I have attended many webinars on climate change and sustainability and participated in local, national, and global discussions. One thing I’ve noticed that reoccurs every now and then, is an audience member stating that they gain hope from seeing young people so involved in climate activism, and they truly believe that we will be, or will produce, the solution. Yes, climate change is a greater problem for young people since a significant chunk of our lives will be affected by climate change consequences. However, pinning hopes on the next generation to fix the problems that previous generations have benefited from feels like an unasked for burden. When young people get involved in climate activism, it’s usually not because they love environmentalism, it feels a necessity to do SOMETHING to change what feels like the ‘end of the world as we know it’ (McKibben, 2020).
From speaking to fellow climate activists, I’ve had a realisation that other young people may relate to this too. In a dream life, I’d be running my own BnB in the Med, or teaching Salsa Dancing, or doing a PhD in philosophy, sociology, or gender studies in dance, finding unexplored areas of research. However, the only life in which I would choose these paths is one without the climate or environmental crisis. For me, the issue feels too urgent and imminent to turn my back on, and so I dedicate my time and efforts so that one day I won’t look back on myself and ask: ‘why didn’t you do anything?’
The pressure that young people feel to solve climate change, and solve it now, alongside societies’ other intersectional issues results all too commonly in eco-anxiety, and eventually burnout. A study of 10,000 children and young people by Hickman et al (2021) concluded that over 50% of those sampled felt sadness, fear, anger, helplessness, powerlessness, and guilt about climate change. Those that have chosen to act upon these feelings are also at high risk of burnout, with many young climate activists working at rates that would be overwhelming for full-time employees (Beilmann, 2020) which is amplified by high-expectations of self and imposter syndrome. The pressure to solve such a large-scale issue alongside establishing a professional and personal identity can lead to toxic work habits for young people.
With an accumulation of anxiety, climate activism can feel overwhelming and a burden, rather than something to embrace and enjoy. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has come up with a venn diagram to tackle climate change in a way that is unique to you. The diagram is based on the Japanese concept of Ikigai and provides three key questions to finding the activism that serves you and your community:
What needs doing? (within climate and justice solutions)
What are you good at? (your skills, resources, and networks)
What brings you joy? (sources of satisfaction and delight)
To be as helpful and hopeful as possible within climate activism, all of these questions must be acknowledged and valued. All too often we separate these entities, making assumptions like climate action is a burdensome necessity, joyful things are those of indulgence, and that we’re not good enough or don’t know enough to do something. By answering these questions, Johnson has given us something both powerful and empowering to work with. As she states “there is something meaningful each one of us can contribute to climate solutions.” Climate activism does not have to feel like a weight on our shoulders, or a weight on the shoulders of all young people, by many people applying their skills, resources, and joys onto climate action, change can be generated on a massive scale.
Studies focusing on the interactions between climate activism and young people have shown the importance of generating hope rather than despair (Nairn, 2019). Nairn (2019) understands that to empower young people to embrace climate activism rather than focus on the burden, collective activism is essential over focusing on individual footprints. A piece of the puzzle that may be missing from this diagram is ‘who can help you?’. It can be all too easy to feel isolated, particularly when your immediate community is not as passionate about or is disconnected from the unfolding events of the climate crisis. This additional question can help us to reach out to local, national, or international climate action groups/campaigns/organisations, and collectively come together to be an even more powerful force.
Climate activism can feel like a lonesome venture that has been put on young people to take responsibility for and shift stubborn societal gears. However, the journey does not have to be lonesome, it can be loving and joyful, as long as we acknowledge and act upon the things that bring us joy, and seek out others who can support us along the way.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. (2022). Climate Action Venn Diagrams. [online]. Available from:https://www.ayanaelizabeth.com/climatevenn .
Beilmann, M. (2020). The Cost of Intensive Civic Participation. Youth Active Citizenship in Europe [online]. Available from: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-35794-8_7 .
Hickman, C. Mark, E. Pikhala, P. Clayton, S. Lewandowski, R. Mayall, E. (2021). The Lancet Planetary Health [online]. Available from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00278-3/fulltext
McKibben, B. (2020). The end of the world as we know it: Covid-19 and climate change. Times Literary Supplement [online]. Available from: https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA632755757&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=0307661X&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=anon%7E879aad6e.
Nairn, K. (2019). Learning from Young People Engaged in Climate Activism: The Potential of Collectivising Despair and Hope. Young [online]. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1103308818817603