CLIMATE ANXIETY: What Happens After You Look UP?
In Netflix’s Don’t Look Up (2021) two astronomers attempt to warn people about a planet-ending comet hurtling toward Earth. To their dismay, the world was too distracted to care … and the president was too self-interested to respond appropriately. The movie is a morality tale about climate change and the potentially disastrous results of apathy.
But the reality is that many people – particularly young people – care a great deal about climate threats. In fact, they might care too much. Recent surveys show that, even in a world dominated by a pandemic, conflict, and social divides, people are increasingly fearful about the state of the environment. This escalating fear of the Earth’s Decline is known as “climate anxiety” or “eco anxiety.” And it’s real.
Let’s look at some recent, eye-opening reports.
Environmental issues, generally, are presently among the top concerns in the world. There is no doubt that they are of utmost significance to Gen Z and Millennials. Before the pandemic, 'climate change/protecting the environment' – was at the top of the Gen Z (31%) list, and was tied at the top of the Millennial list (28%). (Deloitte Millennial survey 2020)
After the pandemic, environmental concerns remain among their most taxing worries. “More than four in 10 millennials and Gen Zs agree that we have already hit the point of no return when it comes to the environment and that it’s too late to repair the damage.” You can read the 2021 survey here.
MEME SOURCE REDDIT: u/Restaurantmenu2
The new Future of Humanity survey of over ten thousand 18-25-year olds across 22 countries reveals that 41% of respondents cited global warming as 'the most important issue facing the world.' The article is entitled “Gen Z Fears Climate Change More Than Anything Else” and is referenced here. See also here and here (Three-quarters of young people/adults describe the future as frightening; over half (56%) say they think humanity is doomed).
When asked “What do you feel is the number one priority to make the world a better place in 2030?” a majority of respondents aged 15-24 said: “a sustainable environment."
A new survey issued by the United States Conference of Mayors found that 80 percent of voters between the ages of 18 to 29 say that global warming is “a major threat to human life on earth” as humans know it, and fifty-eight percent noted that “Drastic times call for bold measures” when asked “Which of the following statements best describes your stance on how to address Global Warming?” See also here. According to one report, 53% of consumers overall (and 57% in the 18-24 age group) have 'switched to lesser known brands because they were sustainable.' More than half of consumers (52%) say that they 'share an emotional connection with products or organizations that they perceive as sustainable.' Moreover, 64% say that 'buying sustainable products makes me feel happy about my purchases;' this reaches 72% in the 25-35 age group).
These surveys (and memes) confirm that environmental concerns, including water scarcity, resource mismanagement, injustice, and climate change, are dominating the thoughts of Gen Z and Millennials. These issues are causing incredible anxiety for our young people and young adults.
Many report feelings of hopelessness and despair. They see no way to fix these problems. They blame older generations (and rightly so). They blame capitalism.
Some of this anxiety stems from internal conflict. For instance, Bernadette runs a nonprofit dedicated to wildlife rehabilitation and conservation. She regularly rescues, transports, and rehabilitates injured wildlife. She notes: “I always struggle with the fact that in order to do these good deeds, I need to drive my car, which emits carbon emissions into the environment. I struggle with the irony of this -- on the one hand I’m trying to do a good thing by rescuing injured wildlife, while on the other I’m harming the environment each time I drive my car.” These are relatable worries. We all wrestle with them.
Many of us have an internal scale for life -- a way to measure our own personal risk/benefit or action/impact, and, depending on which way the figurative scale tips in your heart, it helps us decide what to do. Bernadette is called to care for nature. It is something she feels she must do; something she was born to do. As she notes: “I have to listen to this calling in my heart. I feel and think since I’m blessed to know what to do with these animals, I am uniquely placed in situations to help, and therefore, I do.” It’s a need, an instinct, to draw closer to God’s world. “Rescue” is the way her scale tips, but the internal struggle is still there. Many young people express this same internal hand-wringing -- should I take a bus? Doesn't infrastructure impact the environment? The list goes on.
Young people are often told not to worry because we're developing new solutions. They're told "things are on the horizon" that could save us. That's true on some level. Green innovation is exploding. We see new carbon capture technologies, green chemistry, and fossil-fuel free energy development. There's a lag time, however, between innovation and real-world applications. (Bernadette personally prays that somebody would invent an innovative, replaceable filter that we could put on our car exhaust pipes or smokestacks to capture all carbon emissions). Gen Z and Millennials want these solutions now - time is not on our side.
But science alone cannot provide needed solutions. These issues are extremely complicated, and perhaps that, and the fact that young people have lost faith in older generations when it comes to environmental issues, is what’s causing GenZ and Millennials to have so much stress.
Why are the solutions so complex?
Environmental issues implicate the very worst ₋₋ and best ₋₋ in humanity: racism, greed, growth, unjustified war, creativity, gratitude, innovation, corruption, and much more. There are factors other than fossil-fuel dependence that drive climate change or environmental degradation. For example, war creates refugees. Refugees not only need food, water, and other basic necessities, but their large numbers have an enormous negative impact on the environment (think: sewage, polluted water, trees for fuel, wildlife, etc.).
Water scarcity is another example. Some countries use access to water as a weapon. Some act out of self-interest and divert scarce water for a growing population. Water scarcity is often political, but it always has a tremendous negative impact on the environment.
Environmental defilement is complicated because it is frequently tied to human motivations and emotions. And all of the above factors impact climate change.
In fact, if we dig a bit deeper, we find that environmental problems often relate to the orientation of our heart. It is out of our heart that racism, greed, hatred, or apathy flow. (Note the wisdom in Mark 7:21: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”) Corrupt corporations pollute because a corrupt individual has made a selfish, evil choice. Unjust wars are driven by power-hungry individuals who show no concern for others. Because the source of wrong is in our hearts, the solutions begin there also. Those solutions are the very reasons why we shouldn’t despair: God is in the business of heart-change.
We have hope through a Biblical world view. While this topic could be the subject of volumes of writing, the conditions of the heart that drive wrongdoing can change as people grow in a relationship to God. They begin to see themselves as sisters and brothers in a bigger kingdom -- God's Kingdom -- rather than the political boundaries that bind us on Earth. (You might enjoy our discussion on this very subject here.) That bigger perspective changes things. It's harder to unleash evil upon someone you see as a fellow citizen of the Kingdom.
Moreover, as we grow closer to God, we understand that the Bible has a lot to say about the natural world and our role with respect to it. You can't help but experience heart-change. We are to steward creation – to care for it, because it has been entrusted to our care. Creation declares the glory of God, and as such should be valued. Moreover, we’re called to “… act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.” When natural resources are tied up with justice issues, as they frequently are, we’re especially called to act, pursue justice, and clothe ourselves in humility. The closer we draw to God, and his love for all of creation, including the natural world, the closer we are to understanding stewardship, and our great responsibility towards the environment. And towards people. They are bound up together. They rise and fall together.
Christians should be leading the way when it comes to demonstrating love for the things God loves. You’ll sometimes hear people say that everything will be made new in its time, or that there will be a restoration of all things, eventually. Apparently, they imply, we should just sit back and wait. That's not the case. Stewardship is intentional. It’s protective. It seeks to right wrongs that impact creation. The subject of our stewardship should thrive under our care, not decay.
So, instead of letting anxiety and hand-wringing steal our hope, what can we do? How do we encourage change when it comes to the heart-driven factors driving environmental harm? How do we responsibly steward the natural world?
* PRAY: Our communication with God provides guidance and understanding about how to act. We’re His hands and feet. Prayer provides the direction. It shows us how to use the gifts, abilities, interests, and passions that He’s given us. Remember, the direction we receive will always line up with God’s word. (God doesn’t instruct people to blow up pipelines and kill animals and people.) Bernadette acts because she’s prayed about what to do. Christen acts because she’s prayed about what to do. Through prayer, we thoughtfully consider our next steps.
* THINK: It’s okay to feel a sense of urgency for our environment, but leave room for hope for workable solutions that center around heart change. Heart change is possible. So how do you go about God’s business? You think about ways to act consistent with his Word and how He’s wired you. Perhaps you can first identify your sphere of influence: who is around you? Where do you work? What influence do you have with people around you? Then, think about your gifts and how you can you use them to further the mission to know God and to care about the things He loves -- including creation. How can you inspire the best in people, instead of perpetuating greed, hatred, or apathy – some of the drivers of environmental harm? Engage in Kingdom-level thinking.
Think about a second perspective shift: instead of despairing about what we’re not doing, what can we do? The Deloitte 2021 study contained one bit of positive news: a majority of Millennials and Gen Zs are optimistic that people’s commitment to address environmental and climate issues will increase after the pandemic.
Thinking optimistically is a good thing. It’s productive. Creative. It’s a lot like hope.
* ACT: Act with intentionality: after considering your role and your gifts, put your thoughts and passions into action. Do what you’ve been called to do. Propose solutions to your employer. Model sustainable practices for your kids, family, or roommates. Start that organic business. Rescue those raptors. File those lawsuits against polluters. Write that essay. Upcycle products you no longer need. Run for local political office and draft new legislation. Do something instead of focusing on what the rest of the world isn’t doing. These practices will catch on. The ship may be slow to turn, but it is changing direction.
Many of us are challenged by the global climate issues before us. It’s hard to make sense of the often confusing events occurring on the national and world stage. But let’s not get so caught up that we can’t act and we lose hope. That's despair. We are not powerless. Each one of us is making a difference by recognizing there is a problem. That's a good start. And now we’re here to encourage you to take the next steps: Pray, Think, Act.
We have hope. Let’s keep looking up.