Three students sitting in front of shopping centre A Bloc in Otaniemi.

Student agency and climate grief How do Aalto students experience climate grief?

Bad news about climate change make many of us worried. Kylteri’s journalist Ahmed Hewidy asked Aalto students, whether they experience climate grief.

We know the climate is changing, our waters are acidifying and we are facing a major global extinction event of our making. Yet, there is a prevailing feeling, particularly among young people, that not nearly enough is being done. That they are watching an ecological disaster arrive and feel powerless to prevent it. This has given birth to the concept of climate grief, which describes the feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress that the topic of climate change has upon people, particularly the young. 

I explore these feelings among students in Aalto through short interviews, to see how much agency and responsibility students have towards the climate, how meaningful they view the current response to be, and how they emotionally internalize it. 

First, I talked to three Arts students, Emilia, Vala and Fanny. All three agreed on finding the current action extremely lacking and the general issue to be anxiety-inducing. Nevertheless, they all stated that they still will go out of their way to make greener choices, e.g. eating vegan, buying second hand and so on. Vala (middle) pointed out that she views her green actions, not as the solution in itself, but through the social pressure it applies on others as well as on companies to make greener choices themselves. Fanny (right) noted her feelings to be quite changing saying “when I eat only vegan or shop second-hand I feel like I’m making a difference, but then I read the news…” This also shows a media dimension to the issue, whereby many are consistently made aware of the topic and made to feel small in terms of our impact. Emilia (left) mentioned that she hopes more of the attention would go to companies and their responsibility towards greener action, instead of further burdening young people who might not be able to affect much by themselves.  She also noted that shaming people into greener decisions isn’t likely to work and that a more effective place to channel that concern would be through protests and direct action. 

A first-year business student, who chose to remain anonymous, stated that he generally did not find the situation too anxiety-inducing. He found a lot of potential in young university students, particularly through green start-ups, viewing that supporting these start-ups and being personally aware of them is the best way to tackle climate change in the absence of effective state response. Nevertheless, he pointed out the negative externalities inherent to pollution and therefore believed that government intervention will be necessary to counteract this. He was on the fence about personal political influence as he found both voting and protests to be inadequate in affecting meaningful political change, but was nevertheless positive about the social impacts of protests in terms of getting more of the populace involved. In the face of all of this, he wasn’t extremely concerned about the current situation, finding optimism in technological advancements, saying “like with all major problems, technology has great opportunities in solving this which we just haven’t unleashed yet”.

A student standing in front of A Bloc.

I also interviewed Gleb, a first-year student of digital systems and design. Like others, he found state policy to be effective against climate change. For that reason, he also noted that he did not find it personally concerning as he didn’t view it as his responsibility, but that of those in charge. On the point of green personal decisions, he highlighted the difficulty of being an educated consumer in a global supply network wherein the sources for products tend to be obfuscated. He, therefore, noted that he tries to make the “obvious green decisions” but that further involvement requires marginally more effort.

A student standing in front of shopping centre A Bloc.

Game design student Sina expressed his criticism of both the markets and the current political approach to the fight, viewing it mostly as a game of optics, particularly as he viewed only real change can come from swift governmental action. On this, he raised a point about his feelings of agency within the Finnish decision-making sphere, saying “I think Finnish politicians can have impact, but I don’t know how a politician would listen to me as an immigrant.” Through this, we see an additional dimension to the current discourse, as it systematically casts out people deemed unworthy of a say, not only immigrants but also those under the age of 18. As such, people who have a vested interest, responsibility and opinion on the climate are being nevertheless left out of any meaningful discussion and made to feel irrelevant even when issues of climate affect us all. 

So, what can we make from all of this? There seems to be a sense of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. A sense of doom on the horizon but lethargic action as consumers are told to strive for greener choices, whilst having little power to make that a reality. 

However, young people seem able to find ways of maintaining optimism, through small actions in their local environment or through involvement in larger movements. By knowing that there are entities both responsible for and with the power to stand against climate change, people can find personal ways to make a change, and through that maintain a hopeful outlook.   

It might also be worthwhile to listen to expert opinions on climate grief, for many of them warn of a “hopelessness trap” when it comes to discussions of climate change. While feelings of anxiety around this topic are fully understandable and justified, some may need to avoid taking this to its extreme conclusion of assuming that it is too late to act and prevent a full blown climate apocolapyse. In an interview with Scientific American, Michael Mann, a prominent American climatologist, warns of this “climate doomism” which he has seen spread and which he views to be comparable to climate change denial. Particularly, he is concerned that many fossil fuel lobbying groups have changed their stance from trying to spread complete climate change denial to claiming that we are simply too late to act and too unable to act. Therefore, he maintains that while we must accept that the situation is dire, we must nevertheless remain vigilant and hopeful. Only if we remain hopeful and believe in the possibility of true change can we demand and receive it.

 

09/2022 | In English

 

Text: Ahmed Hewidy

Pictures: Joonas Määttä

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