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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Tale of Two Earth Days

Real conservation never comes in the form of activists’ climate anxiety.

Just Stop Oil Activists Glue Themselves To Hay Wain By Constable
Just Stop Oil climate activists subvert The Hay Wain painting by John Constable and glue themselves to the frame at the National Gallery on the 4th of July 2022, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images)

This past weekend, environmentalists around the country pitched in for the planet. I had the pleasure of leading a park cleanup, mulching and picking up trash with other young professionals. On the other side of D.C., various groups assembled to protest for fossil fuel divestment—a message aimed at lawmakers who aren’t in session and bankers who aren’t listening. 

For some reason, we have decided that the most effective tool for caring for the planet is a picket sign.

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It’s not really my generation’s fault. Of late, American youth have been force-fed a diet of extremism and alarmism while being starved of a sense of agency. We are told that we were born in the wrong generation to get our hands dirty for the planet, but exactly the right generation to decry the sins of our forefathers. But even for that, we are told that we’re probably too late. Organizations like “Extinction Rebellion” take young people who care about the planet and catechize them in existential dread, preaching the narrative that the only route away from the end times is one of radical measures.

This kind of rhetoric might do wonders for political organizations’ existential perpetuity, but it isn’t doing our environment or our young people any favors: It is irresponsibly inflammatory, and the content is so radical it’s unproductive. Nearly 70 percent of young people are now experiencing “climate anxiety” due to a “feeling of powerlessness.” One recent 19-year-old Greenpeace activist tragically choose to end his life out of a fear invented for political gains. 

This weekend’s protest in D.C. claimed to fight to “end the era of fossil fuels,” saving future generations from “chaos and destruction” on a planet with “disintegrating life supporting systems.” Impossible divestments and empty catastrophizing aren’t policy goals, and they’re not meant to be. They are meant to secure for political actors an increasingly distressed youth population, a desperately anxious base that will vote for anyone who claims to be willing to save them from the end of the world. The saddest part? It’s working.

Climate change is now top of mind for America’s youngest voters, driving their political affiliations and civic engagement more broadly. The all-or-nothing style has led to climate policies that aim to be as radical as possible to show off for voters, even if they are totally counterintuitive. Shutting down nuclear plants and banning natural gas have become increasingly trendy, even if the alternative is a coal-powered electric grid. German lawmakers are currently boasting about ending their country’s supply of reliable, clean, nuclear energy, forgetting all too quickly last winter’s lessons in energy security.

As we sat picking up cigarette butts one by one this weekend, it struck me how slow and trivial it felt. If I’ve learned anything from conservation work, it’s that there is no bulldozer on the market that can fix a park in one fell swoop. You just have to sit there with dirt under your fingernails, picking up wet face masks and wondering if it is worth the effort. Progress is painstaking and nonlinear.

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Through the lens of a history book, it is easy to conceive of historical progress as a series of neatly successive political moments. We are told that the symbols of our history are how it was made: with a single march, battle, or riot. This is reflected in the all-or-nothing approach of our environmental policies: banning natural gas, decommissioning nuclear, and pushes for 100 percent renewable energy that ignore the environmental degradation in the cobalt mines conveniently out of frame. 

This myopia is also what drives young activists to glue themselves to Vermeers and throw soup on Van Goghs. Conserving beauty feels like a foolish distraction for someone who truly believes they are saving humanity from extinction. It’s currency, too. In the social justice economy, social media sells, and getting young people their individual protest profile picture is a way to ensure your activists feel valued.

But now we are left holding picket signs for a problem statement of which there’s almost no one left to convince. Sure, a few holdouts want to debate carbon emissions, but the conservation conversation is and always has been far larger than just climate change and we shouldn’t lose the forest for the trees. Energy security, public land preservation, sustainable agriculture, and permitting reform are a healthily long legacy of common ground we are ignoring to make our divisions seem more daunting than they are. 

The issue for which we harness young people’s energy should be how, not if, we care for the planet. Americans have always had a uniquely courageous spirit for progress. Properly oriented, this can move mountains. America’s youth should be using their vigor to clean parks, their brain power to innovate, and any remaining energy to get off screens and enjoy the outdoors. Anything else, especially useless publicity stunts, is a waste of clean air.

Our young people’s urge to feel like they’re on the right side of history leads to a revolutionary spirit where we need an innovative one. Real progress, though, typically doesn’t look like Instagrammable political activism; it just looks like work.