Becoming an adult in a world facing an environmental crisis is terrifying. It’s getting tougher to stay motivated at work when it feels like there is no point. People are wondering if they should have kids anymore if they’ll be born into a hopeless world.
As anxiety about the environment reaches new heights, there’s growing pressure particularly among young people to become better citizens, decrease our carbon footprints, and save the planet. But there’s an overwhelming number of factors to consider. We can cut down on plastic heavy Amazon orders, skip the avocado toast (and avocado toast references), and bike instead of Ubering, but that’s hardly enough to counter the greenhouse gas emissions coming from the energy and transportation sectors. This is the world that was set up for us and being mindful of personal consumption can only go so far.
The prospect of such a bleak future is anxiety-inducing. We spoke to nine young people about how eco-anxiety—the stress associated with facing a climate crisis and uncertainty about the future—is playing a role in their lives and what they’ve been doing in response.
I never thought I would become vegan
Austin Furber, 22, Calgary, accountant
I became vegan in January with my girlfriend. We started reading up vegan and vegetarian lifestyles and watching documentaries on Netflix. This made us snap out of this daze on how our lifestyle was affecting the world around us. I was shocked at the impact a diet could have on the environment. Even my dog has adopted a vegan lifestyle—most pet owners don’t realize the carbon footprint their pet has just from the food and treats alone.
A recent Guardian article outlined the number of greenhouse gases emitted to produce 100 grams of meat when compared to the production of tofu or peas. But a vegan/vegetarian diet doesn't just help reduce emissions it also takes substantially less land to sustain a plant-based lifestyle, which results in less deforestation that in turn helps decrease the levels of CO2 in the air.
I never thought I would become vegan or even vegetarian. I always used to have meat with every plate—and probably more than I should. It really surprised my parents when I told them and it took some adjusting for them to realize that I was serious. Growing up as an athlete I figured the only way to get your protein was from meat and traditional sources. It wasn’t until becoming vegetarian that I realized a plant-based lifestyle is sustainable even if you are active. If you look at some of the strongest animals on the planet (gorillas, elephants, and bulls) they are all vegans.
Our generation has been able to get the environmental situation into the mainstream and is making more corporations think about their previous actions, but it will take the older generations to recognize their mistakes and stop them from affecting the future.
People like me are just prolonging the inevitable
Annalise Carreira, 21, Windsor, student
My eco-anxiety first started when I went into my first year of university. I was originally enrolled in Civil Engineering as I loved architecture and the idea of having people being able to see something nice that I had a part in. As time progressed, I became aware of the consequences of human actions and what they were doing to the future of our Earth.
Eco-anxiety hit me the hardest when I visited the local landfill and recycling centre last year and learned about the process and observed some of the repercussions for waste. It made me want to be an environmental engineer, someone who can implement processes and develop practices that would better humanity. This helped my eco-anxiety calm down.
When I was younger, I often didn't think about the repercussions of my actions. I liked to shelter myself and not expose myself to the realities of our world. It was better to live in a bubble and just be a kid.
Some of the lifestyle changes I have made [since] have been dramatically reducing single-use plastic along with other materialistic items and packaging. I've also changed my mode of transportation: I mostly commute by bicycle, unless I need to transport numerous things or go on routes that are not cycling-friendly.
More and more people are beginning to care and make an effort as they see firsthand what is happening. At the same time, a lot of people have the mentality that they want to live their lives the way they have been, and they know they are not going to be on this Earth forever, so they don’t really care. This makes me believe that the hole we are in is almost too big to get out of.
I honestly cannot foresee a drastic shift in environmental patterns. People like me are just prolonging the inevitable. I really hate to say that, but if you don’t see that you are fooling yourself.
The future generations’ only hope will be when there is drastic and strict environmental policy changes implemented in national government—conscious actions made for the consumer, ensuring better success. It would be wonderful to be proven wrong, but I can’t be too optimistic. All I want is for people to care.
We are so privileged to have access to nature and to not have to think about where our trash goes
Marianelli Agbulos, Vancouver, 24, digital strategist
I had an eco-anxiety attack recently. I was thinking about my friend’s death and I was pondering about the meaning of life at Whole Foods (which I don’t like supporting because they were acquired by Amazon). I was trying to figure out how much it was going to cost me to buy things not in packaging because sometimes there are things you can buy more economically that are packaged. It was a combination of thinking, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and, ‘This is super shitty. Here I am, punching in numbers to see if it is cheaper to buy chia seeds packaged or not packaged.’
When I think about sustainability and how I try to live a zero-waste, vegan life, I usually go into a little wormhole and that is when I get eco-anxiety. My personal experience is it happens within those five to10 minutes I am overthinking it.Then I think, 'Screw it, I am doing my best.’
I recognize it is overbearing, but for me, it has been a huge part of my life and a part of it stems from thinking about how every single year our carbon emissions increase. So, I can’t not think about it. I am also of the mindset that zero-waste quote, ‘We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.’ I really like that quote. It helps me stay grounded and have fewer anxiety attacks.
At the end of the day I do what I can using my privileges of financial resources, access to the knowledge that this is happening, and being able to share with my coworkers and friends, but also practising zero-waste in a way where I am not judging them because I never want people to feel judged. Think about the way our financial ecosystems are set up and the way money is distributed and who has access to wealth and knowledge—it is not possible for everyone to do it.
I also think the eco-anxiety comes from living in North America—where we are so privileged to have access to nature and to not have to think about where our trash goes When I was in the Philippines for Kindergarten (I was really lucky to live in a place where the trash was disposed of properly, but when I would go around Manila with my grandparents and my parents for example) there was trash everywhere. It would be normal to see cans floating in the murky water stream. It obviously didn’t matter to me then, but now because I am more conscious and I have had access to resources that allow me to be more critical of the infrastructure in place that takes care of our trash, I am more conscious of where it goes.
I'm scared about when things won't be around to be appreciated anymore
Dante Ravenhearst, 20, Toronto, researcher and student
I feel a lot of eco-anxiety any time I drive, or, in a weird counterintuitive way because I'm really involved in the outdoors, I go hiking. When I was doing research at Algonquin Park, I felt immense eco-anxiety, especially returning back to the city. It's the overall feeling of “Wow, I am so honoured to experience this, but it's not going to be here much longer” and I'm part of the reason why.' I feel helpless. It's partly why I have been trying to pack in as much travelling and hiking and camping as I can now (as sustainably as I can, of course)—I'm scared and extremely anxious about when things won't be around to be appreciated anymore.
I have a distinct memory when I was solo backpacking in Indonesia last summer and I was in Amed, one of the lesser touristy areas in Bali. It's a place where I felt a sense of genuine joy in a way that I have never felt before or since. It's in sight of Mount Agung, the volcano that erupted there a few years ago, and the beaches are empty of people but full of volcanic sand. That summer, there were an unusual number of earthquakes in Indonesia, which some people have suggested have something to do with deep drill -mining fucking with tectonic plates.
A couple days after I left Amed, a fellow traveller sent me a photo of Mount Agung, smoke rising from it again. It all felt very dystopian, and it made me feel this massive sense of anxiety that these places that hold so much beauty and attraction to Western people are the ones that suffer the most, largely due to Western-influenced environmental abuse.
I felt terrible for being there at all, that I got to hop back on my plane to a "safety" I didn't feel proud of, the good ol' West. And I experienced the fear that locals felt during the earthquakes, understanding that the magnitude and frequency was something that they hadn't experienced before.
That we understand why weather is getting funkier, why ecosystem dynamics are fucked up—the fact that I do research in a field that is far beyond a point of identifying climate change, and I still feel like we're completely beyond anything getting better environmentally—makes me feel depressed beyond belief. It makes me question my career path, it makes me cynical of the ethics of having children, and it makes me cynical of my own and others' attempts to take action.
I find myself giving up on dreams I’ve had since I was little
Lily Coles, 21, Halifax, Cinema and Media Studies student
My eco-anxiety first kicked in after I took a course titled “What is Sustainability?” during my third year at Dalhousie University. The course lifted a veil of ignorance and opened my eyes to the irreversible state our world finds itself in. Once I had the knowledge and perspective to truly understand the multifaceted concept of sustainability, the more the eco-anxiety kicked in.
Daily, I’ll feel anxious and slightly paralyzed by the thought of how much humans have damaged our Earth. I also find myself giving up on dreams I’ve had since I was little because they no longer make any logical sense to me, considering how our future on this Earth is so uncertain. I grew up singing, and dreamed of pursuing a career in music. I always loved photography, design, and everything surrounding the arts.
Since I’ve had my 'aha' moment about sustainability, I have pushed those dreams to the side and tried to figure out a way to incorporate conservation and activism into my future plans. Many people in my parents' generation had every opportunity open for them because they never thought to alter their passions, lifestyles, and dreams to better suit the environment. There is no doubt that people in my generation experience more eco-anxiety than older generations [as] many of our studies, professions, and goals now revolve around fields such as conservation, science communication, environmental research, and sustainability.
The first step to any life change is awareness and willingness to do better, and I do my best to stay informed and driven so that I can keep growing into a more sustainable consumer. Although there are so many outlooks, policies, and institutions that negatively affect my eco-anxiety, there are so many things that make me hopeful. With the rise of awareness and desire to do better for our Earth and future generations, there’s been a matched rise of sustainable initiatives, businesses, documentary films, research, and more.
Regardless of our age, we all need to acknowledge what we will face for the rest of our time on this planet, and do as much as we can to repair the damage that has already been done and advocate for the future. There is no time for procrastination or short-term thinking.
Neither the threat of nuclear war nor previous political strife compares
Usman K., 23, Milton, assistant manager and co-marketer
I thought as a kid that there were more pressing things to worry about than climate change. What I’ve realized growing older is how a lot of our pressing issues is a result of or connected to climate change.
The eco-anxiety began in high school but didn’t take over at least half of my worries until a few years ago when the UN climate change report came out. It asked for a dramatic shift in how our economies work and its urgency was all the more worrying. The eco-anxiety has eventually started to feel more like eco-hopelessness and instead of feeling like something could be done, it’s felt a lot easier to just say, 'Well, nothing I do is going to help anyway.' The hardest part has been trying to avoid falling into the trap of being nihilistic or apathetic about it all.
People in my generation have a sense of urgency about all these things. We are desperately trying to determine if the futures we’ve planned are moral. We don’t want to have to think about whether we will be alive in 25 years or if we will have water to drink or if we should have children.
It’s frightening to look forward, which older generations have never had to worry about. Neither the threat of nuclear war nor previous political strife can be compared to a threat that feels like it cannot be stopped. There was always a choice involved in conflict and was relatively easily stoppable with communication and cooperation between parties. Nature doesn’t hear our words.IIt only sees our actions.
The issue is so multifaceted that we really need a comprehensive overhaul of how we live and support our ways of life. We can do what needs to be done, but to what extent can we practically reverse climate change without starting our economies all over again in a new way? We may not see the dramatic advancements previous generations saw in consumer products in the latter half of the 20th century, but that same intensity of change will hopefully be in infrastructure to help stop heating up the Earth.
Primarily the major change I have made is spreading information and creating the sense of urgency in my circle that we need to address this problem. It’s a joint effort. I’m trying to use a lot less water, eat out less, stop buying things I don’t need, and encouragie people around me to take transit or buy an electric car instead. I haven’t shopped in almost half a year now. I’ve also stopped changing phones often—making a single iPhone is so incredibly wasteful and resource intensive. Also, please don’t buy AirPods. For real. They're so harmful.
Metal straws won’t stop the greenhouse gas emissions by large corporations
Lauren Klassen, 21, Saskatoon, student
My eco-anxiety began around 2016 when I started university. I’ve almost completed my undergraduate and now the narrative is going from climate change to a climate crisis. Although the fear was always there, it is now enhanced. In 2018, I received a grant that allowed me to create a cookbook on pulse crop recipes and a food policy workshop that gives youth a crash course on food sovereignty and food security. The presentation outlines the environmental impact of food production, distribution, and consumption.Then the students create their own National Food Policy, so they can imagine solutions. Afterwards the students write individual letters to the Minister of Agriculture on what they've learned. In the past couple months, I’ve presented in 20 classrooms ranging from Grade seven to Grade 12. I’ve collected 193 letters so far and I’m mailing three letters a week until I run out.
Eco-anxiety can be immobilizing, which makes it impossible for change to occur. Climate change won’t be an easy fix—no matter how many consumers buy metal straws, that won’t stop the greenhouse gas emissions by large corporations. But after being in the classrooms, talking to students, and reading the students' letters, I feel hopeful. Youth presented insightful and innovative solutions in their letters. It shows that people do care.
I've begun to get pressure from my parents to not have kids.
Darren KC, 24, Toronto, healthcare research scientist
Worrying more about new and different issues is something that comes with age, but our generation grew up with children's programming emphasizing the importance of recycling and other sustainable habits. I was always a relatively anxious kid, and I was pretty adamant about recycling and reusing things throughout my childhood. My parents emphasized avoiding being wasteful, so I was always collecting things like empty cereal boxes and scrap paper to do arts and crafts, and saving stickers for the perfect occasion to use.
My generation grew up thinking about how our actions could help the environment, and I suppose it's a little defeating to see things are still getting worse.
I've done some of the smaller things like using reusable utensils and tote bags and getting takeout less often. The topic of having kids is a conversation I've been having more often with my own parents. More specifically, I've begun to get pressure from my parents to not have them. Having kids has always been something I've expected for myself, but the state of the world and what future generations will have to deal with is definitely something I've been worrying more about. Adoption and fostering kids is definitely something I've spent more time thinking about because of these concerns, but I still don't know what I'll do.
I swing between hopeful and hopeless. The political landscape doesn't look exactly promising at the moment, but there are people in our generation that are much more passionate and active than I am that are more equipped to make a substantial difference. And if not our generation, there is a solid platform being built for the next generation to fight for the environment.
Any realistic solution is going to involve more than one generation
B. Hancock, 24, Windsor, student
My eco-anxiety built as I understood more about the scientific and political barriers to dealing with these environmental problems that had at first seemed too straightforward. It's hard to point fingers at older generations for being blasé when they weren't inundated with awareness campaigns the same way we were.
IIndividual action is all very well and good but is not enough. The average person can never extricate themselves fully from massive transnational systems of pollution, resource extraction, and so on. Taking the statistic that 88 percent of water consumption in the world is carried out by industry and agriculture as an example, it's clear that the source of the problem is not some kid leaving the tap running while he brushes his teeth.
Fixing the problem, then, will require collective action—action taken by massive groups of people in a concerted fashion—that at bare minimum holds the power players accountable and at maximum seriously restructures our political-economic system. Working together, hoping together, and imagining a new future together are the real tools for change.
I wouldn't say that our age cohort can't improve the environmental situation, per se, but that any realistic solution is going to involve more than one generation. This is the case with any social problem, really, and environmental degradation is a social problem. Refusal to respect the inherent dignity of non-human beings is absolutely tied in with the dehumanization of people of colour, the contempt held for disabled people, and the incredible violence shown to Indigenous communities. Global change on the scale we need cannot happen without some radical shake-ups in how power operates and how things are assigned value (or not, as the case may be). We younger ones can take hope in the fact that we don't even need to do this all ourselves—there are elders in activism who have been fighting the good fight for a long, long time.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.