‘The connection between climate anxiety & white fragility’ – ‘Many of the students experiencing climate anxiety most viscerally are white’
We’ve known that climate change is real for decades now. But for many people, particularly white people, it has felt like a threat that exists somewhere in the future but not quite right now. In recent years, though, that has started to change — particularly for the generation that will likely bear the worst effects of it. Gen Z is feeling an increased sense of existential dread, worried that they will inherit a planet that will become unlivable during their lifetime.
But while they might be dreading the future, people of color are living with the consequences right now. Marginalized communities and Indigenous people are on the frontlines of the climate crisis thanks to systemic racism. They have had their land stolen and exploited, deal with more pollution, are displaced by extreme weather at a higher rate, and receive far less support to build back their communities after disasters.
Sarah Joy, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University and author of Field Guide to Climate Change: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, has noticed a distinct trend in her classroom: that many of the students experiencing climate anxiety most viscerally are white. And that’s to say nothing of most researchers studying the phenomenon. In a conversation with Mic, she explained where climate anxiety comes from, how it affects different communities, and what tools we have to address it. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: What sets the climate crisis apart that has young people feeling an ongoing existential anxiety?
Joy: There’s something uniquely challenging about this moment. It’s related to two things: One is that this generation is actually unique in their demographics. They are the largest generation that America has ever had. They are the most ethnically diverse generation that we’ve ever seen. They are the least economically well-off generation, and predictions around their economic well-being are worse than any generation before. It’s the first time that it’s expected people will not be better off than their parents.
They are also, depending on how much you believe the studies, the loneliest generation, and the most suicidal and the most depressed, most anxious. And, of course, that is something that professors can really tell you. Something has happened over the last 10 years. Students are really suffering. You feel like you’re constantly walking people over to counseling and psychology in a state of urgent emergency, which didn’t used to be the way it was.
If we believe the models and the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and 99% of scientists, the prospects of what the planet is going to be like in the next 10, 20, 30 years is not looking good. That is their futures. They’re wondering if this means that everything changes, will they get to do things like have jobs and have retirement and have children and do all their life-course things that seem to be the bedrock of what normalcy is in America. I think young people think that’s all up to question. It’s existentially jarring. What this generation is seeing is the threat of planetary collapse.
Mic: In Scientific American, you wrote about how climate anxiety seems to be a white phenomenon. When did you start to realize there was a different experience happening in different communities?
Sarah Joy: In [A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety], I described a story of a student who kind of melted down in the class one day, and he was a really privileged white guy. And he just sucked up all the oxygen in the room. He was really involved in research with me, but he had decided that it was all futile. And he just melted down, and he questioned everything we’re doing.
I couldn’t help but think of the students who were in that class who were first-generation students, Latino students, students thinking that college was their ticket to be both good in the world and also claim some upward mobility for their families. A lot of students who are first-generation are really just trying to get a step up from where they’ve come from. And I kept thinking that this was really insulting to them. His perspective was occupying the whole space, right? It was becoming the narrative.
“Why, if the environment is such a critical way to understand social injustice, is the environmental field so white?”