Have you ever felt worried or scared by the impending threat of climate change and what the future holds for our planet? Well, you are not alone. The American Psychological Association defines this chronic fear of environmental doom as eco-anxiety and it affects more than two-thirds of Americans. As a sustainability student who constantly reads news articles and reports about the climate catastrophe we are approaching, it can feel disheartening when the climate movement does not provide a sense of security or comfort. Recently, I had the opportunity to be a panelist for a student organization advocating for youth voices in the climate movement. I had the pleasure to hear the encouraging words of Heather White who has navigated her career in the climate movement through various legal, nonprofit, and activist spaces. Following the panel, I was left so inspired by White’s work and her passion to bring attention to eco-anxiety that I knew I had to sit down with her and learn more about her journey in climate activism.

Heather White is the author of One Green Thing: Discover Your Hidden Power to Save the Planet and the founder of One Green Thing, a nonprofit with a mission to tackle eco-anxiety through joyous daily action to try to shift the current culture to climate policy solutions. With more than 20 years of experience being involved in the climate movement, I was curious as to what her “aha moment” was to become involved in this space. We bonded over our earliest memories being hiking and camping- for her in the Smoky Mountains and for me in Yellowstone National Park. Although she has always taken an interest in the outdoors, it wasn’t until an experience with her daughter attending a Greta Thunberg-inspired strike that she started to take notice of eco-anxiety. 

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White encouraged her daughter to participate in the climate strike but checked the weather and noticed it was supposed to thunderstorm. She described her daughter’s horrified reaction when she proposed that she drive her from the walkout to the climate protest so she wouldn’t have to carry her trumpet and heavy backpack in the storm. Her daughter, frustrated, started crying and said, “You want to use fossil fuels to drive me from the walk out to the climate protest? That is defeating the purpose of what we are marching for. Mom, where are all the baby boomers? You can’t leave this crisis on our shoulders.” This moment became a turning point for White and she decided it was time to dive into the mental health impacts of the climate crisis and create an invitation for more people, especially adults, to see themselves in this movement. 

When researching eco-anxiety, White pointed me to a global study of 10,000 young people ages 16 through 25 where 47% (nearly half) said climate anxiety interfered with their daily life. White explains that eco-anxiety encompasses not just fear of environmental harm but also fear of what the future looks like. She emphasizes the need for Boomers, Gen Xer’s, and millennials to support Gen Z and Gen Alpha and let them know that they take climate change seriously. Heather White’s nonprofit, One Green Thing, has tasked itself with naming this concept ‘eco-anxiety’ and encouraging intergenerational dialogue. She has developed an assessment that is similar to an enneagram service called the Service Superpower Assessment, where people can see themselves in the climate movement and discover their sustainability superpower. This concept of visibility in the climate movement and culture change is integral to the Superpower assessment and White believes that “the culture change comes from more people getting involved in the movement in a way that aligns with their interests and unique skills and talents.” After taking the sustainability assessment, you can start to visually imagine what your strengths in the climate movement could be and are offered daily practices as a means of guidance for people who are interested in sustainability, but may not know where to start. 

When imagining what the future of climate activism looks like, White urges, “we need to start thinking about what we can build and what a positive, sustainable, regenerative future grounded in justice and equity could look like.” It was comforting to hear that positive reinforcement for young people in the climate movement is a concept that is circulating in some of these spaces and sustainability professionals are trying to actively understand. White claims, “a component to shifting this conversation in a positive light is putting energy into painting the portrait of what we’re working towards and having honest intergenerational conversation.” As a young creator, conversations and intergenerational storytelling is something that feels central to the work that needs to be done to propel youth voices to have access to seats at the [climate justice] table. When asked what the most important thing that adults can do to support youth perspectives, White responds, “it’s so important to ask young people how they feel because as adults, we underestimate how often young people are sharing and documenting in real time the pain and suffering of the climate crisis. We often forget that we didn’t see international news at the level and scale that kids are seeing it now.” A fascinating topic that particularly piqued my interest during our future thinking conversation was this concept that White calls “Thinking like an ancestor.” By imagining ourselves as ancestors and asking “what are we leaving our future loved ones behind?”, we can start to envision the world through a cathedral lens and be more thoughtful and intentional about our own actions. At One Green Thing, you can take the “be an awesome ancestor pledge” and commit to listening to young people and how they feel about climate action. 

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In recent years, the conversation has shifted in the climate activism space and more questions have been raised about inclusivity. If you are a student who is passionate about sustainability and wants to make an impact through an activist role, White listed off some opportunities available from organizations and programs that are integrating youth into the conversation about engagement and education. At the United Nations COP 27 conference, there was an Unlocking our Future Program that enlists and pays youth fellows to do climate activism work and spread the message about climate urgency. The Captain Planet Foundation in Atlanta is doing direct grants and investing in individual projects that kids are doing in their neighborhoods and communities to tackle climate change. Excited about this personal investment in youth, White says, “it’s been really interesting to see a global investment that’s almost like direct aid or mutual aid, just like directly funding the people who are doing the work.” At One Green Thing, Heather White created the Gen Z Advisory Council where young people work to actively inform sustainability professionals of what they may be doing wrong in this movement and what key elements they are missing. The integration of young voices in “advisory roles” has helped bridge a gap that has been missing in this conversation for decades. Regarding the shift in conversations that White has seen over recent years, she recaps, “I’ve seen a shift of first acknowledgment, second an invitation, and third an investment in young people and then moving forward I think the next point is having a role in the decision making that’s more than witness and input but actually being a decision-maker.” 

When asked about what the future of climate activism looks like, White was quick to add that we need as many people as possible to see themselves having a role in the movement. We both mentioned the timidness that permeates this movement because many people, especially older folks, are afraid to start because they may feel judged or that they’re doing sustainability “wrong.” White claims that, “we need to start talking about the “who”. Who are you? How do you show up for people that you love? How do you show up in service? That is truly an invitation for people to start seeing their identity in the movement and taking steps towards changing the culture.” We don’t need a few people being perfectly sustainable, we need a billion people trying to be. Eco-anxiety is something that may be affecting you or the people around you (I sure have my days), but through asking the questions White has posed, or striking up climate conversations with someone that is of a different generation than you, we can work together to not only find solutions, but find a community that is willing to make positive change. There are a lot of ways for you to take action in your own life to face eco-anxiety, support others, and join the movement to build a more sustainable future for yourself and the people you love.