My hairdresser’s son cries when items about climate change come on the news. He’s eight years old and he thinks we are all going to die. He’s really scared about the future. Like millions of children around the world with ‘eco-anxiety’ this affects his ability to function normally, thanks to a chronic fear of environmental doom.
UK researchers surveyed teenagers and young adults from ten countries and found they are suffering from climate anxiety at even higher rates than adults. These feelings go beyond worry. Kids with eco-anxiety feel fear, anger, grief, despair, guilt and shame. More than 60 per cent of Australian children feel eco-anxiety according to a recent survey. New Zealand children are suffering too.
For younger children, eco-anxiety can become overwhelming. It’s the modern bogey monster, something so big and terrifying that it can’t be overcome with the light on and a hug from Mum. Psychologists say that although painful and distressing, eco-anxiety is not a mental illness. Eco-anxiety is rational. These children understand the magnitude of the threat. Climate change has created a threatening and uncertain world, the climate crisis is complex and lacks a clear solution.
It’s a big enough concern that Harriet Shugman has written a book called How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change. There are online forums to help parents negotiate a problem that didn’t exist for previous generations. The best they can offer is help with discussing the climate crisis in a way that offers a hopeful alternative picture of what things might look like on a planet that is warming up.
In 2019 Greta Thunberg summed up how it looks to young people, when she told world leaders that instead of solutions she was hearing ‘blah, blah, blah’. Her valid question was “why aren’t you working together to fix this?” The wheels of progress are grinding far too slowly and eco-anxiety continues to rise.
It breaks my heart that children are worried they don’t have a future. Even fiction lets them down. Novels about the future are invariably dystopic and frightening. I can’t do much, but I can write, so I wrote a middle grade novel set in Aotearoa New Zealand 2072, where people live successfully with climate change. Today’s kids will still be alive then, so I reasoned that this time-frame would be reassuring. Because it’s for kids, there are super-powers and cool adventures. When it won the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon Award last year, it validated my sense that kids need a positive picture of the world they are inheriting. Since the prize was being published by Scholastic, presumably it’s also a commercially attractive theme.
Kidnap at Mystery Island hit the shelves in New Zealand at the end of July. It is my small attempt to help and so far, kids are enjoying it. Not just kids either. A 91-year-old-reader told my mother that she couldn’t imagine a positive future world, until she read it. As a grandmother, she found it comforting.
“Children are infinitely more informed than their parents think, a lot of the time,” Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist at the University of Bath in the UK told the BBC. She led the 2021 global online survey of climate anxiety in 10,000 teenagers and young adults aged 16-25 in 10 countries, including the UK, US, Brazil, India and the Philippines.
An alarming 75 per cent of the young people surveyed said they felt that “the future is frightening”. Fifty-nine per cent believed that “humanity is doomed”. Fifty-eight percent of respondents felt that governments were betraying them or future generations. Most of these young people are old enough to vote; elected officials need to take notice.
Eco-anxiety in children may have far-reaching consequences. If you’re a child who truly believes that the world is doomed, then what’s the point in getting an education, or even getting up in the morning? How can a child focus on playing and learning when the future seems so tenuous?
Anxiety is fed by feelings of powerlessness. Children have very little power to effect solutions. When the adults around them are ignoring climate change or worse, contributing to it, kids are more likely to fall victim to eco-anxiety.
Parents and teachers need to take a leaf out of Nathaniel Stinett’s book. The found of the Environmental Voter Project says he tries to think small, rather than think big.
“The key to joyfulness within the climate crisis is not to always think about the enormity of the problem. Instead, we should be focusing on the climate challenges and opportunities within our own lives and how we can succeed at those.”
For Stinett, this translates to eating less meat, dressing sustainably, driving less and asking people to plant trees instead of giving birthday gifts.
Kids can embrace these ideas, even when their parents aren’t fully on board. If they’re lucky, their enthusiasm will carry the whole family along on a positive journey. Well-meaning parents will hopefully support a child who wants to try being vegetarian. Walking or riding a bike to school is another area where kids can make a difference. Turning down a party in favour of a bushwalk sends a strong message. Likewise giving up a toy gift in favour of a tree. Recycling, cleaning up the playground – there’s a feel-good factor to taking action, no matter how small.
Environmental scientist Hannah Ritchie calls herself an impatient optimist.
“Optimism is seeing problems as challenges that are solveable; it’s having the confidence that there are things that we can do to make a difference,” she says.
Ritchie says the optimists are the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the ones willing to put their reputation, money and time on the line because they see an opportunity to solve a problem.
“We need to tell our kids that climate change is not just cruel, it also gets in the way of progress. Few scientists accept that humanity is doomed. If we’re serious about tackling the world’s biggest problems, we need to be more optimistic.”
We need our children to be optimists – to believe they can move us forward on climate action. Eco-anxiety creates pessimists who can’t see the point of doing anything. Humanity can’t afford to have its future generations mired in stagnation and regression, for want of a belief in the future.
Children can’t control the media, but parents can choose to switch it off when it’s overly negative. I subscribe to Positive News and loads of climate newsletters which show that innovative solutions are gaining momentum. This is the kind of news my friend’s child should be reading and seeing on TV and hearing about in the classroom.
In Kidnap at Mystery Island, the main characters are children. They are smart, resourceful and respected by the adults around them. Most importantly they are hyper-aware of the planet and the symbiotic relationship humanity needs to sustain, for survival. They are also funny, flawed and joyful. It’s a good life in the future I have written.
It heartens me that other writers are also creating stories and characters that will help children picture a future worth fighting for. We desperately need our tamariki to believe in a positive future, so they feel empowered and energised to go out and create it.
Tauranga author Carol Garden has been writing for a living as a journalist and communications manager for many years. In the 2020 Covid lockdown she wrote her first children’s novel, Kidnap at Mystery Island. A keen sailor, Carol used the beautiful islands of the Mercury Bay area as the book’s setting. When Carol is not writing or sailing, she tutors students in NCEA English, writing and literacy.
Kidnap at Mystery Island won the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon Award in 2021 for ‘best novel by an unpublished author’.
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Bren Macdibble and Zana Fraillon share a quote from The Raven’s Song, their co-written MG fictional book set in a post-city world. The main character talks about the changes they had to make after years of disease and climate problems drove survivors to abandon cities:
‘Yes, I know people in the old days lived in giant mega-cities smothered in dirty clouds and had lots of technology and lived unsustainably and used fossil fuels and drowned the world in plastics and pollution and parts of the honoured and natural world died and the seas rose and we invaded the wild areas and new diseases took hold and killed most of their children and now we have to stay in our townships and keep our hair short and our hands clean and not make a peep of pollution and not increase our numbers even by one coz we would need to expand our range, and the honoured and natural world needs hundreds of years to recover and rebalance the planet or we won’t survive. I’m twelve years old. I’ve had so many history lessons I know to my core this is how we have to live now. Three hundred and fifty kind, ethical, truthful people on seven hundred hectares or not at all.
I get that. It’s fine. I’m of the generation that waits for the world to recover. We endure the heat. We endure the storms that blow up out of nowhere, giant bacteria-stained clouds that roll and boil green at the edges, the wrecking floods that wash through, the long droughts, the days of smoke as fire burns outside our fences, coz this is what the honoured Earth does when she’s trying to recover.
We’re not the generation who live easy lives in huge houses, or travel the world on airplanes, or the generation that dies at the hand of strange new diseases and famines. We’re the ones who get to live and we live kindly and work hard upon this honoured earth. Our hard work keeps us all fed, even if it’s only on our seven hundred hectares with our three hundred and fifty people for the rest of our lives. We endure.’
The World Wide Fund for Nature works to preserve forests, to protect their value in locking away animal diseases that might pass to humans as well as improving air quality, stabilising land and improving water run off and quality.
One thought on “Eco-anxiety – today’s childhood malaise by Carol Garden”
Framing the changing world as a climate “crisis” doesn’t help either. We think of a crisis as something imminent, a systemic shock like the banking crisis of the late 200s, when what’s happening to the ecosystem is on a different scale.
Too often the stories which are magnified are those that trigger anxiety, solely because anxious people buy more stuff.
While sharp disruptions such as heatwaves and ice storms and once-in-a-lifetime flooding hit the headlines, we need stories that tell us how to survive. Stories that will inspire young people to discover solutions to the problems we face now – engineering, farming, healthcare, migration – which are going to be around for a long time.
The world will look incredibly different at the end of the 21st century compared to how it looks to us now, barely two decades from the start.
We can learn from those who watched the 20th century change from the horse-drawn carriage to the dawn of the internet; from a world without penicillin to an interlinked world where heart transplants are commonplace. Those stories belong to the future too.