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Environmental anxiety is getting more common among youth worldwide. Many protester signs commented on the intergenerational inequality linked to climate change.

Learning & teaching

Education alone cannot cure environmental anxiety but it can help

Authors: Annu Griñan Published:

Environmental anxiety is getting more common among youth worldwide. Many protester signs commented on the intergenerational inequality linked to climate change.

Are you worried about climate change? Many young people will say “yes”. The concern of young people about the environment is real, and it is the job of adults to take it seriously, says environmental educator Pinja Sipari.

On 20-27 September 2019, millions of people worldwide took to the streets and stroke for climate action. Following the foodsteps of a Swedish Greta Thunberg, many of them were school children or youth, driven to streets for the worry they feel for their own future.

Advancing climate change is estimated to affect the lives of youth in many concrete ways, but it also affects their mental well-being. 

Pinja Sipari, a Finnish environmental educator who has trained secondary and upper secondary school teachers on climate themes says that it is the job of adults to take an active role in alleviating their concerns. 

Climate change can no longer be left “for someone else to take care of”. 

“The objective of education and general debate is not to eliminate anxiety, but for people to be able to live with their anxiety and to function in spite of it,” notes Sipari. 

Individual deeds not enough

Environmental anxiety is already recognised as a phenomenon, but people lack a model for dealing with it. 

Eliminating anxiety and continuing life as before without any change is not a solution. This is the core issue of environmental anxiety. According to Pinja Sipari, bringing about real change needs a greater revolution. 

She is worried about the sometimes disparaging or condemnatory attitudes towards the climate anxiety expressed by young people. They are not good starting points for fruitful discussion or the search for solutions. 

“It is problematic that now solutions to and the prevention of climate change are being discussed at the level of the individual, but at the same time we know that consumption decisions made by individuals are not enough. 

When responsibility for solutions to climate change are shoved onto the individual, young people in particular feel anxious about the situation. 

“The majority of people operate in a way that is harmful to the environment, and it is difficult to be the one who does things differently. For young people in particular, the fact that they should be different from others and make decisions that differ from others is difficult. 

An environmental educator needed

The climate strikes devised by schoolchildren globally are a sign that attitudes to the climate issue are still variable.  Some schools have acknowledged and supported the climate strikes, but others have not. This puts the pupils in an unequal position.

According to her, the development of teachers’ expertise and making climate education an important theme in schools are the responsibility of the principals. 

Schools are being praised by environmental educators for the fact that the need for climate education is now being recognised better than it was a few years ago. 

“This has been particularly evident in the last six months. The issue has become visible to teachers expressly as a result of the concern of young people.” 

In a project of the Association of Biology and Geography Teachers, Sipari is looking for new kinds of solutions to alleviate the environmental anxiety of schoolchildren. She previously published the free-to use Teacher’s climate guide to help educators by providing them relevant information for their subject.

Young people need action

The greatest challenge to the development of environmental education in schools is the fragmented nature of and pressure on the working days of teachers. Taking time and focusing on a single theme is difficult, even in a school environment. 

Sipari thinks that teachers’ expertise in and knowledge of climate change and environmental anxiety are better than the average citizen, but there are still shortcomings. 

The climate theme can, for example, easily be viewed as an individual matter concerning the natural sciences, or be talked about only in terms of recycling. In reality, it is a question of a broad theme that can be approached through different subjects. 

Teachers still have much to do to recognise feelings of environmental anxiety. The next step in teacher education would be to teach them first to recognise their own feelings and thereby also the environmental anxiety in young people. 

Young people need action and an active approach from adults and teachers in schools. 

“The perspective of active citizenship that has long been a part of the curriculum should be put into practice better. Above all, children and young people should be taught about having their say and the opportunities for it. In this, adults too are lacking skills. “

“We don’t so much need information on the consequences of climate change. What we need is to work together,”says Pinja Sipari

What will the future world be like?

Education alone cannot cure environmental anxiety but it can help. Anxiety is experienced throughout society, both in the workplace and at school. According to Pinja Sipari, a challenge is how to reach all people in different environments. 

There is also a contradiction in the issue: in order to resolve the problem of environmental anxiety, the climate change that is causing it should first be resolved. 

Sipari emphasises the power of example. There are concrete issues that we can do something about by grasping them. 

“We don’t so much need information on the consequences of climate change. What we need is to work together. This does not need to be an intense search for a solution to climate change. It is enough for us to get together, do something concrete and talk. If they have the courage and strength, anybody can have an influence on their own local environment. We need examples from both near and far.” 

Sipari talks about the importance of thorough change and refers to a Finnish Professor of Pedagogy Veli-Matti Värri. According to him, in the development of education in a more ecological direction, the basics or ontology of education must primarily be considered, then mankind would not be seen as a consumer and exploiter of natural resources but part of nature. 

Because we do not yet know how the future world will be, the environmental educator must encourage people to consider together how it might be. 

“Not coloured by anxiety and concern but by hope. Something that it makes sense to aim for, to experience the significance of the task that calls each one of us. 

Environmental educator Pinja Sipari’s solutions to environmental anxiety

  • Recognise your feelings and share them.
  • Do something concrete together with adults and young people.
  • Create ways and places for dealing with environmental anxiety.
  • Seek out inspiring examples: one person’s courage to act gets others moving too.
  • Act locally. Different methods work in different environments.

“The most important thing is to be an active citizen. Teachers should understand the comprehensiveness of change in relation to their own subject, and the experience of young people must be listened to in teaching more than it is now. A solution is the power of example in one’s own environment.”

This article was published in Finnish in Ainamedia in June 2019. Both Elm Magazine and Ainamedia are published by the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation.

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Annu Griñan is the communications manager of Kansanvalistusseura (KVS), the publisher of Elm Magazine. Contact: annu.grinan(a) Show all articles by Annu Griñan
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