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

Written by Carolyn He, Founder of ASF

The Issue At Hand

The title of this article is slightly misleading: yes, this article will discuss 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 us, but first, we must address another issue.

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 pollution (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 cultural, economic, or political factors.

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.

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