Conquering Climate Apocalypse Fatigue
"I think a lot of Gen Z feels kind of scared because when you look at the statistics, they're like literally the most ominous things ever … It's like, ‘Oh! Two billion trees died in this one hour!’ And, you just feel like, ‘What am I supposed to do about that?’”Meher Indoliya
Recent Newark Memorial High School graduate Meher Indoliya reflects on her feelings of climate fatigue and asks how we can stay hopeful in the face of the climate crisis.
Earlier this year, news of the greenlight for the Willow Project exploded on my social media feed.
The drilling project could produce up to 180,000 barrels of oil a day. That would amount to 1.5 percent of overall U.S. oil production, PBS says.
Federal and state officials say that the project would provide Alaskans with jobs.
But it would release more than 9 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually. That’s the equivalent of adding 2 million conventional cars to the roads every year, the Natural Resources Defense Council says.
In my mind, that’s the environmental equivalent of throwing on a down comforter when you’re about to die from a heat stroke.
Our planet is already going through what people are calling the sixth mass extinction. And we’re experiencing extreme weather disasters around the globe more frequently.
It’s terrifying, and it felt like a final nail in our global coffin of a planet.
To be clear, the Willow project’s projected emissions are just a drop in the industrial-sized bucket of our emissions. But the news still made me feel powerless to prevent this drop from entering the bucket. News reports say that we’re not curbing emissions enough. And I felt that my peers’ social media posts about the situation often mischaracterized what was going on.
The environment has been part of my identity since third grade. That’s when my best friend Liam informed me of something called “global warming.” It’s a term he had heard from his mother who watched a lot of documentaries.
We learned that global warming is something that threatens the plants and animals that we love. I remember marching around school and the park that year chanting our slogan: “Save Mother Nature! Stop global warming!” We’d even send each other notes in class, just saying “Save M.N.! Stop G.W.!”
We thought of ourselves as activists even back then. But the events of the past year made me question if there’s any point in even being an activist.
I remember reading a book called “The Giver” in class. And I was shocked that the protagonist had never seen a bird. I feel that this is the world that we’re headed towards if we keep pushing forward with initiatives like the Willow Project.
I worry that people in the future may end up living in a much more expensive and less biologically diverse environment than the one I did even locally in the Bay Area.
They may not be able to garden outside like I did with my mother growing up because it could become too hot.
They may never see all the different kinds of birds that my big sister and I did when we were summer campers – and then guides – at the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge in Milpitas.
So the Willow Project news left me feeling frustrated, disappointed, and most of all, powerless.
I’m far from alone. A landmark survey conducted by the British medical journal The Lancet in 2021 found that more than half of the 10,000 people they interviewed between the ages of 16 and 25 said that they feel sad, anxious, angry, powerless, and guilty about climate change.
Many of those surveyed said that governments have betrayed them and humanity is doomed.
The survey spanned 10 countries from Australia to the United States.
The news about the Willow project capped a year’s worth of my own failed attempts to get my fellow high school students to be more environmentally conscious.
I had worked so hard with my friends in our environmental club. We designed a system to convince our classmates to recycle their lunch containers.
Recycling PSA Clip: Wait, do you hear that …? Always recycle kids. But how can I recycle? Great question Jimbo, come with me. Wait, my name's not Jimbo ... First check if the item you want to recycle is on the list …
We even made a Recycling PSA. But nobody listened. Nobody recycled, and me and my friends would spend every Friday picking through soiled containers and sorting recyclables ourselves.
Turns out, only a tiny percentage of plastic even gets recycled.
I can’t help but look back at my senior year at Newark Memorial High School with a mixture of deep disappointment and despair: Was this why my fellow students didn’t take action?
This combination of my senior year experience, seeing an emissions-spewing corporation getting its way, and teens’ often ill-informed social media posts all made me wonder whether anything I do as an individual can make a difference.
And if we don’t have any agency as individuals, are we just supposed to go on as if we’re not in a climate crisis?
I wanted to learn whether I was alone in my sense of doom: What were my peers’ perspectives on their sense of agency? Did they feel as disconnected and disillusioned as I did?
Specifically, how do our emotions affect our ability to take effective action?
And what can we do to manage our sometimes overwhelming feelings?
Personally, I identify with those Gen Zers in the Lancet survey. The future of the climate isn’t in our hands – despite our best efforts.
Older and more powerful figures have all the control, and they’re destroying the environment because they’ll die before they see how harmful their actions are.
Gen Z will be the ones forced to pick up the pieces when we had no say in the situation in the first place.
Do my peers in the San Francisco Bay Area feel that everything they do is pointless as well — and if so, why do they feel this way?
I started by meeting up with my best friend Liam Sarmiento.
Like me, he’s a recent Newark Memorial High School graduate. We co-founded the environmental club and worked on the recycling project together with some other friends.
I wanted to know whether the experience left him feeling as angry and as disappointed as I did.
I tried to press him to admit that he was disappointed in our peers and their pathetic response to recycling. But he just kept saying that we might have not done the right kind of outreach. We hadn’t put the right incentives in place.
LIAM: You know what? Like even after all these obstacles – no, you know what? Not obstacles. Challenges. (Thanks, AP Psych!) These challenges, I'm actually really optimistic for the future of the recycling program at NMHS.
He acknowledged all the powerful corporate forces that appeared to be aligned against the environment.
LIAM SARMIENTO: Capitalism, that's, that's kind of a big one cuz that incentivizes, like tragedy of the commons.
"Oh, if, if I don't, if I don't take this resource, then somebody else will." So then everybody is just out for themselves and then that is mutually assured destruction. Yeah, environmental, cold war.
MEHER: What might you do or say to help peers who feel overwhelmed when it comes to the environment, or have climate fatigue?
LIAM SARMIENTO: What I would say to my peers with climate fatigue is that there’s still hope.
Liam still believes in the power of collective action.
LIAM SARMIENTO: Be optimist and do good, because if there are a lot of optimists, that means a lot of good.
Turns out, he’s onto something. You need hope to be optimistic.
Researchers say that we need to acknowledge and manage our emotions. It’s the most important first step to mobilizing people to actively engage in climate advocacy.
Per Espen Stokes Clip: The biggest obstacle to dealing with climate disruptions lies between your ears
That’s Per Espen Stokes, a psychologist and economist. He is the author of “What We Think of When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.”
The book’s goal is to transform what’s been called climate apocalypse fatigue and the resulting paralysis and denial into a belief in one’s personal agency. Optimism is a crucial aspect of this.
Humans react to the doom and gloom of catastrophic climate news and predictions in several ways that paralyze us, he says.
Both Liam and I can relate. We actually made the very same point in our recent conversation.
LIAM SARMIENTO INTERVIEW: You feel helpless cuz like, then it just becomes a number. And then you're just like: “Oh!” You don't really like, wanna do anything about it because you know, that number is so big and it's really hard to like, like bring it down just by yourself.
MEHER: Yeah, I think a lot of Gen Z feels kind of scared because when you look at the statistics, they're like literally the most ominous things ever. The statistics they choose to highlight are so threatening. It's like, “Oh! 2 billion trees died in this one hour!” And, you just feel like: “Oh, what am I supposed to do about that?”
MEHER: Espen Stoknes recommends that we focus on the everyday things in our lives that we can do collectively rather than thinking that we need to personally shoulder the crushing responsibilities implied by the overall big picture.
Per Espen Stokes Clip: Rather than backfiring frames such as disaster and cost, we can reframe climate as being really about human health, for instance, with plant-based delicious burgers, good for you and good for the climate.
MEHER: A recently published study that examined the diets of more than 55,000 people in the UK confirms that vegans are responsible for 75 percent less in greenhouse gas emissions than meat eaters. That was good to hear – I’ve always been a vegetarian and my friend Liam is a vegan.
Cutting meat consumption by half would be the equivalent of taking 8 millions cars off the road, the New York Times recently reported.
That’s a big deal, because globally, the food system is responsible for about one-third of planet-heating emissions, 70 percent of global freshwater consumption and almost 80 percent of global freshwater pollution. The United Nations has called for us to drastically cut back our meaty diets.
Liam and I could also relate to Espen Stoknes’ observation that climate change predictions seem far off and detached from the realities of our daily lives.
That’s why we need to change that narrative, Espen Stoknes argues.
Per Espen Stokes: We can make climate feel near, personal and urgent by bringing it home. If I believe my friends or neighbors, you guys, will do something, then I will, too. We can see, for instance, this from rooftop solar panels. They are spreading from neighbor to neighbor like a virus. It's contagious.
Even when the information does relate to our lives, it often conflicts with our lifestyles and values, he observes. And then we make justifications for our climate damaging lifestyles.
Policymakers and corporations can also offer us a better range of choices so that we don’t feel obligated to do a 180 in order to be climate-friendly.
Per Espen Stokes: Take food waste. Food waste at buffets goes way down if the plate or the box size is reduced a little, because on the smaller plate it looks full but in the big box it looks half empty, so we put more in. So smaller plates make a big difference for food waste.
And there are hundreds of smart nudges like this.
Espen Stoknes argues that policymakers should change the way we define the problems and opportunities.
Per Espen Stokes: Psychology says, in order to create engagement, we should present, on balance, three positive or supportive framings for each climate threat we mention.
Both Liam and I did think about incentivizing fellow students to take action. For example, we had this free boba scheme. We bribed students to sort through the trash for recyclables for an hour on Fridays with the promise of buying them a boba drink at the end of the year.
But schemes like that didn’t move the needle when it came to incentivizing enough people to take action.
One climate activist I spoke to urges young people not to be discouraged.
ANYA KAMENETZ: We don't spend enough time studying social movements, how they work. You know, you might have a speech on Martin Luther King Day, but you don't understand about the organizing that went on and the months and years of work it took to do something like the Montgomery Bus boycott. People can have a huge impact and they can make a difference.
That’s Anya Kamenetz. She’s a former NPR education reporter. She now advises the Climate Mental Health Network. It’s a non-profit that helps parents and teachers understand that emotions are an integral part of dealing with the climate crisis, and gives them a way to talk to children about these emotions.
Kamenetz’s point is that the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 eventually led to the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.
She herself is so worried about the state of affairs that she quit her prestigious job at NPR – a job that she had held for eight years.
The fear and the dread that I've been feeling worrying what's happening to society, is society gonna collapse? What kind of life is gonna be there for my kids? I was just so worried about the climate and I couldn't file another story that had to do with, not with climate change. I needed to be focusing on this full time.
Kamenetz blames our lack of mental health resources [pause] for our tendency to avoid conversations about climate change.
So when people are paralyzed by anxiety, you know, most often they just wind up avoiding the subject altogether.
I mean, why is it that Americans don't rank climate change number one, among issues facing the country? To me the only possible explanation for that, it's not rational. It has to be because they are avoiding the topic.
They're avoiding the reality.
We can make it easier to face the harsh reality by drawing on three different coping strategies, Kamenetz says. She points to the Swedish psychology professor Maria Ojala’s research: It shows how young environmentalists can manage their emotions.
We can deal with our emotions directly. We can express our feelings or self-soothe. This is emotion-focused coping.
The next type is meaning-focused coping. This refers to someone drawing on their inner philosophy to change their perspective of the problem and view it in a healthier way.
The third type is problem-focused coping.
ANYA KAMENETZ: Problem focused coping is when we're taking action and we're acting hopefully with other people together to help make a difference.
All this helps to channel our feelings into agency.
That’s an outlook my dumpster-diving, vegan friend Liam shares. He also retains a sense of humor and optimism despite all the challenges we face, and he plans to keep going with his environmental activities through his lifestyle choices.
For example, he wants to popularize the idea of – yes, you’re hearing this right – wearing recycled snack wrappers.
LIAM SARMIENTO: For my, Lays Bucket Hats. Yeah, because I'm eventually gonna make it into YouTube video. And then like a bunch of people are gonna see it. They're gonna be like, wow.
Or maybe it'll be like a TikTok trend and then everybody will start making stuff out of like these chip bags and then it'll become a DIY craft thing.
I have my doubts about his plans to become an influencer. But at least he’s trying to do something, and to inspire our peers to think about our lifestyle choices.
LIAM SARMIENTO: Do I feel helpless? I don't feel helpless because if I get famous enough then I can influence the minds of many and, yeah, I think. Okay, this sounds bad, but if I get powerful enough, then I could probably like influence a lot of things in a good direction, assuming that power doesn't corrupt me.
MEHER: So your best bet to change things is just to like, get really famous …
To be honest, Liam’s relentless sunniness sometimes makes me feel frustrated. I just want to wallow in my pessimistic little bubble.
And sometimes, I still do. The reality of the climate crisis reflects back to me in many aspects of my life - from the record high temperatures of the summer to the headlines I read every day.
It feels like a punch to the gut. It knocks me down for a few moments, and still leaves me feeling hopeless.
But it also makes me angry, and that anger fuels my environmentalism.
I now realize that my pessimistic bubble only amplifies my anxiety.
Like Kamenetz said, just talking about these issues has made me feel better.
And I hope this story makes you feel better too – because we’re not alone in our anxiety.
These recent conversations have rekindled a sense of hope.
I need to dive deeper into my own environmentalism, take action, and encourage others to face their fears as well.
That means that as I look forward to turning eighteen in the fall, I plan to vote in both the local and national elections.
I plan to support candidates with green initiatives that the world needs.
One of the most encouraging points that Kamenetz made during our talk was that I’m not alone. This is how she suggested I frame the situation.
ANYA KAMENETZ: I have to look at all the people around the world that are collectively working and adapting to make the climate crisis better and understand that I'm just part of a giant wave.
So I plan to join college organizations that promote environmental action or help students connect with nature: for example, the Environmental Affairs Board or the Excursion Club at UCSB.
Most importantly, I need to remind myself that the weight of the world isn’t on my shoulders alone, she advises.
ANYA KAMENETZ: There's no possible way that this can be all my fault and I have to do what I can do, and I have to let go.
This fall, I will renew my efforts and address my emotions head-on with my fellow students as we all explore difficult conversations around climate change.
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