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  • Carolyn He

Overcoming “Activism Anxiety” in Youth and Recognizing the Potential in Our Voices

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Written by Carolyn He, Founder of ASF

The Issue At Hand

The title of this article is slightly misleading: yes, this article will delve into the social phenomenon called “Activism Anxiety”, and yes, this article will provide students with the power to recognize the latent potential present within each of them, but first, there is an important issue to preliminarily address.

Everyone has heard of the consequences associated with climate change, yet not many are cognizant of a minute, yet persistent underlying cause: the irresponsible consumption and production of paper products.

Excessive paper production results in more than just deforestation; clear-cutting forests is displacing millions of wildlife inhabitants and releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 2021, the paper and pulp industry was responsible for emitting 190,000,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions, a historic high in the sector and the 4th largest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in the US overall (IEA and The World Counts). Moreover, paper production also requires significant amounts of energy and water. It takes 500 liters of water, 2 kg of solid waste, and a substantial amount of often non-renewable energy to produce a single stack of paper--totaling 8 billion trees a year to satisfy global paper demands (Statista). Although trees are renewable resources, the pace at which they grow makes it difficult to replace felled trees or reverse disruptions to ecosystems. Aside from the 30 million acres of forest that paper production destroys per year, paper waste accumulation in landfills is also a notable cause of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. This is detrimental to both the environment, for unrecycled paper emits potent methane that is 25x more toxic for the atmosphere than CO2 (The World Counts), and to human health, considering incinerating paper waste also generates air particulates related to severe respiratory illnesses (National Resource Defense Council).

The Issue at Hand Pt. 2

Within this issue, I have identified a further barrier to combatting irresponsible paper consumption and general climate action: an "activism anxiety" that may inhibit youth from fully participating in environmental activism.

While some youth are undeniably passionate and actively involved in change-making, others may feel disengaged from these issues, whether stemming from a lack of resources, motivation, mentorship, or opportunities for engagement in local environmental research. Within the United States, over 60% of young adults grapple with anxiety stemming from climate-related issues (Hickman), yet only 33% of youth express confidence in their ability to contribute effectively towards environmental protection (EPA).

One of the key factors that can limit youth engagement in activism is access to information and resources. Many young people may not be aware of the seemingly-mundane issues in their communities or have mentors who can help them recognize their potential for impact. This is particularly true for youth from marginalized communities, who may face additional barriers to accessing opportunities while remaining unaware of the implications these issues hold for their futures. More practical barriers like time constraints due to school, work obligations, or geographical barriers may also impede youth from participating in "traditional" activism like attending protests, thereby dissuading them from partaking in activism at all.

"Activism anxiety" is evidently a significant issue, particularly because youth are the most promising combatants of paper waste where it remains a pressing reality: in our schools. According to research I have conducted in the academic setting, the average high school uses up to 4 million sheets of paper--400 trees worth--in a single year. The Reflective Educator estimates that educators in the US use over 47 billion sheets of paper each year (Errera).

Although addressing the irresponsible consumption of paper is hardly a one-step solution, change can start small--starting with us.

As John B. King, the Secretary of Education under President Obama once stated,

“Students anxiety about the environment can be paralyzing. However, students feels less anxious when they feel like they can do something about it”.

A Personal Journey to Environmental Advocacy

It was only following the COVID-19 Pandemic that I became truly cognizant of the implications associated with irresponsible paper consumption. As a student in academia, I have never been a stranger to paper usage. Its use in the academic setting is all-encompassing and pervasive—from class handouts to homework to note-taking. Yet, when our worlds transitioned online, I finally started identifying areas of irresponsible consumption in my own life, through an eye-opening lesson on SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production. To that end, I decided to start advocating for sustainable resource consumption on a local level, creating an advocacy project for SDG on a simple website builder that I thought no one would ever see. Yet, that little website I designed on Wix quickly snowballed into something that I never could have fathomed.

Introducing A Sustainable Future

A Sustainable Future (ASF) is a student-run, nonprofit environmental initiative that focuses on reducing paper consumption within the academic setting by measuring academic paper consumption and suggesting ideas to increase schoolwide sustainability measures.

Although we may be young and relatively small in number, we are committed to doing our part in decreasing the stress of both planet Earth and the demands associated with modern climate advocacy by helping our fellow students overcome their barriers to activism! ASF provides digital resources for students to educate themselves and others on sustainable paper consumption, as well as sustainability programs for students to conduct paper consumption research in their own schools. Originally founded as an advocacy project for SDG 12, ASF has been educating students and communities ever since through the mediums of videos, sustainable recipes, and presentations.

ASF is proud to offer its Sustainability Programs--namely its Paper Consumption Model Program--free-of-charge for all students, which facilitate their educational, social, and personal growth as environmental advocates. Although it is still in its early stages of piloting, ASF’s Paper Consumption Program should not only introduce students to academic research, but also the analysis of large-scale data through fundamental machine learning and statistical techniques, real-world presentation and public skills, and critical community outreach tactics to raise awareness on sustainable paper consumption. Upon completion of the program, students will have created a customized paper budgeting plan for their schools based on data they've collected through their school-based research, thereby helping their schools better gauge their paper consumption and take steps to mitigate extraneous usage. While conducting research, organizing collective action, and pioneering district-level change may intimidate students, ASF offers the skill-building, resources, and experience needed to accomplish this environmental endeavor. Through all of the aforementioned, students understand their own agency, their potential for impact, and their ability to organize collective action for sustainable paper consumption.

As part of the Paper Consumption program, students not only engage in hands-on environmental advocacy but also contribute valuable data to ASF’s national Paper Consumption Model for schools.

ASF's Paper Consumption Model is an innovative statistical tool that is integrated into the ASF App, which uses a school’s inputted factors--departments of interest, faculty member per specified department, average weekly faculty usage, and month--and outputs monthly, yearly paper consumption and inking cost estimates, comparisons of the school’s consumption to an environmentally-conscious school’s, a paper budgeting plan with recommended purchase amounts, and recommendations for mindful integrations of sustainable paper consumption practices in schools. Trained nationally on data collected from the academic setting, ASF’s Paper Consumption Model utilizes regression modeling to create a customizable consumption plan for schools, tailored towards sustainable and cost-effective decisions regarding paper expenditures and printing practices.

‣ To read more on the paper consumption model, click here.
‣ To watch a demonstration of the model in use and the process behind its creation, click here.
‣ To access the paper consumption model prototype, click here.

What Can You(th) Do?

Of course, “starting an organization” is certainly not a requirement to be an “activist”; after all, I was hardly expecting anything to come out of my simple advocacy project for SDG 12. Nonetheless, the first step forwards is still a daunting step for many youths to take, who may feel paralyzed by “Activism Anxiety”

When I consulted the internet in search of viable solutions to this phenomenon called “Acitivsm Anxiety”, I more or less kept on seeing the same sentiment (summarized below):

To address these challenges and increase youth engagement in activism, it is important to create opportunities for young people to learn about social, environmental, and economic issues and to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to take action. This can include offering workshops, seminars, and training programs, as well as providing resources and support for young activists. Additionally, it is important to create a safe and inclusive environment where young people feel comfortable expressing their opinions and engaging in advocacy and activism. Finally, it is essential to recognize and celebrate the contributions of young activists and provide opportunities for them to lead and take ownership of social change initiatives.

While what the internet prescribes is perfectly sound and seems moderately reasonable, it still doesn’t act as a convincing-enough catalyst for young people to feel engaged and become interested in making a difference in their communities.

The breadth of words can only convey so much, for youth must be able to see the tangible differences they are able to make through their actions: the bright faces of students they empower; the emptied paper waste bins at the second homes they call schools; the people and places they can impact.

Allow this article to be your catalyst–that first step into imagining what is possible. For all my future student activists out there, do not be afraid to take that first step. If you see something that you think is an issue and feel passionate about rectifying that issue, go for it! As cliche as it is, everyone is capable of inciting change in their own ways. Join local clubs or community groups who are passionate about the same issues you are, or start small and simply educate the people in your lives about this issue.

Whether it’s the climate movement or the movement for abortive rights, raising awareness and being an advocate for those who cannot speak is one of the most important things you can do.

Identify both a problem and an area of your passion–it doesn’t matter whether it's combining gender inequity by writing fanfiction in your bedroom or designing a videogame that simulates the lives of the unseen–start dreaming, planning, and seeing. See the future you can create if you try.

Please note that this article was adapted from the original publication to Inspirit AI's Student Blog. Read the original publication here:


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