Growing up under the looming threat of climate change did a number on me. As a millennial, my entire conscious life has been haunted by the catastrophic implications of the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. An unshakable sense of my helplessness to prevent this slow and violent phenomenon has weighed on me as it wreaks havoc on not just the environment, but the psyches of an entire generation.
Apathy was the easy choice. If I can’t do anything about it, I just avoid thinking about it unless I absolutely have to. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say this is the attitude generally adopted by our entire generation, best described by the tonic immobility of a rabbit (or “tharn” according to Richard Adams.)
This fear-induced paralysis seems to percolate into every aspect of this generation’s view on environmentalism. Compared to the apocalyptic scale of anthropogenic climate change, most other issues seem insignificant and irrelevant, and many go unaddressed. According to a recent Pew survey, only 32 percent of millennials identify as “environmentalists,” compared to the much higher rates of self-identified environmentalists of the past two generations, at around 40 percent.
There isn’t time to waste being paralyzed by this sense of impending doom. With every action that we take and don’t take, we set a precedent, for ourselves, our governing bodies and the corporations that seem to exert more power over our planet every day. This is especially true for “smaller” less glamorous problems that often only affect marginalized communities. One such example is mountaintop-removal coal mining, which impacts many poor, rural communities in Appalachia, yet still gets very little attention from the press.
It is essential that we send a message that we will not stand for the continued degradation of the environment for profit, even if “only” at the expense of these marginalized peoples.
This is where environmental optimism comes in. The two words sound strange together these days, I know, but it is only this optimism that can pull a generation smothered with images of drowning polar bears and melting ice caps out of their stupor. The shift between these attitudes is not easy. In actuality it was one of the most difficult things that I have ever done. It was only through fully educating myself about the realities of climate change, and taking ownership of the problem and the behaviors that are perpetuating it that I was able to shake the bonds of pessimism.
Now, with so much at risk, in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on our planet, it is more important than ever to embody this optimism and tackle the environmental issues in our backyards.
All meaningful forms of environmental activism start at a grass-roots level, with communities fighting to protect things within their spheres of influence. These humble beginnings are often just precursors for the movements that follow.
For example, the Sierra Club was founded by John Muir with the sole intention to designate the Yosemite Valley as a nature preserve. The organization grew and developed into one of the largest environmental organizations in the U.S., and worked on some of the most impactful environmental cases, such as helping to preserve the Grand Canyon as a protected area.
Another good example of this environmental optimism locally is the Warner Creek blockade of the 1990s, when a group of activists successfully halted a salvage-logging operation in the Willamette National Forest. They spent one year camped in the way of a National Forest Service access road until the federal government agreed to stop the logging project. This action had ripples across the country, inspiring many other such blockades and providing an example for how a passionate, optimistic community can come together to protect the environment.
These are both examples of the influence that a few inspired, optimistic people can have on history. This optimism is the root of any effective environmental activism, and must see a resurgence among the millennials. We were raised being told that “anything is possible,” yet it seems to me that our saturation in environmental catastrophe has made us despondent.
Even if climate change makes the future seem bleak, it is only through a collection of small acts by individuals that we can address the paradigms and policies that brought us to this predicament in the first place. Just as it takes an untold number of waves to grind stone into sand, it will take the individual actions of our entire generation to reshape the anthropocentric attitudes of our culture.