St. Mike’s alumnus Dr. Simon Appolloni is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment. His current research interest lies in understanding and utilizing pedagogies of hope that build resilience within students as they navigate paths toward sustainability. Simon has maintained his pre-doctoral volunteer work within the environmental-social justice not-for-profit sector.
You’ve been hearing and – in some cases (certainly if you’re in my classes) – learning about it for some time. You can’t really escape it even if you try, as something in the news will assuredly jolt you. I am talking, of course, about the environmental crisis we have, notably the changing climate that means storms, droughts, heat waves and forest fires will increase in intensity, duration, and occurrence.
You might even have learned about the degree to which the fossil fuel industry has deliberately deceived society about climate change over the past decades. They have fostered climate denial by convincing a good portion of society that the ‘science behind global warming is not settled’. This, despite the fact that scientists at Exxon, as early as 1970, were well aware of the coming catastrophes brought on by our continued and unabated burning of fossil fuels.
You’ve likely connected the dots by now and have realized what all this might mean for you and the lives of your children on this beautiful planet. Unless our political leaders heed the science and do the hard work of not just promising policies but fully acting upon them (current trends will not get us there), life in Canada will become more stressful physically, politically, and economically. Sadly, communities in the global South – most of whom have not contributed to greenhouse gas emissions – already feel these stresses and will experience the brunt of climate change fallout in the decades ahead.
If any of this makes you feel sad, distressed, disgusted, angry, anxious about the future, know that such emotions are entirely appropriate! And know that you are not alone. A recent study led by researchers from the University of Bath in the UK surveyed 10,000 young people, aged 16–25 years, in 10 countries. Overall, 75% of the young respondents said, “the future is frightening.” Many felt betrayed by the perceived government inaction which leaves generations to come to do the hard work.
Teaching environmental studies at University of Toronto for some time, I have become aware the increased eco-anxiety among students. Many of you are anxious about the uncertainties surrounding your future. You’d be justified in feeling let down by an older generation. Greta Thunberg hit the nail on the head when she dismissed the climate rhetoric of world leaders with her famous “blah, blah, blah” speech. You may even feel powerless or helpless.
I have moved away from teaching students about the prospect of so-much destruction only to wave them good-bye at the end of term, a sort of “have fun storming the castle!” (for Princess Bride fans out there). I – all of us teaching and working at University of Toronto – have a responsibility to help you develop some form of resilience (that is, emotional and psychological strength) as well as hope, even if that hope is somewhat dark.
The good news is that it is possible to do just that! While some things do look grim, especially for life in the global South, in many instances there are positive signs and sustainable initiatives that are also happening. We need to dig deeper to view the whole picture and more accurate description of what is going on. Moreover, there is still much we all can do. The story is far from over. I’m suggesting a three-pronged approach.
1) Change the Narrative
We hear about the bad news (think recent devastating floods in Pakistan), but seldom do we hear about the wonderful progress toward sustainable and just practices throughout the world:
- #OceanOptimism is a great resource to find examples of successes and solutions of ocean conservation around the world.
- Solutions Journalism cites numerous stories – seldom heard – throughout the planet of positive developments on just and sustainable societal practices.
- Rapid Transition Alliance is another good site to learn how often society in the past has rapidly transitioned and can assuredly do so again.
2) Foster healthy practices
Whether it is practising mindfulness, journaling what you are feeling, creating art, expressing daily thoughts of gratitude, or taking long walks in nature, these – especially when carried out in concert – are evidenced-based strategies to ease anxiety. When possible, I try to weave these into my students’ assignments.
3) Connect with others to talk about it, then act on it
You do not, should not, have to go through the above emotions alone. There are many groups out there, some close to home like Clean SMC, that do environmental advocacy and action, others are there to exchange ideas and process emotions, like Carbon Conversations. Closer to home, Mallory Furlong and Nolan Scharper – two students who did stellar work conducting research on eco-anxiety for me this past summer – run Climate Crisis Cafes on or near campus with small groups of students who want to share how they feel about climate change with others. Reach out to them at email@example.com or @climatecrisiscafe.
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