According to polls, Generation Z—people born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s—share startling characteristics. They are more lonely, depressed, and suicidal than any previous generation. They are more likely than earlier generations to be poorer than their parents, and they are the first generation expected to live shorter lives than their parents. They also care deeply about racial justice and led the largest climate strikes in 2019.
But as a college professor of environmental studies, I’ve seen another quality of this generation: These young people aren’t just motivated by climate change, they are downright traumatized by it. They are freaked out about our planet’s future, with an urgency few others have mustered.
It’s my job, I’ve begun to think, to make sure that people in this “climate generation” don’t get swallowed up in an ocean of despair.
The Gen Z students I am teaching now are different. The students who used to major in environmental studies, even as recently as five years ago, were often white, outdoorsy types, idealistic and eager to educate the masses about how to recycle better, ride bikes more, eat locally, and reduce the impact of their lifestyles on the planet. They wanted to get away from the messiness of society and saw “humanity” as destroying nature.
My Generation Z students care a lot more about humans. They flock to environmental studies out of an awareness that humanity and nature are deeply interconnected, and a genuine love for both. They are increasingly first-generation, nonwhite, and motivated to solve their communities’ problems by addressing the unequal distribution of environmental costs and benefits. They work with the Movement for Black Lives, Indigenous sovereignty groups, and organizations that dismantle barriers to green space, such as Latino Outdoors. Unlike my students from earlier days of teaching, this generation isn’t choosing environmental studies to escape humanity; on the contrary, they get that the key to saving the environment is humanity.
It’s a vision of hope—but it comes with a dark side. Digging into environmental studies introduces young people to the myriad ways that our world’s interconnectedness threatens the future. Some students become so overwhelmed with despair and grief that they shut down. Many stop coming to lectures and seminars. They send depressed, despairing emails. They lose their bearings, question their relationships and education, and barely pass their classes. One of my students became so self-loathing that she came to think the only way to serve the planet was to stop consuming entirely: reducing her environmental impact meant starving herself. Most young people I know have already decided not to have children, because they don’t want their kids growing up on a doomed planet. They barely want to be alive themselves. They often seem on the brink of nihilism before we even cover the syllabus.
The young people I am teaching say they will bear the worst consequences of processes they did not initiate, and over which they have little or no control. They speak of an apocalypse on the horizon. My students say they do not expect to enjoy the experiences older adults take for granted—having children, planning a career, retiring. For many youth, climate disruption isn’t a hypothetical future possibility; it is already here. They read the long predicted increases in extreme weather events, wildfires, sea level rise, habitat destruction, worsening health outcomes related to pollution, and infectious disease as clear signs that their worst fears will be realized not just in their lifetime, but right now.
This sense of doom is more widely felt beyond college classrooms. Psychologists and environmental scholars are creating a whole new vocabulary to describe these feelings of despair, including solastalgia, climate anxiety, eco-grief, pre-traumatic stress, and psychoterratic illness.
Whatever one calls it, all of this uncertainty can immobilize young people when they feel they can do nothing to fix it. Their sense of powerlessness, whether real or imagined, is at the root of their despair. I have found that many young people have limited notions of how power works. My students associate “power” with really bad things, like fascism, authoritarianism, or force; or slightly less bad things like celebrity, political power, or wealth. They have little imagination about how to engage in social change, and even less imagination about the alternative world they would build if they could.
Without a sense of efficacy—the feeling of having control over the conditions of their lives—I fear some may give up on the difficult process of making change. Psychologists call this misleading feeling of helplessness the “pseudoinefficacy effect,” and it has a political dimension that may keep individuals from working to help others.
Meanwhile, there is very little in the mass media to suggest that young people have real power over changes in the climate at large—or even our political system. The 24/7 news cycle thrives when it portrays a world on fire. And mainstream media offers few stories about solutions or models for alternative, regenerative economies. The stories that are covered often only tackle technological or market solutions that have yet to be invented or produced. By portraying climate change as a problem that is too big to fix, and suggesting that the contributions of any single individual are too small to make a difference, these messages leave young people with little sense of what can be done. Amid the clamor of apocalyptic coverage, few are talking about what it would take to thrive in, instead of fear, a climate-changed future.
We cannot afford for the next generation of climate justice leaders’ dread to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their psychological resources of resilience and imagination, and, against all odds, their fierce capacity for joy, are just as necessary for the future of a viable planet as natural resources like clean air and water. My generation must help Gen Z learn to push on the levers of technical, political, cultural, and economic change, and to draw on existential tools or “deep adaptation” in times of crisis.
There’s hope in the images on the streets and on social media: Today’s protests against police brutality are a testament to young people’s power and evidence of their commitment to their future. It isn’t an especially large leap from fighting a racist justice system to improving the planet; indeed, many in this generation see them as inextricably connected—that’s the point. And the rapid and radical changes that society has undertaken in response to COVID is further evidence that change is possible. Humans can sacrifice and make collective changes to protect others—hopefully, in these difficult weeks, my students will be able to see that.
The rest of us have much to learn from this traumatized generation. And we would do well to help them see that their grief and despair are the other side of love and connection. For their sake and that of the planet, we need them to feel empowered to shape and desire their future.
Sarah Jaquette Ray teaches environmental studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. She is the author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet.
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