This week, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg was named Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year for her climate activism. Thunberg has ignited a passion to resolve climate change and instilled sense of urgency and responsibility regarding the fate of the planet, particularly in young people. Along with the awareness and activism, dire reports about the state of affairs induce something else: stress. The message that the planet is facing irreparable harm is placing a big burden on very small shoulders. For many, this has led to eco-anxiety.
Eco-anxiety is defined as a chronic fear of environmental doom and. Although it can affect anyone regardless of age, it’s hitting young people particularly hard. To understand why, it’s important to understand the position in which this demographic is routinely placed.
Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, tells Parentology the optimism and fearlessness of youth is part of the reason this group is so often targeted as change agents. “They’re young, passionate, willing to take risks, believe they’re invincible and have found a cause that’s critically important for the world.”
Rogers says the excitement and momentum of being part of something bigger than oneself is a great motivator for kids. Angst enters the picture, Rogers says, from being given so much responsibility without the tools to manage it, which is also why back-up from adults is so important. “We need to bring adults to the table because, frankly, these kids can’t vote.”
Youth, as well as young adults, often feel their ideas aren’t being taken seriously, or worse, ignored altogether.
An example of this very thing rings through as Rogers recalls a meeting of climate activists that occurred a decade ago. Present at the meeting — all men, save for Rogers and a female scientist. The scientist began, “I want to talk about oceans because my research shows…” The men cut the scientist short, responding, ‘Sit down!’ “She was this young researcher,” Rogers says, “no one listened to her. She’s a major ocean scientist now and everybody’s listening to her. And so it is with youth.”
At the forefront of eco-anxiety is fear of the unknown. As Rogers points out, this is especially daunting since, in many cases, adults don’t really know much more than kids. “The unknown is really scary since no one has the answers. Oceans may start fighting back and not absorbing any CO2. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the oceans.”
There seems to be a specific burden on American youth where push-back against climate change is concerned, one that proves the old adage, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” as Rogers illuminates. “Disruption protesting, not going away… You have to keep it up.”
So, what, exactly, can be done to alleviate the stress of eco-anxiety? According to Leesa Carter-Jones, President and CEO, Captain Planet Foundation, a “grant-making foundation that has funded more than 2,600 hands-on environmental education projects with schools and non-profits,” the key is empowerment.
“What we have experienced at Captain Planet Foundation is that giving young people the agency and tools they need to engage in change-making relieves a significant amount of climate change stress,” Carter-Jones tells Parentology.
Carter-Jones adds, “No one likes to feel helpless – and that’s why our programs and grants focus on supporting young people in their efforts to become active architects of their future who are meaningfully shaping the world they will inherit.”