A well-meaning Catholic leader who was deeply involved in social justice initiatives once told me that young people would be less despairing about the climate crisis if there was a way to act. I wanted to retort, “Don’t take my hopelessness away from me!”
My personal experience as a teacher of ethics at Loyola University Chicago and my own teaching of theology has taught me that Generation Z and Millennials don’t need to be rallied to respond to the climate crisis. So many are aware and so many are taking action. From my perspective as a Millennial and after many conversations and discussions with Gen Zers, it is clear that we need older generations who will walk with us towards our dark futures and allow us to feel hopelessness, rather than dismissing them or trying convince us otherwise.
Millennials and Gen Zers were taught to aim for the stars. It is more realistic to expect a future on this flaming planet if you can only survive. We have to change our outlook from envisioning future upward mobility, exotic travel, successful careers, and a future full of success to accepting that our futures are full of droughts and floods, fires and toxic air. As we face this reality, we require support to help us through grief, depression, acceptance, and even hopelessness.
What does this kind of accompaniment look like exactly? It does not look like fixing problems, and it doesn’t sound like the words, “Don’t worry. Everything will be OK.” Accompaniment means creating a container for one another’s pain and making space for each other to release difficult emotions.
Climate anxiety and climate change griefAlthough these words have become a fad in psychology circles, they are not enough to inform us about the dire state of our planet or encourage us to act. Christian communities must respond to the crisis with assistance. As we all work together to care and protect the Earth, we need to be there for each other through difficult emotions.
Every generation has its own version of anxiety and grief about climate change. Gen Zers and Millennials require a special accompaniment due to the different life phases they are in and the five, six or seven more years we may have left on this burning planet.
I have Gen Z-students who have been involved with the Sunrise movementSince high school. One spends his time creating protest art for marches. Many are filled with anger and despair as they choose majors, and carry the responsibility of creating life goals. I have heard students say things like, “Who cares what major I choose if our futures are so uncertain?” A gnawing hopelessness darkens their life plans because, as a society, we have not guaranteed them that the “American dreams” we pressure them to reach for will rise up to meet them down the road.
We need to change our outlook from envisioning future upward mobility, exotic travel, successful careers, and future upward mobility to accepting that our futures are full of droughts and floods, fires and toxic air.
My Millennial peers are raising children against the backdrop of piercing concern for their offspring’s survival. One friend moved her family from Chicago to Ohio recently to be able plant fruit and nuts trees so that their child can have other sources of food as he grows up. They are also looking into how to heat their greenhouse with geothermal energy. My cousin and his wife informed me recently that they had slept in a car with their children while they waited for the Oregon forest fires to pass. They were ready to leave their home and flee any moment.
I am one of those Millennials that thinks a lot on climate change, even though my spouse and me are considering having children. It is terrifying to watch my friends and family raise their children during climate crises. I know of other Millennials that are not choosing to have children, while their peers complain about parenting in the face of climate emergencies.
We are hopeless. The COVID-19 pandemic will most certainly affect Gen Zers as they begin their adult lives. Millennials who have children or are raising them, such as Gen Zers, is also likely to impact. Notbe the most terrifying and bizarre global crisis that we will ever face. As long as disaster capitalismContinues to fuel unpredictable weather patterns, environmental tragedies, and we will continue suffering one disaster after the other.
Net zero emissions is essential, as we still have the chance to limit global warming and reduce air pollution. Within 20 years, we could reap the benefits of these changes. Even if we reach net zero emissions as nations and somehow create global ecological solidarity, we still have the responsibility for the environmental irresponsibility of the past decades. Even if we answer the latest call, it is still a difficult task. climate change reportTo reduce global CO2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC).2 and greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will still continue to warm “at least until mid-century,” as reported.
Gen Zers and Millennials are worried about the time between now and “mid-century,” when the planet will continue to warm, causing perpetual climate emergencies in the meantime. We are now filled with hopelessness, even as we advocate for and take action to slow or stop global heating looking forward.
Mutual aid and accompaniment
We need to be able to feel our hopelessness, but it does no harm to continue working towards creating strategies for survival and care. In many cases, our outlook, our way of living our lives and our expectations for the future are shaped by our hopelessness.
Take, for instance, the numerous mutual aid networks which have sprung up to address the many crises created by the COVID-19 epidemic. This is rooted in the survival strategies of communities of colour in the United States. mutual aid networksIn 2020, the number of people who were unemployed exploded. The neighbors of the unemployed used their time and networked to link their needs with resources.
For Gen Zers just starting adulthood and Millennials who have children, the COVID-19 epidemic will not be the most terrifying or frightening global crisis.
In communities like mine on the North Side of Chicago, neighbors collaborated on food and medication distribution, rent fundraisers, and mask making, providing patchwork solutions to our community’s basic needs. With Dean Spade’s Mutual AidWith this resource in hand, we continue learning together how to ask for what is needed without shame, reject white saviorism and individualism and build solid networks of community so we have what we need as well as neighbors to help us when disaster strikes.
My mutual aid network uses talking circles to deal with the emotional labor involved in organizing. These groups allow us to connect on a deeper level and create a community of emotional support. Talking circles offer a safe space for people to share their hurt feelings and help them process them. Talking and listening create a safe place for everyone to express their feelings and thoughts about difficult topics. This article demonstrates how to build listening and talking circles. The Circle Way resource.
According to author, neuroscience educator and speaker internationally Sarah PeytonAssisting climate anxiety can have as much impact as reducing trauma-related effects. Sometimes accompaniment doesn’t have to be verbal. It can be a walking-with between spirit and silence. It is an implicit promise to be there with someone so that they feel not alone. Other times accompaniment can be asking about someone’s feelings and not shying away from harsh answers.
Accompaniment is in the invitation, “Tell me more about how you feel,” followed by a reflection to clarify, “It sounds like you are feeling _____ and needing _____. Do I have that right?” This simple pattern of reflecting back what feelings you hear your conversation partner expressing and allowing them to expand on them could go back and forth many times. This technique allows for nonviolent communication. It allows people to express their feelings and needs without judgement or analysis.
Catholic tradition and teachings provide solid foundations for uniting in caring for the common home. In the 2015 Encyclical Laudato Si’Pope Francis’s “On Care for Our Common Earth” makes clear that ecological conversion must be a spiritual and moral imperative. Many Catholic communities are involved in this effort. But there are better ways to help one another navigate the difficult, painful and emotional terrain of confronting ecological hopelessness. Many Gen Zers and Millennials yearn for a special kind of companionship as they look towards the future.
To our elders, let me ask for a few younger generations to come find us and walk alongside us. Your emotional support is crucial as we venture into the darkness. We have given up our fireworks, but we’ve got plenty of candles to share.
Image: Unsplash/Joshua Newton