Climate Anxiety: Destroying the Esteem of young environmentalists.

Introduction

As a child I use to run away from home quite frequently when things got loud at my adopted families house, it was difficult to be a kid and navigate emotionally complex issues. I often found myself walking in whatever direction I set off in, for long periods of time. Eventually, this is what would spur my love for hiking and feeling calm near nature. I felt as if the rolling hills were my sanctuary, to speak and think freely were prized moments in my childhood. As soon as I was able to understand conceptual thought, I felt an obligation to protect the one thing that made me feel truly at peace: the environment.

Many young students like me, enter the environmental degrees with romanticized versions of the environment, their capabilities and the workforce positions available. Unfortunately, entering the environmental science field is not a warm welcome to optimistic young students, as it is riddled with constant panic over various environmental issues as the world continues to degrade due to climate change. The state of the world and the climate crisis exposes these young students to the realistic condition of the environment, and how little power environmentalists have to truly fix anything.

As a young scholar about to graduate with a degree in the field of environmental studies and sustainability I can attest to experiencing firsthand how emotionally and mentally draining this career path is, and how little resources I was given to handle the grief associated. In this blog I will discuss how climate anxiety and environmental anxiety has affected my relationship with the environment as an ex-forestry major and current Environmental and Sustainability Studies major.

Background

When talking about the mental and emotional degradation of environmental students, there are a couple specific terms I would like to define in order to avoid reader confusion. These terms are all generously used in the book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety by Sarah Jaquette Ray (2020). It is useful to have a good understanding of all the provided terms, as they are relevant to the subject of this blog and will be used frequently throughout conversation.

  1. Eco-Guilt/ Environmental Guilt: The feeling of never being able to “repay” the environment for the damage caused by existing as a human. Guilt associated with the realization that the pattern/system we have been born into and exist from is a direct cause of environmental degradation and climate change (2020).
  2. Green Guilt: The guilt feeling associated with accepting the idea that all environmental degradation is directly linked to social injustice. Oftentimes people feel guilt for things their ancestors did to begin this chain of events (2020).
  3. Climate Anxiety: described as a chronic fear of environmental doom and a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis (2020).

Summary

I have always understood the frustration that young environmentalists feel when discussing climate change. A common phase herd among my generation falls along the lines of “Boomers screwed up the world and left it for us to fix!”. I often realize that this is the panicked anger response of scared young people, who have been left with a dying world and no reasonable way to save it. This anger response is a way for people who are suffering from climate anxiety or environmental guilt to alleviate some emotional build up.

It is unsurprising to me that my generation has chosen to blame the boomers for the earths current condition, because the boomers could've made immense change to the environment and prevented the modern climate crisis. The blame aspect of this movement and anger is understandable, and awfully human. But I am left wondering why we have chosen to blame only the boomers, when in fact this problem is much bigger and expands much further than just “boomers”.

In my opinion there are very widely unacknowledged aspects of the current anger being pointed at older generations, that just doesn't add up. For one, many people do not consider where the true power of environmental change lies, which is, the government. The government is historically known to be uncooperative with environmental issues, simply because the environment itself has been a longstanding bartering chip between the democrats and republicans in order to maintain gridlock. In my opinion we should be rioting at the government for change, as they are the only people who are responsible for ignoring this issue. The government should have never allowed climate change to get to the point of it being a public or individual issue globally, to handle.

Another separate but related aspect on this statement is how capitalism has played its part in maintaining our current climate crisis and prevented many environmental policies from passing due to financial loss. The last aspect of judgement that I feel is missing from this mindset is the consideration of human evolution and human nature in general. Humans only became the modern-day beings that we are because of the industrial revolution, which is also the beginning of environmental degradation and human caused climate change. Humans have always had the same primal instincts every animal on earth does: expand, conquer and reproduce without concern of the environment. It is easy to look back on our ancestors and wonder “How could they let this happen?” and “Why would they do that?”. But we seem to forget that the majority of humans back then are just doing what the majority of humans do now, try to survive with the current times. Although these reasonable suggestions exist and seem obvious, it is not enough to deter a widespread mindset.

In my opinion this hate has really spiraled from green guilt and other climate anxieties, as Ray mentions in A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety (2020). Ray explains that she had noticed how green guilt has negatively affected young scholars from focusing on the environment, and rather are too focused on alleviating that feeling of guilt (2020). Ray even mentions that guilt is often not productive as it encourages selfishness and obsession on that feeling, rather than allowing progressive effort towards that issue (2020). In my opinion I don't believe that society has given environmental students all the resources that we deserve to handle the current climate crisis, I also specifically disagree that guilt is selfish in this situation. I think that the idea of Green Guilt is outdated and counterproductive to begin with, as I believe it creates division between the majority of modern people who have developed beyond physical stereotypes. I have a hard time associating guilt with selfishness in this given situation because young environmentalists almost have a right to react fearfully given the recent reports on climate, and their lack of outreach. In my humble opinion Green Guilt often times leave people feeling guilty and isolated for things they never contributed to, and things they can't control.

When I arrived at Northern Arizona University I chose to major in Forestry, focusing on Forest Health and Ecological restoration because it was a physical science, and I was hoping for as little human interaction as possible. This major kept me satisfied for over two years before COVID staffing changes forced me to change my major. I ended up in Environmental and sustainability studies, which landed me in more social science classes than I can admit to being happy about. Suddenly with my climate change classes, I also had environmental humanities classes, these changed my perspective on the environment forever.

In my climate change classes we learn mostly of doom and gloom, and often times more of us are left feeling anxious rather than inspired as we once previously were. As I got through my humanities and communications courses, I began to understand the terminology associated with the way I felt, intimately. Words like ‘Climate Anxiety” and “Environmental Guilt” become common to my vocabulary as I face classes that basically teach me that anything we do as environmentalists will be outweighed by capitalism, because profit and environmentalism do not mix. All of these harsh truths tend to be large burdens on the shoulders of young environmentalists, especially students. I have found that many students, including myself have often been left feeling depressed and scared over the condition of the earth with very little help in navigating the situation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that there should be classes for students to talk about and deal with their climate anxieties, that replace the environmental humanities classes for my major. Unfortunately like many things in human history, there is not a current way for us to reverse the damage already done and it seems as if we are instead bracing for the impact of the climate consequences to come. Although this is the reality of our situation, I still believe that scholars deserve the appropriate professional guidance to navigate their grief and other emotions while developing their own educated opinions.

Citations

A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety by Sarah Jaquette Ray. (April 21,2020)

Photos from: nytimes.com, linkedin.com

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