We came of age in the late 1960s — a heady time when major environmental and political problems (unmitigated air and water pollution, the Vietnam War …) were matched by student passions and, to some extent, governmental actions. College protests and demonstrations led us into environmentally-focused careers where we taught students about problems in our natural world, and about the importance of addressing them.
“Look,” we encouraged in the 1970s. “Consider how blossoming awareness and political activism have produced the National Environmental Policy Act; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Clean Air Act ... Get involved, so your actions can further safeguard people, nature, and all of Earth’s creatures.”
Little did we realize then that an insidious environmental disaster — climate change — was blossoming just out of sight. By 1980, both greenhouse gas emissions and global average temperatures were creeping upward, leading to today’s faster-than-expected results: massive Arctic melting, oceanic heat waves chasing fish populations hundreds of miles northward, climbing sea-level-rise predictions, hotter heat waves and larger wildfires. Today’s students of the natural world recognize incipient tipping points in the methane bubbling from melting permafrost and the slowing of the Gulf Stream. And they understand the changing climate’s threats to food supply, social and political stability, human health, our economy, infrastructure — virtually every aspect of modern human life.
With these trends in mind, it’s a terrifying time to be coming of age and peering into one’s future. We have seen the emotional weight of climate change on environmentally-aware students. Some respond with despair and depression. Others assume their actions are inconsequential. At the time when we most need youth’s creativity and dedication, some are freezing up, believing their attempts to reshape the future are inconsequential. These approaches do little either for students’ mental health or for our society and planet.
We believe that today’s youth, especially those who are most sensitive, are hungry for mentors who recognize their vulnerability and despair. They crave guidelines for living in a world that is warming too much, too fast. With these youth in mind, we have developed the following ideas for initiating conversations:
• Now, as much as any time in our history, we need minds that seek novel solutions. Continue to seek your unique voice and to think outside the box.
• Continue to speak out — about your ideas and knowledge, and your concerns and fears. The first step toward dealing with our problems is to put them into words addressed to others.
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• Rather than thinking of climate change as a depressing curse, address it as an opportunity to improve our economy, reduce health risks, address water and air pollution, and move toward social justice. Regardless of your choice of field or profession, you will be able to creatively discover ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Your life can really make a difference.
• Adopt hope as a verb — as something that your actions bring into being every day that you live. Live hope.
• Develop a vision for the future, an image of how you want the earth to look and act in the distant future. This will give you a focal point so you will not lose track of where you are going.
• Climate change may rob us of things that we love — gentle springtimes, soothing rains, certain migrating birds ... Learn to accept changes we cannot evade. And remember to focus on things that remain. Recognize the earth’s natural systems’ amazing ability to rebound and restore themselves, when given half a chance.
• You may at times feel that you are walking alone into a dark future. At those times, stop and consider that you are one of millions of others who care passionately about the planet’s future and are devoted to creatively improving its options. Imagine yourself as part of a circle of hand-holding humans extending around the globe, each sharing our concerns and energy.
• Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Take time off to relax with friends or seek solitude where you can meditate and rediscover your core. Go out into the natural world or other places that renew you.
While no one can foresee the future, today’s students will likely be forced to confront difficulties we can barely imagine. Our job requires us to teach them processes and details, but also to foster the fortitude and resilience to remain positive and continue moving forward creatively. This list of suggested talking points is far from complete, but it is a beginning, one that we feel can help today’s students transform their fear and despair into planet-healing action.
• Connie Mutel is the author of several books on nature in Iowa, including “A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland.” She was senior science writer at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa until her recent retirement. Jon Andelson is professor of anthropology at Grinnell College, where he also directs the Center for Prairie Studies.