When I was in high school, I babysat for my next-door neighbours, and one time – I was about fifteen – their seven-year-old daughter came downstairs after I’d put her to bed, unable to sleep. I picked out a story to read to her for comfort and – unthinkingly – chose The Lorax.
At the time I hadn’t read Doctor Seuss’ infamously on-the-nose environmentalist parable since I was really little – so not since I had learnt about climate change.
I remember finishing the story on my own, after she’d already drifted off to sleep next to me, too young to understand its frightening prognosis, and then starting to cry as the weight of the analogy, and my overwhelming powerlessness to prevent it, hit me all at once.
In that moment, I felt an unshakable sense of responsibility towards the little girl sleeping next to me on the sofa, underscored by a dreadful impotence in the face of the destructive powers I knew even then were willing to drive humanity over the precipice of extinction should it yield a profit. The emotional impression of this memory is so strong that when I recall it, I feel the same stomach-plummeting fear.
I am not alone in this experience. My generation are one of the first to have had climate consciousness as a feature of our adolescence – and although my understanding of teenage psychology is basic, I do know that until our early twenties our brains are seriously underequipped to mitigate stress.
I also know that climate anxiety is increasingly regarded as a legitimate health complaint in adults who have become aware of the crisis with fully developed brains – let alone children and teens.
Combine this psychological sensitivity with rampant media rhetoric claiming we must ‘look to the younger generation’ to resolve the climate crisis – and the immense pressure this places on young people – and you have a recipe for a high level of climate related trauma. In fact, a 2021 study (https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00278-3/fulltext) revealed that a sobering 45% of the 10,000 participants, all young people aged between 16 and 25, reported that their feelings about climate change negatively impacted their daily lives and functioning. The report also showed that children and young people in countries already experiencing the severe reality of climate breakdown (such as India, Brazil and the Philippines) are disproportionately suffering from climate anxiety – indicating that as extreme weather spreads further across the globe, so will climate related mental ill-health in children and teens.
In the years following the Lorax incident, feelings of responsibility, anxiety and impotence connected to the climate crisis came to be very familiar to me. As an older sister, I was already accustomed to the feeling of maternal responsibility – and as a young girl I was prone to the conscientiousness and eagerness to ‘do the right thing’ that is often instilled in young women under Patriarchy; tendencies which made me predisposed to assume a sense of duty, at such a young age, for the fate of the planet.
Inspired by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future campaign, I launched myself into local climate activism in Manchester, and began campaigning for climate education and more sustainable practices in my secondary school. My school responded with encouragement, but they didn’t understand that my ‘passion’ for the environment was fuelled almost entirely by anxiety and feelings of trauma rather than any element of hope – the adult members of staff just weren’t having the same emotional response to the climate crisis as I was. I felt fairly certain that in the interest of appearing as though they were acting on climate issues (especially as around this time there was a flurry of climate discourse in the media) my school exploited the anxieties of a handful of sensitive (mostly) girls.
I remember speaking at an event my school hosted around that time – talking about the urgency of acting now for the planet, feeling panic rise in my body… and feeling simultaneously a profound sensation of incongruence between these emotions and the smiles of satisfaction of my teachers. I wish my fervour had been correctly identified as evidence of suffering rather than praised, and that I had been reassured by my school assuming a leading stance on the issues I raised, rather than my being encouraged to lead on these issues as a minor.
My feelings of climate anxiety were compounded by a coinciding deluge of media rhetoric emphasising the role of young people in fighting climate change (it was 2018, and Extinction Rebellion had secured mass media attention to the issue.) Arguably much of this was intended as positive encouragement, or simply represented the adult world observing the real-life leading role that young people were, and still are, taking in the fight for climate justice – rather than being an expectation originating with adults themselves. Yet surely, as is encapsulated by my experience at school, children leading on climate change isn’t something to be celebrated, it is a jarring indication that adults are failing to safeguard these children and their futures. And again – as the evidence shows – these child activists are, broadly speaking, not positively motivated by feelings of hope and solidarity but negatively motivated by terror.
Climate trauma in children, and the failure of adults to correctly identify it and support children in dealing with it, is not just detrimental to the mental health of these children as they become young adults. It is also detrimental to the longevity and resilience of the fight against climate change itself. Because the electric-shock activism that early awareness of the climate crisis induces in children and teenagers – stoked by anxiety and fear – is not a sustainable resource. If children are initiated into the struggle for climate justice in a traumatic way, they are at risk of overstimulation, burnout and dissociation. True power in a movement comes from hope, support and solidarity – which need to be carefully cultivated in young, impressionable minds. Adults might need a shock factor to jerk them out of the inertia of climate delusion, but not children and teens.
I do believe that young people will continue to play a pivotal role in the fight against extinction. But not nearly as effectively if they carry a generational trauma. And as for young people of my generation who already have this trauma: as ever, writing provides a powerful tool for liberation and advocacy. Writing helps us express our trauma and thus release ourselves from it – as well as helping us communicate what went wrong so it can be prevented from happening again. This piece serves as the introduction to an important series of writings, both creative and journalistic, that represent the diverse personal testimonies of a generation of young writers who have been impacted by climate awareness and anxiety during their childhood and adolescence. We hope our words, among other things, will act as a call to arms to eradicate the need for children and teens on the climate frontier – that there will be enough adults fighting on their behalf to allow them to be children in peace.
Jessie Tomlinson is the newest addition to the Writers Rebel team. She is a young activist, writer and prospective literature student. She got involved in campaigning for the climate at a young age and cares deeply about the impact of climate change on children and young people.
Call to action:
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