For many young voters, voting isn’t simply a decision between higher or lower taxes, whether roads should be paved, or if a toll booth should be removed. Often, young people see their vote as a choice between life or death. Whether we save the environment, or kill it.
“If we destroy the planet to the point that it is uninhabitable, we’ll all be dead, so it won’t matter if we’re treating each other equally. If we all live in peace and harmony with each other but we kill the planet, we’re still screwed,” said Via D’Agostino, a second-year grad student at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). D’Agostino placed her vote for Joe Biden in her home state of Maine two weeks ago, confident that Biden would do more for the environment than President Trump.
But even if the youth-preferred candidate former Vice President Biden wins the November election, it most likely won’t cure the feeling of serious worry and concern for the planet that so many young people have been forced to internalize.
The term for this phenomenon is called “ecoanxiety”, which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as the “chronic fear of environmental doom.” And as the United States has continued to engage in practices which are harmful to the environment, more people are experiencing this specific type of anxiety, specifically young people.
“I think about it when I’m driving my car, to work or to school, or when I take a bus or a train,” said D’Agostino. “Could I walk? And then when I take out the trash, could I compost this? Could I recycle this? …I think about it when I’m taking a shower, [the fact] that I’m using too much water, and I’m using too much energy to heat the water, and all those kinds of things. So, it’s on my mind all the time.”
For Charly Seyler, a senior at UNH majoring in Occupational Therapy, climate anxiety can manifest even when she’s researching how she can be more helpful to the environment.
“I’m currently trying to make myself as zero-waste as possible. And when I was doing that research, there were times where I had to take a break because the articles about what our world could look like in 20 or 30 years, while we are still very much alive, or in a hundred years, when our kids are here – it stressed me out too much and I had to walk away and come back.”
Seyler isn’t the only one who gets concerned about what the future might look like because of climate change. Jess Moran, a junior majoring in healthcare administration, cites it as one of the biggest ways her anxiety over climate change manifests.
“I do think actually a lot about like, ‘Oh, in 20 years, how much hotter is it going to be all throughout the year?’ [I think about] how much hotter this summer’s going to be, what type of weather are we going to have. Are we gonna start getting all types of things like hurricanes or tornadoes… but I think about it a lot and I do worry a lot about even like 15 years down the road if things are going to be much worse.”
The APA asserts that anxiety from climate change often manifests in individuals once they’re able to see direct effects of climate change on the news or in their communities. Many of these events that occur because of climate change are so out of the hands of every-day individuals that it makes people feel an overwhelming loss of control.
A 2017 report by the APA, “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate” offers solutions to individuals who suffer with acute ecoanxiety: “Young people identified access to nature and family, friends, and supportive networks (from school and community) as critical factors in supporting resilience, while global climate change was described as a vulnerability.”
The two strategies the report suggests as the best ways to help individuals with ecoanxiety is for those affected to foster feelings of resilience, and optimism. The report states that individuals who can do this have a better chance of overcoming anguish over the environment.
Even though the burden of climate change is too much for one person to solve themselves, Seyler has found ways to do what she can to help while still avoiding the facets of research that trigger her anxiety.
“I have to start with things I can actually do,” Seyler said. “If I just look up what it will look like in 50 years if we do nothing, it causes me way more anxiety than reading something that’s like ‘10 Ways You Can Help the Environment Right Now.’ That makes me feel like I’m doing something even if it’s not enough.”