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New England youth activists resist paralyzing climate anxiety with food sustainability

Mass Audubon’s Youth Climate Leadership Program
Phil Doyle
Mass Audubon
Mass Audubon’s Youth Climate Leadership Program

A survey of 10,000 young people found that climate change is causing severe “eco-anxiety” in young people around the world. Climate news — like the grim UN reports of global warming intensifying— is ripe for “doomscrolling,” a toxic habit of despairing over seemingly endless social media and information overload.

Young climate activists in New England — which is heating faster than most regions of North America, studies show — are taking action in their local communities and at the state level, working to raise awareness of climate legislation and sustainable lifestyles in hopes of forcing structural change both global and local. According to research from a coalition led by the Yale School of Public Health, collective action helps combat symptoms of anxiety due to climate change. Sarah E. O. Schwartz of Suffolk University in Boston headed the study.

“Our findings about climate activism are promising as they suggest that engaging in climate activism may not only help address climate change but also may have individual psychological benefits,” Schwartz said.

For many student activists, sustainable food consumption is a key issue everyone can rally behind.

Enter “Meat Saga.”

“There’s a lot of anxiety about climate change and I think people need to understand there is a solution, there is a way out of this, and there is a way to live around this problem. I think social media is a big sort of ease into the new world we’re gonna live in,” said Asad Syed, a 9th grader at Fairfield High School in Connecticut and mastermind behind the 7-episode series of educational videos on the harm of industrial farms.

Syed, chair of Sustainable Fairfield Students, creates videos that explain complex climate issues in a simple way and shares them through the student-run organization’s social media. He said food sustainability is an avenue accessible to everyone.

“I think food sustainability is a big one for me for the main reason that it’s so simple that anyone could do it,” Syed said. “Switching out some meat or some eggs out of your diet is something that’s way less expensive and also way less of a big deal than switching out your gasoline car for an electric car.”

As a middle-schooler, he co-founded the group as a youth division of the Sustainable Fairfield Task Force, a grassroots environmental group that rallies for climate conscious initiatives and neighborhood clean-ups. The students work beyond Fairfield, too; Previously, they raised $1,000 for the National Forests Foundation and testified in support of state climate legislation.

To reach young people, Syed said Instagram has proved to be an essential tool.

“I think social media is also a much easier way for people to take in information,” Syed said. “A lot of the books and articles I had to read to get more knowledge about food sustainability were very dense and thick. I cut out a lot of the more complex parts and put it into video.”

Syed represents the next potential leader in the climate movement. Like many others of his generation, he started studying climate change and its solutions from a young age and has been raising awareness in creative ways ever since. For Syed, gaining knowledge about climate change has enabled him to work past anxiety.

Climate anxiety is not a new mental health phenomenon, but a lifelong reality for some young people.

Massachusetts teenager Ollie Perrault has been a climate activist for a third of her life. “I am 15-years-old now and I’ve been an active member of this fight for the last four years. But when people ask me what age I got involved and when I started thinking about these issues, I tell them that I've been involved in this fight my entire life. Because I believe that for my generation there was never a time when climate change wasn’t a reality,” she said.

Perrault is homeschooled, but is involved in her Easthampton community as a Western Mass Youth Climate Leader under the conservation organization Mass Audubon — though she prefers the term “activist” to “leader.” She grew up on her family’s community-supported agriculture farm, where they’ve witnessed firsthand the extremes of a rapidly changing climate.

“For my family, the changing weather patterns have been impacting us in extremes. We can go from irrigating 24/7 to fight off the drought, to watching the weather for flash flood warnings pretty fast,” Perrault said. “For a while, I think that my family saw these changes as simply the daily struggle of managing risk and unpredictability as farmers, because that’s what farming’s all about."

"But it has become increasingly clear that climate change — these extremes — are not normal, they’re not natural, and climate change is having a direct undeniable impact in Massachusetts.”

Industrial agriculture plays a large role in contributing to global warming, while small-scale farming is on the frontlines of disastrous climate impacts: extreme weather events, rising sea levels and rising temperatures. Perrault said they’re essential to communities but have the least resources to recover from disaster.

“There was never a time when I wasn’t worried about the future of my family’s farm,” she said.

Mass Audubon’s youth leadership program aims to empower students to speak up about climate change and collaborate on everyday solutions in their own communities. As an activist, Perrault stresses the importance of keeping a balance between the everyday actions and the big-picture structural changes needed.

“We have the micro solutions, we have the everyday easy action items that people can incorporate into their daily lives, these little changes that people can make to make their lives more sustainable,” Perrault said. “And that’s things like carpooling, and reduce, reuse, recycle, and cutting single-use plastics and eating local. But we as youth activists are really encouraging and pushing for people to start thinking bigger.”

Agriculture is one of the top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. economy incentivizes unsustainable agricultural practices, resulting in industrial farms with devastating impacts on soil erosion, water and air pollution. By addressing these barriers and returning to sustainable methods, agriculture could play a key role in combating climate change, Perrault said.

‘Reuse, reduce, recycle’ is not enough— youth are calling for systemic changes.

A new generation of environmental leaders are calling for greater efforts to push the needle on the climate conversation to reduce eco-anxiety.

"Importantly, we didn't see this same potential buffering effect for those engaging in individual action to address climate change (for example, recycling, reducing electricity usage), suggesting that collective action (for example, participation in protests, educational and community events, or political campaigns etc.) may be especially beneficial,” said Sara Schwartz of Suffolk University in Boston.

For some students, organizing around climate justice issues is the top priority. Aarika Roy, a 15-year-old and youth fellow of 350 New Hampshire, initially learned about climate action through her middle school’s environmental club. She later began organizing as a summer intern with 350NH, an independent chapter of the national climate justice movement 350.org.

They led a rally in March to protest state leaders’ inaction on climate change and to demand renewable energy legislation.

Rally in front of the New Hampshire State House led by 350NH in Concord, New Hampshire.
Courtesy 350 New Hampshire
Rally in front of the New Hampshire State House led by 350NH in Concord, New Hampshire.

“When I got to see how many people were there, all the speeches that were there, and how people talk so passionately about the environment, it really did just give me a lot of hope,” Roy said.

In Connecticut, Brianna Jackson, a 16-year-old at Trumbull High School and a founding member of Trumbull Sustainable Youth, also believes influencing legislation is the best way to take action.

This legislative session, Trumbull students were advocating for a bill to remove styrofoam lunch trays from school systems, as the material polystyrene is non-recyclable. The bill passed by the state General Assembly on Wednesday, banning single-use styrofoam in schools and restaurants after July 2024.

For Jackson, taking action helps to overcome some of the anxiety around climate change, but the uphill battle is daunting.

“It’s so disheartening because it’s such like a huge issue especially for youth because we’re the one who are gonna face the impacts of it the most,” she said. “Obviously, it should be motivating to want to do as much as we can but it comes down to the big changes made by big people.”

However, the reality of climate change and the scale of solutions needed is clear to youth activists, and at times, overwhelming.

Perrault said, “The most that we feel is anger. We’re really angry. We feel angry that even today there are so many people out there that are ignoring our calls for action and ignoring that we are pushing for the macro-level mindset.”

Jackson, Roy, Perrault, and Syed: These young people said they are not backing down from the challenge, and are empowered by the actions they take together.

“Yes, absolutely this frustration can definitely take a toll on our mental health and growing up knowing that this mess has been left to our generation to clean up is painfully clear to us. But young people have always been and always will be catalysts for change,” Perrault said.

“I as a person am not really an optimist. But me as an activist, I have to be an optimist. If I wasn’t an optimist I would be so overwhelmed by my goals. But because I’m an activist I can take that frustration and move forward.”

Megan is a former news intern with WSHU Public Radio.