strategies of urgency and alarm—the “sky is falling” tactic—to get people on board. That strategy is no longer useful, yet it permeates dominant climate discourse. As Plautz’s article shows, this tactic is doing actual harm to the very people that the planet most needs in this moment—generation Z.
Young people are still being told by the adults in the room that they better care more about the dying planet. This feels patronizing, paternalistic, and cruel. What young people need now is to craft their own story of manifesting the future they deserve, and they need the rest of us to support them with stories of solutions, success, resilience, and possibility. We can do a lot to support the generation we are leaving this planet to, the least of which is to stop with the alarmism and zealotry.
Yes, anger, despair, grief, and anxiety about the state of the planet and current politics are useful emotions that seem appropriate to the threats. But they are only useful to the extent that they can be metabolized into action, efficacy, and triumph.
Leaving young people on the edge of the cliff with our apocalyptic warnings is not just irresponsible, it is also untrue; the horrible state of the planet is only one side of the story. So many people are doing so many things to address these problems, on so many fronts. You don’t have to look far to find a veritable cornucopia of just transition nodes, regenerative economy strategists, appropriate technology geniuses, sustainable business leaders, climate justice activist groups, indigenous land protectors, truth-telling journalists, educators, and parents hell-bent on turning the tide on climate.
Another cost of the alarmist stories of climate apocalypse is love for fellow humans. If we act from urgency and fear, we are likely to sabotage our relationships with people who don’t agree with us, build walls against climate refugees, and sidestep democratic processes in the name of the “climate emergency.” I’m not suggesting we don’t live in a climate emergency, but the alarmism has consequences we need to guard against. It does nothing for us, or for the planet, to spend much time fearing the apocalypse. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Educators know that apocalypse is not a great way to end a semester. It’s not a great way to end a whole generation, either. Hope is also not a good enough lifeline; Generation Z will rise to this challenge if we all pay as much attention to their internal resources as we worry about the loss of environmental resources. Their values, their openness to others, their hard-won optimism, their radical imagination about the futures they want, their self-worth, and their emboldened sense of efficacy are what will save this planet.