There are three things that our young live with today. Agency, autonomy, and anxiety.
Agency? Social media gives them the tools to shape their ideas into physical phenomenon. They can use the network for personal expression, raising funds, and seeking talent to create their own community.
Autonomy? Personal liberty and privacy has come to be accepted as the democratic right of every individual, irrespective of their age. Toddlers babble out their preferences on liquid food and parents acquiesce.
Anxiety? This is a chilling one. In addition to the anxiety of over-stimulation, pessimism and feeling not enough, there is a new wave angst that teachers and parents would do well to stay informed and educated upon.
The young are responding with eco-anxiety to any call for saving the planet. They are spearheading campaigns, attending global climate strikes against their parents’ wishes, calling out adult indifference and giving administrations the jitters. They run out with posters and banners feeling helpless, they struggle with fear, they negotiate feelings of betrayal and abandonment, and they howl when their words go unheeded. And in their eyes, no one seems to care enough.
Climate change is clearly impacting our youth’s collective mental and emotional health. And although there isn’t as yet, a formal mental health diagnosis for it, the term ecological anxiety or eco-anxiety has come to define a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”
Ironically, many young climate activists struggle with their own contribution to planet destruction when they fly across the world for climate advocacy work, or don’t walk or cycle to work, or enjoy a mutton burger, or leave their cloth shopping bag behind, or end up without a steel straw at a restaurant. What’s more, this volume of their individual emission causes them a deep, all-consuming guilt. In fact, in some cases, this anxiety around impending doom can be severe enough to require therapy. These overwhelming emotions affect them in deeper ways since they are youthfully idealistic with a strong saviour complex.
There have in fact been reports of some young being so anxious about the climate that they have demanded medically assisted suicide. There is a feeling of frustration at the magnitude of the problem. Even though the young make life style changes, they see that it is not making an impact. They put themselves out there trying to create twitter storms and email tsunamis against short-sighted policies designed towards climate doom but there is self-doubt at the efficacy of their efforts. What perhaps hurts most is their families and schools not taking their abject sense of futility seriously enough.
My 17-year-old daughter had begun to be viewed as a negative alarmist in our family whenever she braved sharing her acute sensitivity to and knowledge of the climate crisis. It affected her relationships with friends too. We did not realize at that time that she was simply looking for places to unload the information she was consuming. Instead of reframing the concern through constructive conversation, we invalidated her as a person and that added to her mental health woes. Indian society and families understand breakups and academic failures but not climate anxiety. There is no support yet for the eco-anxious young.
Disha Ravi’s arrest in February 2021 is a case in point. A young Indian youth climate change activist, she had shared an online toolkit that listed ways to support the Indian farmers’ protests. The event raised serious questions on protection of online privacy of activists. Without safeguards against online invasion by those opposed to their causes, these young activists are dangerously vulnerable. Trauma and anguish invariably follow an attack by online trolls. The “toolkit” Ravi was arrested for was meant to serve as a resource for people to learn about an issue, the famers’ protest in this case. No one got so far into the case as to share that.
Far greater obstacles are faced by environmental groups led by our youth in states and cities that suffer from periodic curfews, communication restrictions and apprehensions from the elders. Quite incredibly, however, our young persist and continue to organize clean-up drives and peaceful protests in spaces that struggle for basics like economic empowerment and political rights. It must make the young activists nervous to watch the grown-ups exhibit apathy despite their greater power. No wonder they make the radical choices of giving up comfortable career options and switching academic tracks to more socially useful and developmental subjects. In fact, they are probably learning a lot more as activists than they would as students in classrooms.
There is also the belief that working value driven jobs will reduce eco-anxiety. Many of our young feel more at peace working for an organization that contributes to the economy as well as climate justice. This value affects their choice of life-partners also. They feel they cannot afford to be with someone who invalidates their fear of environmental doom, it is bad enough to be fighting a dismissive world.
The climate justice movement has been likened to a marathon, as against a sprint. Some overwhelmed teenagers channel their anxiety into collective anger against the system. Others fall back on yoga, mindfulness, being in nature, hiking, farming, and renewing ties with the land. Many advocate embracing the uncomfortable emotions and seeking validation from like-minded-people to reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. There is the additional burden of a systemic trust deficit. Many large corporations simply “green-wash”. They present an ecologically responsible image among the public but don’t get into the trenches. At the other end of the spectrum are the politicians who “youth-wash”. They invite the young activists on platforms for photo-ops but ignore their real demands.
The young respond by looking for support in their own community. They invest in themselves. They stop looking for support from older generations. They educate each other on the need to stay alert and conscious of their mental and emotional health so that they can take care of the climate on the outside in a sustainable way. They find joy, solidarity, and radical love among their own, finding energy and optimism and hope from one another.
Can anyone fault them for finding the situation bleak? The truth is that even though they may not be making things supremely better, they are certainly slowing down the slide. Their collective strength is keeping the torch on planet destruction.
It is time for the adults to reject tokenism and catch up.
The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational diversity with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary filmmaking, and feature journalism. She is a TEDx speaker and represents the Professional Speakers Association of India on the Global Speakers Federation Board. She can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/neerja-singh/.