Nature fights back (Chenobyl Russia) Image Credit

Hope for the future and conceptualising climate anxiety

In the previous blog in this series I defined and discussed the concept of permacrisis, how this literature review links to the ongoing research of the Young People’s Sustainable Futures Lab (YPSFL), and briefly outlined a proposed pedagogy of regenerative education and its aims, moving from our current system to a new way of thinking to support young people to recreate a future for themselves and future generations.

In the first instance this blog will introduce what others say about the concept of regeneration, and why we should bother, as the problem is complex. I will then provide an analysis of how the permacrisis has impacted young people regarding their mental health and then discuss the concept of student agency and empowerment as advocated by regenerative education, including its contribution to supporting young people’s wellbeing.

‘Regeneration’: what does it mean and is it too late?

The opening paragraph of Paul Hawken’s book Regeneration ending the climate crisis in one generation encapsulates the concept of regeneration and systems theory:

Regeneration means putting life at the centre of every action…Nature and humanity are composed of a complex network of relationships without which forests, lands, oceans, peoples, countries, and cultures perish. Our planet and young people are telling us the same story, vital connections have been severed between human beings and nature, within nature itself; and between people, religions, governments and commerce. This disconnection is the origin of our climate crisis…If putting the future of life at the heart of everything we do is not central to our purpose and destiny, why are we here? (Hawken 2021, p. 9)

For Sir David Attenborough in his Life on our planet (2020):

No matter how grave our mistakes nature will ultimately overcome them, the living world will endure, humans cannot presume the same…we have the capability to imagine the future…there is a chance to make amends…manage our impact…and become a species in balance with nature.

Our planet and young people are telling us…but our ears and eyes have been closed by denial, and inaction, and what Tom Oliver (2020) – in The age of the individual must end – has described as an era of individualism:

An era where people, businesses and governments worldwide perpetuate self-serving interests to the detriment of the planet, these are displayed as behaviours which promote isolation, loneliness, increasing mental ill health and selfishness where individual needs outweigh collective needs.

Hawken (2021, p. 9) sums up this ignorance by suggesting that ‘We live on a dying planet…Nature never makes mistakes. We do’. Despite what is written here Hawken has high hopes for the future and believes that we have the capability to regain the balance required for sustained life on earth within a generation.

Young people as a collective voice

As Peter Senge (2023) suggested in A conversation with Peter Senge:

Kids of their own accord always bring up poverty and climate change as things that they are most concerned about…they have a heightened global awareness (unlike previous generations who had no internet, knowing only what was taught in school, on television or read in books and magazines)…they have lived experience (example of bushfires, floods, droughts)…young people have fewer filters (cannot turn a blind eye/ignore as easily as adults), and it sits in them differently.

This is supported by Bright and Eames (2021, p. 19) quoting Hickman (2020, p. 412), ‘children have told me repeatedly that what is being done to the planet feels personal as if it is being done to them. Adults are more able to emotionally disconnect as it is “not our future”’.

McKenzie (2023) in her recent Deans Lecture Series, Education for a planet on fire, discusses Kari Noorgards (2011) work on ‘implicatory denial’ which is where people understand that climate change is happening but look away instead of taking action, or as Noorgard describes as ‘living a double reality’ where we ‘define our own limits of concern and this social shaping of our understanding and thought patterns is termed as social organisation of denial in which we learn what to ignore and only then does it seem irrelevant’.

Young people’s concerns were demonstrated collectively on March 19th and again on 20th September 2019, when School Strike 4 Climate and similar organisations collectively rallied over 10 million people globally, in a broader movement of civil resistance, challenging us to ‘Change the system, not the climate’, indicating that the solution needs to be much more than meeting net zero, it needs an all-encompassing socio-cultural, economic, and political transformation for climate justice (Verlie & Flynn, 2022 p. 1). Young people are frustrated, angry, and annoyed at societal structures and people of influence not making progress or taking these issues seriously (Thompson et al., 2022 p. 7). Then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed how out of touch adults, governments, and people in positions of power were, demanding that:

Students should be staying in class rather than protesting about what can be dealt with outside of school…we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments…we want more learning in schools and less activism in schools.

This plea was prior to action being taken and came from the growing ‘strike’ movement for climate based on Greta Thunberg’s initial strike on the steps of Swedish parliament in August 2018 (Australian Association Press, 2018). Indigenous perspectives identify the root cause being ‘the pervasive individualism, inequality, and anthropocentrism (Definition 5) of colonial capitalism with the resultant leadership crisis (ineffectual leadership, continually changing leadership) as a surface level symptom (Verlie & Flynn, 2022 p. 2).

If society is not listening or dealing with it, how can change be implemented?

Young people’s mental health and wellbeing in a permacrisis

Mental health has been described by the World Health Organisation (2022) as ‘a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn, and work well and contribute to their communities’. Its impacts cannot be undervalued, especially in young people or adolescents, ‘with 75% of common mental health problems emerging before the age of 25 and many young lives being lost, with suicide being the leading cause of death for young people 5-17’ (Black Dog, 2023).

Australia as a nation, is one that is susceptible to the ongoing effects of climate change. Our young people are the most vulnerable sector of our population afflicted by climate anxiety (Gunasiri, et al., 2022). Concern for the environment rated as the most prevalent worry for young people in 2022, with 51% surveyed identifying the environment as our greatest threat collectively. This concern has increased significantly from the previous survey, where young people’s focus switched from the immediate concern of COVID-19 to future longer-term concerns related to the environment (Mission Australia, 2022).

The psychological impact of climate change can be either indirect or direct. Having an awareness or concern for the future of the planet affects young people’s mental health and wellbeing indirectly, this has been classified by psychiatrists as ‘eco distress’ where people experience a wide range of thoughts and emotions just by hearing or seeing adverse environmental outcomes. It can also be impacted directly by involvement in an environmental situation such as fire or flood, which can cause ongoing psychological trauma.

Eco anxiety brought about by our climate crisis can generate both an adaptive response (a change in behaviours to support sustainability, exploring ways to reduce your global footprint) or a maladaptive response where symptoms create severe distress involving fear, helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, and avoidance (Crandon et al. 2022). This can manifest in students actively shutting out concepts and people because they are so terrified for their future, they resist representations of climate crisis such as Greta Thunberg, refusing to acknowledge what she stands for (C. Fairly, personal communication, September 27, 2023). Adolescents also acquire knowledge across a range of media and as they come to learn more, they may be overcome by a sense of hopelessness. They may also feel inability in their capacity to problem solve such a vast issue as climate change (Crandon et al.,2022), however feel being involved in programs of action would assist to raise their emotional wellbeing (Thompson, et al., 2022, p. 2).

 Empowering young people: students as educators

I have espoused the importance of education as a means to meet and exceed the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), however I would argue that the education approaches of the past have been part of the problem, not the solution. Traditionally, environmental education has been designed and delivered according to an academic model where students learn about the environment in the classroom through transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. This is removed from students’ lived reality and leads to a lack of motivation and engagement. Smith et al. (2020 p. 93) state that ‘[education systems] have not prepared our societies with sufficient skills and insight to avert the anthropogenic global problems’ while Bright and Eames (2021 pp. 14-15) suggest that ‘education systems have typically reflected society’s apathy and are reticent to prepare students for a climate altered future…youth have become distrustful of older generations (teachers, adults) and the minimal environmental education experienced, leaves students feeling disempowered’.

Colla and Mossman (2023, pp. 1-2) indicate that ‘educational systems are well placed to implement health promotion or primary prevention approaches…especially the concept of flourishing which involves being engaged in relationships and activities that are meaningful, which is closely related to the concept of wellbeing…flourishing requires an enabling environment…with educators exploring how to cultivate learning environments that create a context for flourishing’. The School Strikes 4 Climate were a prime example of students becoming involved, enabled and cultivating their own learning environment. Ellyatt (2022, p. 2) further elaborates on these relationships and builds on the concept of flourishing, indicating that they are not just relationships but a balance of needs:

Flourishing is when our inner needs are in a state of cohesive balance with the demands of the external world, enabling us to become aware of and focus on what interests us and brings us pleasure, to hone, express and share our unique skills…involving a strong sense of purpose…This often involves us in periods of challenge, as we seek to overcome our fears, and limitations.

The School Strikes 4 Climate have been a visual mechanism for students to voice what they were emotionally concerned with or connected to. Bright and Eames (2021 p. 15) explain with reference to research by Ojala (2021 p. 40) that educators need to acknowledge the emotional aspects of controversial issues, however, these emotions are often mollified within the classroom to maintain student wellbeing: ‘climate change can evoke negative emotions of worry and guilt’. Student emotions such as eco-anxiety shouldn’t automatically be classified as negative. Rather, they can be understood as a response to the crisis that is occurring, and catalyst for student led learning or a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’  (Definition 6), a concept coined by Bolar (1999). This pedagogy is one that invites inquiry and call to action. Striking students are not rejecting education, they are leading their own learning ‘teaching themselves outside of school where they are generating emergent transformative and critical literacies alongside leadership skills’ (Verlie & Flynn, 2022 p. 4). Students who are emotionally invested in a subject will lead their own learning, adopting self-directed learning when they are unsatisfied by what they are receiving in mainstream education. They will do this through their own research to deepen their understanding, empowering themselves with knowledge (O. Read, personal communication, October 7, 2023).

Verlie and Flynn (2022 p. 4) argue that students have learnt more while striking than they would have in the classroom: ‘students are learning a dynamic suite of skills and critically applied knowledge…they are navigating regulations around occupation of public space, negotiating with police, organising web presence and developing coherent demands built on their geopolitical literacy’. Menzie-Ballantyne and Ham (2021 p. 86) discuss the concept as what the ‘Finnish education system refers to as phenomenon-based learning’ or can be understood in Australia as inquiry based learning and student agency. Students effectively become knowledge producers, they construct their own knowledge…giving students control, ownership and accountability over their own education (Iversen et al., 2015).