Eco-Anxiety: What It Means for Our Kids and How They Are Taking Action
June 14, 2022
In 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement warning that climate change threatens “children’s mental and physical health” and that “failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children.” Since then—as city-sized ice chunks shear off Antarctica, as we pump more carbon dioxide into the air than ever, and as we continue to sit on our hands— “eco-anxiety” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Against the growing ranks of students worried simply about what the future will hold for them on this planet, climate policies remain evanescent. The ever-widening discord between knowledge and action creates a disturbing feedback loop. And our students are suffering.
Climate change has become climate crisis. Yet in the rotisserie of headlines that seem more immediate than melting glaciers, the story that affects every living creature pulses only tidally, when a storm surges or a forest burns close to the neighborhood. We are at once too much and too little aware. By 2020, a BBC Newsround study found that 73% of children ages 8 to 16 were worried about the state of the planet; a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll recently found that just 29% of teens were optimistic about it. For some students, it has become wallpaper: “I feel like in my peer group, you just go right from talking about polar bears dying to ‘Did you see what Maya posted on Snapchat?’ Nobody has a filter to adjust,” 18-year-old Sarah Niles told The Washington Post in February 2020. “It’s like, the ice caps are melting, and my hypothetical children will never see them, but also I have a calculus test tomorrow.”
The majority of American teens say they feel anger and hopelessness about climate issues, carrying their private worries into the public space of schools. People want to talk about it—indeed, 80% of parents support its teaching—but it’s so existential and consequential it’s hard to know how to do it.
I’ve spent the better part of my career as an educator trying to mine my own dread and anger about climate change and use it to inspire useful responses from my students. I’ve worked with nonprofits to create curricula, I’ve written a climate-themed composition guide, I’ve made an ethics-based card game. Lately, I’ve had the most traction in an elective I developed with a history teacher at Ethical Culture Fieldston School (NY) called People and the Planet. We talk about faraway things that are damaging the planet—the air quality in Delhi, the cobalt mines in Congo—and also what is near—NYC public transit, Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood that receives so much industrial waste it’s called “The Sacrifice Zone.”
In the classroom, we carve an hour from the other noises to gather knowledge, challenge assumptions, and make our questions more acute. When we inevitably turn to the selfish decisions made by the powerful people who got us to this moment, the facts of these stories blur to the pathos they rouse, and there’s a moment when students get out of their headspace and down into their heart space.
That’s when we tap into something Dekila Chungyalpa, the director of the Loka Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, calls righteous anger, which is a kind of anger that “can galvanize and create change. And the trick is to figure out how to direct it in a way that is productive.” Yes, we leave a good class having had something of a communion, with our notions of sacrifice and responsibility roused. It’s a measure against the momentum of climate anxiety. But it’s still not an action.
Coping and Taking Action
Outside of my classroom, though, I may have stumbled upon more of a tangible, actionable response. My house, just up the river from New York City, in Hastings-on-Hudson, overlooks the pickup line for my daughters’ elementary school. Every day at 2:15, the cars start lining up; by 2:45, they are at my mailbox, and by 3:00, they’re snaking up the next street to school. Most drivers kept their engines running, sharing nitrogen and sulfur oxides with the young lungs of students who walk home. While most climate-hacking behaviors are like termites gnawing far away, like in the tar sands of northern Alberta, idling is more like the stinkbug, sitting right there in broad view.
My mayor kindly assuaged my wish to place a no-frills “No Idling” sign on my yard. I wrote about idling, I approached cars to talk about the issue, and I hosted a local library discussion with county administrators; I roused sympathy, but no results.
So, one Sunday last December, it was time to harness the power of youth. I invited several of my daughters’ friends over to draw anti-idling posters that a printer could make into yard signs. An hour later, we had one with a Ghostbusters-style cross-out around an idling car, and others with ghostly children’s faces standing amid infernos of fumes, with lines like “We share the air” and “Everything has limits.” They were imperfect and compelling.
We waited until it wasn’t freezing anymore, then gathered support from neighbors along our street, then from those who lived outside the middle and high school complex, and together, we put 10 signs in the ground, as many as our self-funded project could afford at the time. Immediately, with people slowing and stopped beside them, the signs yielded results. The idling rate had been about 75% for most of the year; it fell to below 30%. People started commenting favorably to me and the kids about the signs. Inspired by this campaign, the elementary school had its own anti-idling sign-making event for Earth Day. Then the mayor asked me to assemble young speakers for a board of trustees meeting at village hall.
A dozen of them implored the elected body to enforce the village’s existing law that forbids most vehicles from idling over a minute. “We’re kids. We can’t make the law, but you can,” one of them said during the meeting. Seeing them there, outnumbering the adults, sent a clear visual message: The children are inheriting all this. Now, even more kids are into the cause. They set up an information booth, replete with trivia questions, at the town fair. They’ve researched anti-idling street sign designs and locations and convinced the village to put them up. They are planning a short, “fun-ducational” film about idling. Real results bring a momentum that brings people together.
They are following in the footsteps of student activist groups like Little People, Big Changes, which convinced its local legislators in Wilton, Connecticut, to promote and enforce their extant idling law. They follow the initiatives of schools that are starting farm programs or garden projects, that are replacing gas-powered leaf blowers with student-wielded rakes, that are measuring food waste and monitoring air quality on campus. Rather than dwelling on how insignificant their actions feel, they are channeling their energy toward bringing those news stories into the world as well.
As a teacher, I’ll continue to discuss Aristotelian notions of public and private property, but I also love the blunt appeal of a yard sign made by a 7-year-old. In my practice of addressing eco-anxiety and the nature that rouses it, I am going to make room for both.
Tim Donahue teaches high school English at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He writes about education and climate change.