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How to Discuss Eco-Anxiety with Students

eco-anxiety
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Many students are facing eco-anxiety in regard to their future as severe weather events continue to make headlines and discussion about climate change intensifies.

In a 2021 Lancet survey, 56 percent of young people said they agree with the statement “humanity is doomed.”

“Forty percent of those kids also believe that they may not have children due to the state of the planet, by choice,” said journalist Diana Kapp, author of Girls Who Green the World (opens in new tab), in a session during the recent New York City Department of Education Beyond Access Forum (opens in new tab). “Academics who study climate anxiety have been warning of intense feelings of doom among young people leading to a sense of paralysis and inaction. And when you feel the sense of paralysis, you kind of give in to an idea that what is happening in the future is inevitable, and then that means you sit out rather than get active.” 

Addressing Eco-Anxiety: Sharing Success Stories 

In Kapp’s book Girls Who Green the World, she profiles women who are change makers in the green space, including those who are inventing plastic alternatives and clean energy technologies, combating food waste and fast fashion, and addressing ocean distress and environmental injustice. By showcasing a diverse array of individuals and initiatives, she said she hoped students could find someone to relate to and inspire them. 

“We need to provide young people with a different vantage point, to step them through a magic doorway into an alternate universe of possibility, buzzing and worrying with mad scientists and doers,” Kapp said. “Every single one in the book is racing to head off planetary disaster.” 

Her book’s theme is ‘You can't be what you can't see.’ “I truly believe that women in STEM science, business, and environmental work are not getting enough air time,” she said. “So stories of power and stories are powerful motivators, particularly when they help young people see themselves in the role models that they really need. And importantly, they'll learn that many of these women knew little about the field that they are in.”

Turning Eco-Anxiety Into Action 

Joining Kapp during the presentation were two subjects she profiled in her book, Nicole Poindexter, CEO of Energicity Corp (opens in new tab), and Sarah Paiji Yoo, CEO and Co-Founder of Blueland (opens in new tab). Both shared their stories of how they dealt with eco-anxiety by just starting with small, personal initiatives that grew into full-fledged green companies.

Based in Sierra Leone, Poindexter’s business provides solar mini grids to provide a source of power for some of the more than 600 million people in Africa who do not have access to electricity. “We go to rural communities that don't have electricity, and we say, ‘Would you like light?’ and bizarrely everyone says, ‘Yes,’” said Poindexter. “And then in those communities we build a solar farm, we put up polls and wires just like Con Edison, and a meter on every house, and we provide reliable electricity in these communities that is affordable, and it is fully sustainable, being 90 plus percent generated by solar.”

Poindexter was reading a sci-fi book when her eco-anxiety was awakened. “It was about the future of the planet and economic devastation, and it referred to the period of 2006 to 2052 as ‘The Great Dithering.’ It's the period of time during which we knew that climate change was a problem, but we did nothing about it,” she said. “And I read that line, and I was just struck like, ‘I can't be part of that dithering. I need to do something. I want to do something!’”

Poindexter became very interested in this idea of going 100% solar on the grid, and connected with a few others who had similar goals, and knew of the need in Africa. “So I got on the plane and went to Ghana on my first trip and met these handful of small cocoa farming communities that didn't have electricity, and I said, ‘I'd like to bring you light.’ I expected they'd say, ‘Go away crazy lady!’ But what they said is, ‘Can you bring us light tomorrow?’” 

In one of the communities for which Poindexter’s company is providing electricity, the number of kids going to school increased by 50%, and the number of those achieving a passing grade increased by 70%. Plus, health and food services have improved dramatically. “Electricity actually underpins everything that we think is important,” she said. 

For Paiji Yoo, her eco-anxiety came about shortly after her first child was born and she was researching what kind of water to use for her son’s formula and discovering how microplastics have infiltrated everything. “Whether it's tap or bottled water, drinking water contains, per liter, over a 100 pieces of microplastics, and that just made my stomach turn,” Paiji You said. “So here I had a brand new baby, and I was just feeding him all this plastic with his baby formula and it wasn't until that point I started to really connect the dots between all the single-use plastic that we're consuming as a society.”

Paiji Yoo’s company, Blueland, is on a mission to eliminate single-use plastic packaging, starting with cleaning products and personal care products. For example, their refillable spray cleaners feature one forever bottle and refill tablets so when you need more multi-surface cleaner or hand soap, you simply refill a bottle with warm water and add the tablets.

“The beauty of our dry formats like our tablets or powders is that we can package those in paper instead of plastic,” she said. “And also because the tablets are typically 50 times smaller than a full bottle of liquid it also drastically reduces the carbon emissions related to shipping all these products around.”

More In-Depth Eco Exploration 

In addition to using stories of change makers to explore ethical and environmental issues, Kapp suggested exploring topics such as how recycling in some areas can be a marketing concept put forth by the plastic industry, that 40% of food around the world goes uneaten while millions are starving, or that the carbon footprint of U.S. food waste is greater than the airline industry and accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gasses.

“You might do a project with your class to dig in deeper, like tracing a fork or a straw from the factory to its resting spot,” she said.

Her website, dianakapp.com (opens in new tab) has graphs, charts, and teaching resources, and a list of 200 ways that young teens can get involved in the environmental movement. Students can also find sample letters for writing to a company to complain about their packaging as well as how to join climate-change prevention organizations such as the Sunrise Movement or participate in other activities to help reduce eco-anxiety. 

The National Science Teaching Association also provides resources on climate change for educators, parents, and students at nsta.org (opens in new tab).

When it comes to eco-anxiety, students need to remember that change is not easy, said Paiji Yoo. “It's always gonna seem impossible,” she said. “But it has to start from good people with that vision, with good intentions, coming together and really driving forth that change.”

Researching and Reaching Out 

Sometimes students have reservations about addressing eco-anxiety and getting involved in the environmental movement because they think the problems and issues are so massive that they don’t know where to start, said Kapp. But just like anything else, the internet is often the best place to begin. 

Paiji Yoo started her efforts by Googling cleaning product manufacturers and then contacting them about developing products that use less plastic and more green formulas. “They looked at me like I had three heads,” she said, so she persisted in her online research looking for chemists who could create tablets. She went to LinkedIn and reached out to more than 50 different chemists, explaining what she was trying to do. Eventually she connected with who has become Blueland’s chief innovation officer. 

“So when you're doing something that doesn't exist or there is no roadmap, just use your intuition on sort of where the natural places to start are,” she said. 

Poindexter similarly discovered the person who became her co-founder via LinkedIn. “For young people there is so much power in joining together and connecting with organizations, connecting with other people who are passionate about causing change,” she said. “It's an opportunity to learn so much in terms of their own personal development, and that there's just a real opportunity to join a group that's moving in the direction that you find inspiring.”

Ray Bendici

Ray Bendici is the Managing Editor of Tech & Learning and Tech & Learning University. He is an award-winning journalist/editor, with more than 20 years of experience, including a specific focus on education.