According to polls, Generation Z—people born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s—share some startling characteristics. Surveys show that they are more lonely, depressed, and suicidal than any previous generation. They are more likely than earlier generations to be economically poorer than their parents, and they are the first generation expected to live shorter lives than their parents. As the most ethnically diverse generation of Americans, they care deeply about racial justice and are leading the George Floyd protests. They also led the largest climate strikes in 2019. Indeed, this generation seems to combine their efforts for both racial and climate justice for the first time in history.
But my experience of this generation, as a college professor of environmental studies, centers on another salient quality: Young people aren’t just motivated by climate change, they are downright traumatized by it. They are freaked out about the future of our planet, with a sense of urgency most of the rest of us haven’t been able to muster. This has profound political implications: Young people like my students are committed to making our world a better place. 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 along the way.
The Gen Z students I am teaching now are different from those I’ve taught for 12 years. The students who used to choose environmental studies as a major, even as recently as five years ago, were often white outdoorsy types, idealistic, and eager to righteously 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.
By contrast, my Generation Z students care a lot more about humans. They flock to environmental studies out of a desire to reconcile humanity’s relationship with nature, an awareness that humanity and nature are deeply interconnected, and a genuine love for both. They are increasingly first-generation, non-white, and motivated to solve their communities’ problems by addressing the unequal distribution of environmental costs and benefits to people of color. They work with the Movement for Black Lives, Indigenous sovereignty groups fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, 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 wholeness and hope—but it comes with a dark side. Digging into environmental studies introduces young people to the myriad ways that our interconnectedness in the world leads to all kinds of problems. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports predict that climate change and habitat destruction will increase the spread of infectious disease; climate also exacerbates health disparities between white and African American people in the U.S., including Black women’s pregnancy risks. Studying these sources makes it clear that the devastations of climate change will be borne unequally.
Some of my students become so overwhelmed with despair and grief about it all that they shut down. Youth have historically been the least likely to vote; but I’ve also seen many stop coming to lectures and seminars. They send depressed, despairing emails. They lose their bearings, question their relationships and education, and get so overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness that they 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 coming up with 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 without even trying. 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. This feeling may also sync up with Americans’ recent cultural and economic history of seeing ourselves as consumers. Some scholars have argued that limiting our ability to imagine ourselves as having agency beyond being consumers has resulted in the “privatization of the imagination.” The combination of the feeling of misplaced despair and the feeling that they can only make changes through lifestyle choices creates a sort of ideological box that blocks real democratic political change.
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, imagination, efficacy, 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. Activists and teachers of 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-19 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 trauma of being young in this historical moment will shape this generation in many ways. The rest of us have a lot to learn from them. And we would do well to help them see that their grief and despair are the other side of love and connection, and help them to channel that toward effective action. For their sake and that of the planet, we need them to feel empowered to shape and desire their future. They have superpowers unique to their generation. They are my antidote to despair.