GUEST BLOG: FAHMIDA MIAH
It comes as little surprise that victims of extreme weather conditions, such as floods, wildfires or droughts, often go on to suffer mental health conditions as a result of this trauma. In 2020, the Environment Agency reported that they were 50% more likely to develop PTSD, depression and stress, with some conditions persisting for years.
As the number of communities being stricken by severe natural disasters grows, from Australia’s wildfires to droughts in east Africa, studies have continued to find the strong links between experiencing the adverse impacts of climate change and deteriorating mental health. However, this research not only focuses on those who have suffered first-hand but has identified escalating numbers of young people troubled by eco-anxiety.
Environmentalism can be a double-edged sword for the young. The more informed they become, the better they can argue for structural change, desperately needed to keep global temperatures below a dangerous 2 degrees Celsius. However, until that change is implemented, knowledge of how we continually undermine our planet is difficult to bear, sometimes manifested in panic attacks, insomnia and obsessive thinking.
Last year, 57.3% of those surveyed at The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that they had recently seen a child or adolescent patient experiencing climate anxiety, a much higher rate compared to their adult patients. In early 2020, Newsround conducted a survey on 2,000 8-16 years exploring their relationship with the environment, finding that 1 in 5 children have had a bad dream over climate change fears, and 2 in 5 stating they do not trust adults to tackle this challenge.
Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute refers to this thought process as “toxic knowledge”, explaining how difficult it is to unknow these facts once exposed, and how quickly this becomes a murky lens through which you view the future. Experiencing environmental grief, contrary to the criticisms of the younger generation’s supposed “snowflake-ness”, is a reasonable response to an all-encompassing threat.
So, what are the youth to do when faced with such bleak facts, figures and futures? Understandably, this state of affairs can oftentimes lead to a sense of nihilism, which is counter-productive to our collective struggle.
Today’s young people, most at risk of the consequences from decades of inadequate action, are also the face of the most unwavering and impassioned climate activism. The strides young activists have made and will indeed continue to make in 2021 must be celebrated, if only to give their contemporaries hope as we continue in this defining decade of environmentalism. The youngest of our societies have risen to this challenge with an urgency as if their very lives depended on it, because it quite simply does.
The last two years have seen teenage activists like Greta Thunberg become household names, igniting waves of youths world-wide to begin organising to demand immediate change to the systems that have brought us to this dire situation.
Alongside activism, Millennials and Gen Z, generations more often invested in upholding sustainable futures, will soon make up larger proportions of workers and voters worldwide, just as placing power in greener leaders and initiatives is urgently needed.
One such initiative is the Green New Deal, which has seen mounting support in the US and UK, seeking to legislate the sweeping policy transformations required to tackle each nation’s rising carbon emissions, whilst also addressing the economic and societal inequalities (namely unregulated capitalism and white supremacy) that uphold climate injustice. The Green New Deal is also strongly advocated by politicians popular amongst younger voters, most notably in the US with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the likes of whom will only see further backing in the coming years.
In 2020 we also witnessed the far-reaching shift in understanding and behaviour that community mobilisation ignited through the momentous work of Black Lives Matter activists. Once a society has witnessed its own power, it is more likely to organise against injustices in future. This will undoubtedly come to include tackling the environmental racism faced by the Global South and minorities in the Anglosphere, work that is already being championed by POC environmental activists. Prominent author and activist, Naomi Klein, closes her book On Fire by highlighting that “the biggest obstacle we are up against is hopelessness”.
It is incredibly easy to feel discouraged in the face of the work that must be done to save our species, but it is important to remember that we are by no means beginning from scratch. The work in creating a road map to a green and just future already exists. It is simply a case of coming together to implement And follow this through, a feat which deserves our faith and optimism because “when the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.”