As soon as I woke up that morning, I saw the headline, and I knew it to be true. This wasn’t fake news; this was cold, hard reality. Why is the news always so dramatic? To sell papers and advertising space, obviously, but there’s something insidious about it that makes the anxiety addictive. It’s like a drug feeding off our worst fears, seducing us with terror to light up the primitive parts of our brain. The news on this morning amped the anxiety up to 11: “Antarctic Melting Now Unstoppable.” You can’t really get much more dramatic than that [but refer to this article’s headline for an honest attempt].
Flash forward a few years, and another headline made the rounds that I also knew to be true: climate change can cause extreme mental health issues in people, particularly increasing the incidence of depression, PTSD, and suicide. Yeah, I can relate. Climate change stresses me out.
It’s bad enough that the global warming we’ve unleashed has raised the sea, supercharged our weather, and wiped countless lifeforms off the face of this globe forever. But living in an era of mass extinction also tends to carry a great deal of stress, turns out. I imagine it will only get worse as megadroughts disrupt our food supply and swamped cities lead to mass relocations.
The stakes are unfathomably high. As a millennial, assuming I live an average lifespan, I will witness within my lifetime global temperatures jump anywhere from two to five degrees in the blink of geological time. 200 million refugees will be scampering to higher ground trying to escape the rising tide. How is a human brain to come to terms with all of this?
I know how my human brain dealt with such sad news -- I was sad, too. Until the breakthrough of the Paris Agreement in 2015, things looked well and truly hopeless at times. That headline about Antarctica sent me into a spiral; it seemed to me the fight was over, and we had lost. You might as well have told me the sun was about to explode, or a nuclear war had broken out. It all amounts to the same thing: end of a game. So long, civilization. It was fun while it lasted.
It isn’t just me; these stresses are common to everyone feeling the heat. Hotter temperatures beget hotter emotions, and the number of heatwaves in the United States has exploded in recent years. It’s no surprise that the same phenomenon is linked to increased suicide as well. Sometimes you don’t need 13 reasons to want to take your life; in my case, it manifested as only one. I never seriously considered acting on any of my feelings, but climate change alone was enough to make me wonder what the point of living my life is if the world is quickly falling apart around me.
The metaphor, to me, was obvious: unmitigated climate change is suicide on a civilization-level scale. Our society drinks lavishly from the petroleum wells that poison us. We’ve been on course for climate calamity ever since we started burning fossil fuels, and our path has been clear to us for decades. Yet we still walk closer to the edge. We stand on the precipice, looking over a great cliff, and with death looming before our eyes, we refrain from pulling back. It would be easier to just step off, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nice to stop caring for a change?
It’s no coincidence that one in five millennials report feelings of depression. We’re more stressed out than any other generation, and it isn’t that hard to see why. We’re loaded with debt, we’re still living with our parents, and now we’re supposed to deal with the fact that by the time our kids are our age, we’ll live in an entirely different world? It seems like a cruel joke.
This millennial decided to speak out. I channelled all my feelings of sadness, rage, and disappointment into a story called Age of Suicide. I wrote it because the era of climate change, to me, feels like an entirely avoidable act of self-destruction. I wrote it because I’m not ready to live in that world of drought and famine. I wrote it because, if nothing else, it would give millennials like me, who are sad about climate change like me, something to relate to in characters that don’t know how to live their lives at the end of the world. Do they carry on in spite of everything they’ve lost? Do they die fighting to gain it back? These are the questions my characters ask themselves in my book, because these are the questions I’ve had to face myself.
The trouble is, too much anxiety can prevent us from doing anything at all, and reading the doomsday headlines doesn’t always help. It took a long time for me to get over my climate depression, but the Paris Agreement was the end of that long night. When I saw the nations of the world agreeing to invest real effort into stopping the worst from happening, I woke up to the reality that the fight isn’t over; far from it, in fact. Since then, the momentum has accelerated, and every day, I see progress being made that I could only dream of a few years ago. The trends are all in place for the clean energy revolution that might just save our skins. They might not save the glaciers, though.
At the end of the day, however, I don’t really care that glaciers are in permanent retreat. I don’t care that Antarctica is going to melt; I was never gonna go there anyway. I’ve come to terms with a lot of things about the destruction of my home planet, and I’ve learned to let go of the things I can’t change. It’s the only way I can possibly remain sane. If millennials are going to lead the fight on this issue, we’re gonna have to solve our emotional problems first. We’re already bearing the weight of the world, the future of the human race, the fate of countless species and civilizations, AND we have student loans to pay! We can’t let dark feelings weigh ourselves down.
Thankfully, climate change actually has the chance to serve us perhaps the greatest gift of all: a sense of purpose. Yes, the permafrost is melting, the methane feedbacks kicking in, Donald Trump dismantling all our protections to sell our fate to fossil fuels. These things just mean we have a lot of work to do. It may feel overwhelming, it may even feel hopeless, but can you think of a more dramatic headline for the millennial story than The Generation that Saved the World? That sounds like a comeback story worth reading. That’s the story we’re gonna tell our children.
Despite the current emergency, I’ve never felt more hopeful about the future than now. When I see young people like me at the rallies happening every day, I realize everything is gonna be alright. Fighting for climate justice gives me a reason to live, and it’s the best reason I can possibly think of. As long as carbon is flaring into the sky, I will fight tooth and nail to stop the doomsday it portends. I will unite with my millennial brethren to defend our right to life, and we will cling to that life with all our strength. Climate change is about life. Let’s all make something of it while we still can.
Kirsch is an editor for The Millennial Times.