The threat of climate collapse is a source of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and powerlessness for many young people - yet in recent weeks, we’ve witnessed a particular explosion in mental health difficulties. It would appear that COVID-19 is amplifying these dark emotions.
This could be down to sudden loss of freedom, erosion of friendships, family difficulties… or for many of the climate strikers I’ve spoken to, the fact that their one outlet - grassroots mobilising - has been taken away.
COVID-19 and the climate crisis illustrate that it’s impossible to confront massive, snowballing problems with stop-gap solutions. Yet much of activism today is tokenistic.
When Starbucks replaces its plastic straws with paper ones, it isn’t addressing the systemic problem — disposable living. It’s rebadging it and profiting from the attention. You may desperately want to help orangutans in Borneo, but as you tweet about it in 280 characters or less, you’re doing little more than swathing yourself in the self-assurance that you’ve “done your bit”.
Monthly donations, turning off the lights when you leave a room, going to the polls and choosing between a climate change denier and seasoned procrastinator: these are mosquito bites on the bum of a giant that gets stronger by the day.
The smallness of these actions can feel equivalent to washing your hands in the face of a pandemic. However, unlike COVID-19, the threat posed by the climate crisis can feel all the more crippling because it has no perceived expiration but that of a livable Earth.
And our window for action is closing.
I’ve been on this planet 20 years, and spent the past 10 trying to save it. I found my place when I started investigating some of our planet’s most dangerous enemies: Apathy. Pessimism. Green-washing. Tokenism.
I came to understand my own psychological hurdles, and quickly realised that I wanted to help others do the same. I’ve learnt one very important thing: in the ravine between wanting to make a difference, and not knowing how to start, live the stories we tell ourselves that keep us from stepping up.
“I’m just one in 7.6 billion people - what can I do, really?”
“The future is out of my control.”
“People who do take action are smarter or more experienced. I could never do what they do.”
“The system is too broken to create meaningful change.”
The threat greater even than the climate crisis is our feeling of powerlessness in the face of it
We’re churned through an education system that teaches us to become a set of averages; the devices in our pockets encase us in a culture of comparison and consumerism.
And when our anxiety bubbles up (be it in response to the 6th mass extinction, pervasive plastic pollution, or climate tipping points) we anesthetize ourselves. Scroll more, buy more, ignore the internal alarm bells telling us something is seriously wrong.
Anxiety is a perfectly normal, human response. It shows you care. Indeed, I’d argue that anxiety is not the problem, but that a lack of it is - society is experiencing mass amnesia toward the damage we’re inflicting on nature, and ourselves.
To solve our beautiful, bright planet’s dark problems, we must look in the face of our fear - our grief, outrage, despair, overwhelm - then channel this energy into action. We must discard the belief that we’re powerless, and realise that we’re infinitely powerful.
Crossing this ravine might seem an impossible leap, but it starts with a single step. And that step is to ask yourself this:
If you could solve any one problem in the world today, what would it be?
When you connect to your feelings, what is the injustice that most riles you up? That ignites a fire beneath your skin?
Now, imagine what the world would look like without that problem. How would we do things differently? Who – or what – would benefit? Having the courage to commit yourself to a single challenge enables you to shift gear, from do-gooder to change-maker.
Every change-maker in history has claimed their own challenge. And I bet they would all agree that, while it’s great to care for lots of causes, effective change requires you to target just one. For Martin Luther King Jr., it was justice for people of colour. For Elizabeth Stanton, the liberation of women. For Pat O.Brown, the elimination of meat made from animals.
Gandhi didn’t sit on a mountainside and whisper to the wind about global peace; he had one goal, to liberate India from Great Britain. An impossible task, but he succeeded. A clear agenda ensures impact.
Once you’ve identified where you want to have impact, it’s time to figure out the how. The answer lies at the intersection of your problem and passion.
I used to think that to be an environmentalist, I’d have to chain myself to trees and ride zodiacs into the path of whaling ships. But I’m a bit too word-nerdy for that. My potential to create ripples lay elsewhere (and yours probably does, too). Are you a natural-born campaigner? Writer? Scientist? Mathematician? Artist? Salesperson? Coder? Gardener?
How can you wield your gifts in service of a mission greater than yourself?
The flipside of how royally we’ve messed up the planet is how many ways there are to help it. If fashion is your passion, ask yourself how we make our relationship with clothes fully circular? If motivated by your gut, how might we prevent ⅓ of the world’s food being wasted? Are you a gifted musician? Then how do we communicate the urgency, and opportunity, of global challenges through a universal language? The fate of our world is a 7.6 billion-piece puzzle in which everyone has a place.
Learn everything you possibly can whilst inviting others in. I have some old school mates who, barely into their teens, were outraged over problems like plastic pollution, unequal opportunity for children in the Global South, deforestation in the tropics, etc. Each set to work imagining how they would do things differently, and then put these fantasies into action with their own grassroots movements.
They knew close to nothing when they started out, but by committing to the challenge and embracing their lack of knowledge, they quickly became experts at asking the right questions and honing skills they didn't know they had (like managing mammoth projects, rallying communities, and harassing bureaucrats).
Because they were young, they were not seen as a threat to the status quo. This gave them enormous power. A few years on, they have each amassed a huge following and are setting ever-more ambitious goals for themselves and their teams. They’ve enjoyed success early on because they identified that guiding North Star, took action, and built tribes to support them.
“It always seems impossible until it is done.”
The words of Nelson Mandela speak to almost all of the change that needs to happen in society. Since the world’s biggest problems are of our own making, they’re solvable. We don’t lack the money, resources, or manpower — just the tenacity, focus, and uncompromising resolve.
At 14, I found myself face-to-face with then-Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, blithely sharing my intention to steal his job (he laughed and encouraged me to do just that!) Six years on, I’ve launched Force of Nature - an organisation mobilising the emerging generation of leaders to realise their change-making potential.
I’m rarely the most qualified person in the room, and I’m always the least experienced. What gets me through the door is my conviction and my commitment; I make no assumptions about what is or isn’t possible.
Ask yourself which stories are keeping you from achieving the impossible. Then, in the words of Peter Diamandis,
“Find something you’d die for, and live for it.”
My door is open, and always will be for whoever’s brash enough to knock. Email me at email@example.com; find me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram via @cloverhogan; or join me for a fairtrade, oat milk coffee over Zoom.