Is Climate Change Causing Pre-traumatic Stress Disorder in Millennials?

Today’s youth are coming of age in the age of extinction

Martin de Bourmont and Dayton Martindale August 10, 2015

An rapidly warming planet poses an existential threat. (Janez Volmajer / Shutterstock)

For the bet­ter part of a cen­tu­ry, from Hiroshi­ma through the Cold War, peo­ple around the world lived in vis­cer­al fear of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion. At any moment, the fin­ger on the but­ton” could launch the end of civilization.

'I used to feel sad on warm winter days as early as middle school because I knew the world was warming,' says Peter Thacher, a divestment activist at the University of Pennsylvania.

In Nuclear Fear: A His­to­ry of Images, Spencer Weart, a sci­en­tif­ic his­to­ri­an, chron­i­cles the psy­cho­log­i­cal toll this anx­i­ety took on indi­vid­u­als, espe­cial­ly the young. Well after the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis,” he writes, a poll found 40 per­cent of ado­les­cents admit­ting a great deal of anx­i­ety’ about war.” He cites anoth­er sur­vey from 1965 ask­ing school­child­ren to pre­dict the state of the world 10 years ahead. Though the ques­tions made no men­tion of nuclear bombs, over two-thirds of the chil­dren mention[ed] war, often in somber terms of helplessness.”

Today’s youth live with a dif­fer­ent kind of dread. For the post-Cold War gen­er­a­tion, the pri­ma­ry glob­al threat comes not from action, but inac­tion. Last year, the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence warned that with­in a few decades, cli­mate change will have mas­sive­ly dis­rup­tive con­se­quences to soci­eties and ecosys­tems,” includ­ing wide­spread famines, lethal heat waves, more fre­quent and destruc­tive nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, and social unrest. Despite the litany of warn­ings like these, gov­ern­ments have utter­ly failed to take mean­ing­ful action.

At this point, cli­mate change can be lim­it­ed or accel­er­at­ed, and humans can adapt to some degree, but sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to the plan­e­tary ecosys­tem can no longer be averted.

Accord­ing to Wash­ing­ton, D.C.- based foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist Lise Van Sus­teren, the expec­ta­tion of cli­mate-change dis­as­ters is caus­ing pre-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der.” In an inter­view with Esquire in July, she explains that the symp­toms look much like those of post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der: the anger, the pan­ic, the obses­sive, intru­sive thoughts.”

Signs of pre-trau­mat­ic stress are increas­ing­ly evi­dent among those who stare at the prob­lem of cli­mate change head-on: cli­mate sci­en­tists, cli­mate jour­nal­ists and cli­mate activists. The Esquire piece pro­filed a num­ber of cli­mate sci­en­tists and activists who expe­ri­enced pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma in the course of their work.

Paul Ehrlich is an ecol­o­gist at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty and the coau­thor of a recent paper argu­ing that a sixth mass extinc­tion is already under­way. He has put civilization’s chances of sav­ing itself at about 10 per­cent — but he’s begin­ning to think that’s too opti­mistic. When asked by In These Times how he deals with the prospect of soci­etal col­lapse, Ehrlich chuck­les: I drink a lot.”

Katie Her­zog, an envi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ist for Grist, says it’s some­thing eas­i­er to ignore if you don’t work in the busi­ness” — her friends are prob­a­bly tired of hear­ing that the plan­et is going to shit.” She’s wor­ried about the world that chil­dren will inher­it,” and thinks it’s irre­spon­si­ble to have kids. I take solace that I’m not bring­ing life into the world that’s going to suffer.”

Slates cli­mate reporter Eric Holthaus, a mete­o­rol­o­gist by train­ing, made waves when he pub­licly declared that he cried read­ing an Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change report. I go back and forth day-to-day between despair and opti­mism.” After much inter­nal debate, he, unlike Her­zog, did decide to have a child. Before we had our baby it felt much eas­i­er to just give up,” he says. Now, I feel an added pres­sure to keep trying.”

Those who pay close atten­tion to cli­mate change are deeply con­cerned for the next gen­er­a­tion. And a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the next gen­er­a­tion, it seems, is con­cerned for itself.

The young and the stressed

A 2007 poll of more than a thou­sand mid­dle school­ers found that almost 60 per­cent feared cli­mate change more than ter­ror­ism, car crash­es or can­cer. Rough­ly the same per­cent­age thought more need­ed to be done to com­bat the threat, and more than 40 per­cent report­ed that con­cern about cli­mate change occa­sion­al­ly occu­pies their minds.

Unlike adults who can put their heads in the sand … kids are very aware of what’s going on,” said Chris Saade, a North Car­oli­na-based psy­chother­a­pist, in 2014 inter­view with The Globe and Mail. Chil­dren often ask me ques­tions that we, as adults, try to evade: What is going to hap­pen to the human race?’ ”

Most of the mid­dle school­ers from 2007 are now in their ear­ly 20s. For a gen­er­a­tion that was born after the Cold War and came of age in the Anthro­pocene, to what extent does cli­mate fear per­sist into young adulthood?

In a June 2015 Pew poll, 51 per­cent of Amer­i­cans aged 18 to 29 rat­ed cli­mate change a very seri­ous” prob­lem, com­pared to 47 per­cent of those 30 to 49, 44 per­cent of those 50 to 64, and 41 per­cent of those 65 and over. Fifty-one per­cent may seem a slim major­i­ty, but in light of what we know about human psy­chol­o­gy, it’s actu­al­ly quite strik­ing. 2009 report on cli­mate-change psy­chol­o­gy by the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion explains that peo­ple tend to under­es­ti­mate the dan­ger of events per­ceived as hav­ing a small prob­a­bil­i­ty.” Cli­mate risks, which are believed by many to be uncer­tain, far off in the future, or occur­ring in remote parts of the plan­et, should fol­low this logic.

Yet a major­i­ty of mil­len­ni­als rate the threat as very seri­ous. While polls shed some light on young people’s con­cern lev­els, no large qual­i­ta­tive sur­veys exist to illu­mi­nate the depth of their wor­ries or how the emo­tion­al impact of cli­mate change influ­ences their life choices.

In response to her own anx­i­eties sur­round­ing cli­mate change, poet and Brown Uni­ver­si­ty Eng­lish lec­tur­er Kate Schapi­ra, 36, set up a booth in 2014mod­eled after Lucy’s 5‑cent psy­chi­atric ser­vice in the Peanuts com­ic strip — offer­ing cli­mate anx­i­ety coun­sel­ing.” She record­ed the result­ing con­ver­sa­tions with strangers, acquain­tances and loved ones on her blog. One anony­mous inter­vie­wee describes get­ting hives sopho­more year of col­lege think­ing about cli­mate change.” Anoth­er vis­i­tor to Schapi­ra’s booth says, My entire life, cli­mate change has been in my aware­ness … and I think it should wor­ry everyone.”

It seems to me that cli­mate change, eco­log­i­cal degra­da­tion and the oth­er anx­i­eties my stu­dents share with me actu­al­ly have the same root: a kind of hier­ar­chy that favors and rewards exploita­tion and fear-based grab­bi­ness,” says Schapi­ra. Great insta­bil­i­ty caus­es great emo­tion­al distress.”

To find out more about how young peo­ple are cop­ing, In These Times spoke with 17 cur­rent and recent­ly grad­u­at­ed stu­dents from 10 col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. Most came from mul­ti-col­lege list­servs of stu­dent divest­ment activists. Some had pur­sued the sub­ject aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, and a few had no sig­nif­i­cant back­ground on the issue.

Rachel Fifi, 22, is a Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent from New Orleans whose fam­i­ly was impact­ed by Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na when she was a child. Today she’s an activist with Colum­bia Divest for Cli­mate Jus­tice. I watched this video about deter­min­ing one’s own gen­der, and in it a woman said vio­lence in her child­hood was a pain so dis­tant it was inti­mate,’ ” she says. The strange com­bi­na­tion of survivor’s guilt, anger, and loss I feel when I think about Kat­ri­na and cli­mate change feels like exact­ly that. Pain, but so old, tak­en for grant­ed, dis­placed and tired that it resem­bles inti­ma­cy and under­stand­ing rather than suffering.”

I used to feel sad on warm win­ter days as ear­ly as mid­dle school because I knew the world was warm­ing,” says Peter Thacher, a divest­ment activist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania.

While [cli­mate change] doesn’t affect me on a day-to-day basis, it is prob­a­bly my great­est exis­ten­tial con­cern,” says Eric Collins, a 23-year-old Ohio res­i­dent. When asked if the world was get­ting bet­ter or worse, Collins respond­ed, Prob­a­bly worse.” Ling­wei Cheng, 22, a mas­ters stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, says, It will decrease my stan­dard of liv­ing because even­tu­al­ly we will need to give up con­sum­ing ener­gy with abandon.”

Pre­ston Keme­ny, 22, a recent Prince­ton grad­u­ate with a degree in geo­sciences, feels extreme­ly” anx­ious. What con­cerns him most is the destruc­tion of the planet’s bios­phere. If only humans were at risk, that would be a dif­fer­ent ques­tion,” he says. Then this whole deba­cle would sim­ply be a tragedy and a lost oppor­tu­ni­ty for our cool speci­esthat has some spe­cial tricks.”

But some inter­vie­wees found rea­son for opti­mism. All of the demo­c­ra­t­ic mass resis­tance pop­ping off around the world gives me hope,” says Peter Soeller of Brook­lyn, New York. There’s a sil­ver lin­ing to all of this and it’s an excuse for us to build the type of world we’d like to live in.”

Schapi­ra thinks that the best way to address cli­mate dis­tress is with gen­uine­ly pur­pose­ful action” — prac­ti­cal ways of engag­ing with cli­mate change in one’s own life. 

Char Miller, a pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis at Pomona Col­lege who talks dai­ly with stu­dents and alum­ni who are wrestling with the exis­ten­tial cri­sis of cli­mate change,” says that, as a cop­ing mech­a­nism, more and more stu­dents focus on things they can put their hands on, decid­ing to become archi­tects and urban plan­ners or learn­ing how to farm.”

Col­lege cam­pus­es have also become the main bat­tle­ground of the fos­sil fuel divest­ment move­ment, and more than 50,000 stu­dents showed up at the Sep­tem­ber 2014 People’s Cli­mate March. Ear­li­er that year, on March 2, stu­dents helped cre­ate the largest sin­gle-day civ­il dis­obe­di­ence action at the White House in decades, as part of the anti-tar sands protest XL Dis­sent. More than a thou­sand peo­ple marched through the streets of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., that day, and 398 — almost all stu­dents (full dis­clo­sure: includ­ing one of the authors) — were arrested.

I will not do nothing’

The bur­den placed on the shoul­ders of today’s youth remains enor­mous. They must learn to live in the midst of an exis­ten­tial threat with­out prece­dent. Though sur­vival depends on col­lec­tive action, each will forge his or her own under­stand­ing of a world in flux.

Philoso­pher Dale Jamieson, a pro­fes­sor at NYU and author of Rea­son in a Dark Time: Why the Strug­gle Against Cli­mate Change Failed — And What it Means for Our Future, thinks this will be painful, but man­age­able. Human ani­mals are extreme­ly adap­tive. Peo­ple have man­aged to have mean­ing­ful lives and lives that are valu­able to them in unspeak­able conditions.”

Jamieson allows that a mean­ing­ful life can still hold tragedy, and believes many will be dev­as­tat­ed not just by the mon­e­tary or phys­i­cal effects of cli­mate change,” but by being in a world that’s increas­ing­ly a human world … the species equiv­a­lent of liv­ing in your own head.”

In some ways, our soci­ety — or at least the politi­cians and busi­ness elites who fail to appre­ci­ate the apoc­a­lyp­tic impli­ca­tions of cli­mate change — appears to be already trapped in its own head. The lack of sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal action on cli­mate change was a con­cern for most of the young peo­ple inter­viewed for this piece. This is in line with polling data sug­gest­ing that young vot­ers want sub­stan­tive polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic action to com­bat cli­mate change. In 2014 Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin poll, 68 per­cent of vot­ers younger than 35 said they were more like­ly to vote for can­di­dates who sup­port reduc­ing car­bon emis­sions, com­pared to 50 per­cent of vot­ers 65 and old­er. Younger vot­ers were also much more like­ly than oth­er age groups to sup­port curb­ing fos­sil fuel use and expand­ing finan­cial incen­tives for renewables. 

Mike­lis Beitiks, 32, is run­ning in Cal­i­for­nia for U.S. Sen­ate in 2016 with a sim­ple slo­gan: I will not do noth­ing.” On his web­site, he writes: I run for Sen­ate on a nar­row plat­form. It’s more of a sin­gle board, real­ly. If elect­ed, I promise to mono­ma­ni­a­cal­ly cre­ate and sup­port leg­is­la­tion that com­bats cli­mate change.”

The site is full of dark­ly humor­ous rhetoric: a shirt­less and sweaty Beitiks with the cap­tion We’re lit­er­al­ly going to die,” sim­ple philo­soph­i­cal state­ments like I do not like unnec­es­sar­i­ly dead things,” an upcom­ing events” page that includes spin the cylin­der of a revolver, cry,” and action plans like, Every­one has to breathe more shal­low­ly” and Cut­ting down trees will now be called arbor­tion.’ ”

I’m not the only per­son who’s sat there and thought, Whoa, this is very ter­ri­fy­ing,’ ” he tells In These Times. It’s a very heavy bur­den to car­ry … There’s a lot of peo­ple who feel like us. Any­body read­ing this arti­cle and feel­ing like this, they should know they’re not alone … every­one would rather be doing some­thing than nothing.”

He has also cor­re­spond­ed with indi­vid­u­als he calls near-term extinc­tion peo­ple,” who give humans only a few decades, though he does not share their apoc­a­lyp­tic vision. I have two young kids,” he says. I can’t afford to not have hope.”

As he brings his cam­paign to news out­lets like MSNBC, sci­en­tists con­tin­ue to research mass extinc­tions, jour­nal­ists con­tin­ue to doc­u­ment human and non­hu­man suf­fer­ing, and stu­dents con­tin­ue to stage sit-ins and peti­tion dri­ves. Cli­mate change leads some to a dark men­tal place, but for many there is mean­ing in resistance.

Activism, for me, is essen­tial,” says Colum­bia junior Elana Sulak­shana, 22, who works with Colum­bia Divest. It inspires and empow­ers me, and con­sis­tent­ly moti­vates me to keep fighting.”

As Pope Fran­cis writes in his recent cli­mate-focused encycli­cal, Let us sing as we go. May our strug­gles and our con­cern for this plan­et nev­er take away the joy of our hope.”

Or as Beitiks puts it: If you look death in the eyes and you don’t laugh, you’re kind of miss­ing the point of life. If you do noth­ing, you’re also miss­ing the point of life.”

Mar­tin de Bour­mont and Day­ton Mar­tin­dale met as sum­mer 2015 edi­to­r­i­al interns at In These Times. See more of Mar­t­in’s writ­ing here, and Day­ton’s writ­ing here.
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