Climate Fatalism - Is It Getting Us Anywhere?
By Liam Hansen (he/they)
Everyone remembers that one cooked week in March 2020 when the pandemic started. It was like that scene in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, after Arthur Dent is snatched away from the destruction of the Earth and the only thing that properly knocks the panic into his brain is the erosion of McDonald's hamburgers. Covid produced very urgent anxiety for everyone - I became more invested in the news than I had ever been, my siblings who worked at a supermarket would walk directly from their cars into the shower and we kept strictly indoors with the outside world seeming like a breeding ground for the virus. Without sounding too much like a government PSA, it’s genuinely impressive how the nation and much of the world took such immediate and strong action against the virus. So, I wonder: has this urgency become lost on us in the midst of the climate crisis, or have we just started to accept defeat?
Climate anxiety and despair have become a defining characteristic of Gen Z. While previous generations had trends like Game Boys, disco and drive-in movies, we’ve got crippling existential dread and a dying natural environment as our cultural atmosphere, baby! Depressing statistics, extreme weather events and stupid decisions by lawmakers are presented to us in droves. Social media algorithms shove the most disastrous consequences of climate change into our faces - one post after the other, overloading our senses. This cycle continues until we become desensitised to the crisis. It kills all hope and we lose the ability to care. It seems like all we can do now is shitpost about how fucked we are and brace for impact.
Back in the good old days (2019), I thought about the climate with hope. Like, “Wow! I can’t believe people in our generation are so strong and opinionated! We’re gonna be the ones to solve the climate crisis! Someone is going to invent something that will immediately solve everything! We need to support these tech ventures, give them a platform and buy their products! And buy their products! And buy their products!” However, it seems like some young people have become more apathetic since the beginning of the pandemic. Part of this can probably be attributed to our generation simply maturing, gaining life experience and being able to put issues into perspective. But rather than slowly, naturally and healthily going through this process, teenagers and young adults have experienced the world dramatically transform within a matter of days.
Although the constant spotlight on Covid-19 put the climate crisis on the back burner, it also highlighted wider social issues. The ten richest men in the world doubled their wealth from 2020 to 2022.1 We saw fewer people in oceans, thus the safety of marine life briefly improved.2 The productive anxiety we once held around the climate was drained from us - and it’s been a battle to get it back. We can’t use the excuse that “We’ll be dead and gone before any major issues”, because the ramifications are happening as we speak. A study from Ipsos3 says that a fifth of surveyed young people believe it’s too late to solve climate change - 66% more than other age groups.
To understand this issue better, I had a chat with Sarah McBride, a researcher and data analyst who recently finished her thesis at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research analyses climate anxiety in young people across Aotearoa. She explains why this happens: “Young people are really socially connected, so they see the damage of climate change all across the world via social media - something that older generations don’t get.” She agrees that climate anxiety has been dampened due to the increased focus on another existential threat. “It’s really hard to be constantly anxious about something - and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
So, I guess we’re left with two options. One: continue to do good, even if it doesn't make a difference. Or, two: give up. However, Sarah seems to be optimistic after talking with young people for her thesis. She says that there are people who want to make a difference by recycling, eating vegetarian food and taking public transport; others realise the real polluters are corporations and governments and that’s where the real change will happen.
So, if we think we’re doomed, why are we still trying to fight climate change by recycling and avoiding meat? Sarah says, “It’s a bit grim, but if someone you know is dying of a fatal illness, although you accept there’s nothing you can do, you still do your best to support that person and prolong their life.” But with the climate, we can still do something - it just requires wide scale, drastic changes. These need to be made by governments and corporations and they need to happen now. Sarah said one of her interviewees had moved beyond anxiety, into anger. During the school climate strikes, politicians said they loved what young people were doing, they supported them and saw them, “But she was like, no - we’re here because of you and we’re angry because you’re not doing what you should be doing to protect the climate.” Sarah said that this frustration may be part of a good approach to climate anxiety. Although limiting constant media consumption is beneficial to reduce stress, you could also channel your anxiety into something bigger. Directly quoting her thesis, she said, “Rather than suppressing this emotional experience, people should acknowledge and share their anxiety to form strong networks of mutual support and take collective action.”
To conclude in the style of a self-improvement YouTuber, the main thing we need to do is rework our habits. A bunch of small decisions can lead to big impacts. And a large group of people taking small actions can make or break our response to the climate crisis. Thankfully, this is becoming an unspoken rule across our generation. We need to get used to making changes in ourselves and encouraging others to do the same. Limiting your consumption of meat, buying more second-hand clothing and supporting organisations doing the hard mahi are all things you can start doing today. But legislative action and regulating corporations will force wide-scale changes for the better.
On another note, Auckland's mayoral election is in October. So, research which candidates actually care about the environment and are willing to do something about it. Then, fucking vote.
1 Sarah McBride's thesis - Climate Anxiety in Aotearoa Adolescents: A Mixed-Methods Exploration - will be deposited to Victoria University of Wellington's Library in the near future