Growing up in a Climate Crisis: Coping with Climate Anxiety & Eco-Grief

I don’t remember how old I was when I figured out the Earth was dying (or at least that’s what it felt like). I think it may have started when the tree in the front yard of my childhood home died. What used to be this vibrant staple of my childhood slowly became nothing more than a decaying pile of sticks. I realize that sounds dumb; I realize the insignificance that one sentimental tree has compared to the entirety of the planet. But at my young age, it felt like a valid comparison. Thus began my fascination with the Earth, specifically with sustainability. 

Part of my interest in sustainability stemmed from the unavoidable future of climate change. As I grew up, climate change became a dominating part of the news cycle, and the news was never very positive. While my parents’ generation considered environmentalism to be for “hippies” and “tree-huggers,” my generation was told we all have to act now or face terrible consequences. I was raised with a sense of environmental urgency, as I like to call it. It was this idea that I was running out of time before I even started. 

As I got older and more invested, it was a constant cycle of bad news—forest fires, temperature spikes, rising CO2 levels, deforestation, droughts, floods, and on and on and on. It was (and still can be) incredibly disheartening to be surrounded by such devastation. The tree in my front yard was dying, over and over again. I was 14 when the UN released a statement that “We only have 12 years to limit climate change.” Regardless of the accuracy of that estimate, that is an absolutely terrifying thing to read as a teenager. I had only been alive for two years longer than that, and I was already anticipating an environmental catastrophe within my lifetime. Environmentalism, the thing I was most passionate about, often left me feeling nothing but anxiety about the future or grief over everything the planet had lost.

These feelings—climate anxiety, eco-grief, whatever name you have for them—are very common, especially in young adults. A survey completed by 10,000 16-25 year olds found that nearly 60% of them felt “very or extremely worried” about climate change, 68% of them said that climate change makes them feel sad or afraid, and 45%, nearly half, of the participants said that these feelings affect their daily lives. Young adults (like myself) have grown up into a climate crisis, and those feelings of anxiety have only worsened over time. Many of us feel as though we have inherited a “broken Earth” and are left to deal with the consequences.

Despite this, I don’t think this statistic is necessarily a bad thing, nor do I think that climate anxiety is inherently bad. Climate anxiety is a natural response to growing up in a climate crisis, and I don’t think it means our planet is doomed—in fact, I think the opposite is true. While younger generations are more worried about the environment, that also means we care more. It means we are more willing to take action against climate change, and you can see those effects on campus.

In addition to providing free public transportation to all students (In case you didn’t know, all U-M students can use Ann Arbor buses for FREE with their M-card!), we are also making shifts towards using electric buses. If you live on-campus, I’m sure you’ve seen the compost bins in the dining halls. The dining halls even host “Sustainable Mondays,” which provide more sustainable protein options for students. Read more about U-M’s sustainability goals here. While those might seem small, on a huge campus like U-M, initiatives like this can make a huge difference in protecting the environment. Initiatives like these prove to me that we’re on the right track. And that is what’s important. We can’t fix climate change in a day, but seeing such positive change on campus puts us a step in the right direction. 

With climate anxiety, it’s so easy to get swept away by the borderline-apocalyptic headlines. But your efforts do matter, and things are getting better. It’s important to not lose sight of that. For every negative article I read about climate change, I like to read two positive ones, just to remind myself of all the good things happening in the world. I understand that may sound naïve or ignorant to some of you; I understand what it feels like to not be able to turn away from those articles. And I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on in the world, but those headlines are there to shock and scare you. They are unproductive. What’s more productive than those headlines is hope. 

A lot of people would say that the opposite of anxiety is calm, but I disagree. I think it’s hope. When you grew up alongside a climate crisis, hope can be a rare thing. I urge you to keep hoping, to keep seeking out the good, to keep fighting for change along with the many others who are all doing little but great things! 

Photo taken by Bailee of the U-M Central Campus Diag

I wrote this blog for you sitting underneath a tree in the middle of the Diag. I was surrounded by other students enjoying our beautiful campus on a beautiful day, and it made me feel hopeful. We worry about this planet, we grieve its harm, because we cherish it. Because we have hope we can save it. Maybe it’s too soon to give up on us just yet. 

If you are struggling with anxiety, CAPS is an available resource for you. Also, the U-M Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP) hosts a Personal and Community Resilience Community of Practice every two weeks that works to foster a community of care and resilience amidst the climate crisis through mindfulness, creativity, and group dialogue. Lastly, check out Wolverine Wellness’ resources for coping with stress, anxiety, and grief.