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How to Combat Climate Depression

Updated: May 2, 2020

Four in five young people say they may not have a kid because of the climate crisis. But they haven't given up--in fact, they're leading the fight.

April 30, 2020 By Bill McKibben

Appeared originally in The New Yorker

If there existed some kind of gauge for measuring ambient sadness, I imagine the needle would now be pinned to the far end of the red. Some of us are mourning the deaths of those we loved; more are terrified for the ailing; more still lie abed trying to figure out whether their job will last another month, or what to do about the one they just lost. The Times reports that the pandemic has become a “grim slog” for New Yorkers. Even away from the epicenter, the pervading uncertainty brews a fog that makes the future seem drab.

But here’s the worse news: even before the coronavirus descended, that’s how the world looked to an awful lot of Americans, especially younger ones. Seventh Generation, the recycled-paper-towel and household-products company, commissioned a survey, released in April. It showed that seventy-one per cent of millennials and sixty-seven per cent of Generation Z feel that climate change has negatively affected their mental health. How upset were they? Four in five people in the eighteen-to-twenty-three age cohort “aren’t planning—or didn’t want—to have children of their own as a result of climate change.” Even if the survey were off by fifty per cent, that would still be an astonishing number.

I spend a lot of time with young people, and I find much the same thing: they’re far more aware of the science behind climate change than their elders are, and they know what it means. They understand that if we can’t check the rise in temperatures soon, we will see an ongoing series of crises. In fact, those have already begun in large parts of the world. Year after year on the West Coast, summer has become the season of wildfire smoke, lingering for weeks in the air above our major cities. We’ve always had hurricanes, but they drop more rain than we’ve ever seen before. If you anticipated that your life was going to be punctuated by one major disaster after another, would you be eager to have kids? It’s worth remembering that the last big novel disease to hit our hemisphere—the Zika virus, which caused microcephaly in some babies—prompted the health ministers of several countries to urge women to forgo pregnancy for a year or more.

This is bad news, and not just because babies are wonderful. A society that becomes this disconsolate is a society that could veer chaotically in almost any direction. Yet this same cohort of young people, to its enormous credit, is leading the constructive response to our dilemma: eighty-five per cent of millennials report that they are actively fighting climate change. Again, that squares with what I see on the ground, but their discouragement will grow if their elders continue to oppose serious change. That’s why Joe Biden needs both to win in November and then to demonstrate that he’s more committed to climate action than he’s seemed so far. (It was a relief to see him podcasting with the governor of Washington and climate champion Jay Inslee on Earth Day, and to think about Inslee or people like him populating the next Cabinet.)

The only way to combat this kind of depression may also be the only way to combat the Depression now threatening our economy: an all-encompassing, society-wide effort to build out renewable energy, retrofit houses and offices for energy efficiency, and safeguard and nurture our remaining working ecosystems. If we don’t do it fast, then the gloom of young people will be justified—and it’s hard to think of a more powerful indictment of older generations than that. Their childlessness must not be our legacy.

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