A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Western Washington University’s Klipsun magazine. The author has revised the story for publication in the Salish Current.
Climate change has taken Generation Z by storm, both literally and figuratively.
Across the globe, 59% of young adults and children experience climate anxiety in some way. Some feel it through increasingly intense weather events, droughts and food shortages. Others feel it more passively, through headlines, social media posts and their favorite celebrity’s heart-wrenching speeches.
The problems causing climate change are complex and interconnected, making it impossible for any one individual to tackle them. Yet many media outlets continue to recite an oversimplified story: Previous generations have degraded our planet to the brink of no return, and the last hopes for saving it, if there are any, rest with Generation Z.
This is likely not the truth. At the very least, it’s not the only story.
Elin Kelsey, an educator and scholar who received her Ph.D. in science communication and international environmental policy at King’s College London, has both lived through these narratives and studied them. Kelsey says she knows that climate change is real, devastating and urgent. She also says that focusing only on negatives is neither truthful nor effective.
In her latest book, “Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis,” she argues that hope, not fear, is one of the greatest tools we have to weather this storm.
Central to her belief is what she calls evidence-based hope. It springs not from wishful thinking or simplistic stories about good deeds, but in fact-based study, research and writing within science and the media.
She points to the Solutions Story Tracker, a database of solution stories from news outlets across 90 countries, that includes 3,000 stories focused on environmental sustainability. Researchers are also publishing more data on conservation successes.
Studying a thriving population of animals can give scientists a clue as to what is working for that group, just as studying a struggling population can highlight what is not working. Both positive and negative environmental stories need to be grounded in data and facts, and both shape the reality of the climate crisis and provide intelligence for meaningful change.
Organizations such as the Solutions Journalism Network, Future Earth and Covering Climate Now, as well as social media campaigns like Kelsey’s #OceanOptimism, provide access and exposure to evidence-based environmental solutions across the globe.
After reading “Hope Matters,” Kelsey’s ideas lingered with me as I navigated my own relationship to global climate change, so I reached out to her. We ended up talking over Zoom about where evidence-based hope fits into our personal and professional lives.
I left with new ideas about how to spark positive change. This is probably why, as Kelsey notes in her book, people hungry for hope line up to speak to her. My own hope is that by sharing some of our conversation, passionate young adults like me might be able to see a new perspective and experience the breath of fresh air that is “Hope Matters.”
Q. What inspired you to write this book? Did it come from a place of urgency and frustration, or optimism and hope?
A. I used to find no matter where I was in the world, doomism would be there. It’s just the way we talk about the environment. So whenever there’s just one dominant narrative, it always makes me really curious about what is underneath that narrative and how it might diversify in ways that are valuable or worthwhile. It was less that I was feeling optimistic, and more that I was critical of this single dominant narrative that had all these assumptions nested within it that didn’t hold up.
Q. What are some of the silver linings of growing up or living during the climate crisis?
A. I think what we’re really seeing is that these are justice issues. There’s recognition that these are health issues, these are equity issues, every aspect of what matters to us is tied to climate justice. We’re growing up in a time where we are able to see what’s happening in many parts of the world. We are able to see the connections, which means that we’re able to make much bigger systemic change, and that’s the level we need to be making change.
Q. Why have we come to believe that fear is the best tool we have for motivation? Why is that not the case?
A. This emergence of environmental studies as sort of a critical discipline, in the sense of wanting a social change outcome, really led to that kind of focus on what’s broken. If you look in the psychological literature, fear and shame have been used very heavily as the idea that if you know what’s broken, then you punish somebody, and they will then change for the better. But when you really start looking at that research, that isn’t the case. We tend to do a lot better when there’s empathy around us.
Q. What is the most common misconception about the state of our planet?
A. The biggest misconception that I run into is that people often talk about these things as if they’re all in the future. I like to say that’s a starting-line fallacy. We’re not at the starting line. All kinds of things have been going on for decades and are amplifying. When you think that everything’s wrecked, and it’s too late to change, nobody cares about it.
Q. What implications does hope-based evidence have for environmental justice, and how can it be beneficial to those who are hurting the most?
A. When you know where the trend is going, you can hold those in power accountable more effectively. And I was thinking how powerful the divestment movement has been, this student-driven movement around fossil fuels. I know that students and faculty at Western Washington continue to push for that. I was just looking at a list of the best colleges. They now include data about which institutions have divested because it’s so important to students, and I think that’s a win. I think it’s over 100 institutions now, university institutions in the U.S. right now that have divested. It’s a real sweeping trend. Coming from a solutions perspective is a powerful way to tackle injustice. I think it’s the only way to tackle injustice because whenever you’re talking about a solution, you always are talking about a problem.
Q. What is an underrated or underrepresented upward environmental trend?
A. In terms of trends, I think we are really moving towards renewables, and towards electrification at a global scale. The rise of plant-based eating is very big, and Project Drawdown puts plant-based eating high up on their lists. There is a movement surrounding single-use plastic, which is really important. We’re not alone in our concerns.
Q. What advice do you have for people who feel crushed by the responsibility to save current and future generations?
A. First and foremost, I would say feel those feelings. Whatever feeling you have should not be pathologized — it’s not like your feeling is bad, or you have the wrong feeling, or there’s something wrong with you. We feel things about how we live on this planet, and how we make change on this planet. Creating safe spaces for yourself and others to share their feelings is important.
Q. What is one main takeaway you hope everyone who reads your book will remember?
A. I guess the idea that hope is not naive. It’s not wishful thinking, or finding a little bright new story in the middle of something bad. It’s a choice that we make, and I think it’s a political choice. It’s a powerful political choice to demand to know what works. We have a right to know, and when we know what works, we should then demand more.
More information about Kelsey’s work is on her website.
— By Meghan Fenwick