Not all young people are Greta Thunberg, and those who aspire to be are still struggling

Not all young people are Greta Thunberg, and those who aspire to be are still struggling

Greta Thunberg, Camille Étienne, these teenagers from Montana who asserted their right to "a healthy environment" during a lawsuit against their state... Medianly, the figures of young people committed against climate change are omnipresent. To encompass all these different figures of activism, the sometimes abusive name "Climate Generation" may have led us to believe that young people were generally committed against climate change. So what is it? Is there really a Greta Thunberg inside every teenager? Nothing is less sure.

An investigation conducted among a representative sample of the French population allows us to set the record straight: young people are in reality not that different from the rest of the population. If 74% of French people say they feel "they have to act to protect the environment", this figure is 75% among 15-24 year olds.

Young people, barely more concerned about the environment than the rest of the population. Provided by the author

But when we probe responsibility for climate change, the gap between the young age group and the general population widens: 46% of French people say they feel responsible for the state of the planet. A figure which rises to 59% among 15-24 year olds. Behind this declaration lies another preconceived idea that we were able to deconstruct through the series of interviews conducted: if the term "eco-anxiety" has become very popular in the media to describe the anxiety of these young people committed against climate change, these In reality, young activists mainly express anger, often shame, and can sometimes risk exhaustion or depression. Because the transformation of their commitment into action faces numerous obstacles, particularly economic, and the public display of their conviction remains difficult vis-à-vis their peers.

Shame of belonging to a society that is destroying the planet

The first companions of young people wishing to commit to the climate often remain shame and guilt. Feelings which, as we will see, are led to change in objects but not in nature. The initial shame that many dwell on is that of belonging to a society that they describe as polluting, capitalist, even colonial. And it is in particular the desire to distinguish themselves from a group to which they feel they belong by default, in contradiction with their personal value of protecting nature, which often explains their decision to get involved.

But entering the commitment process does not make this feeling of shame disappear. This one just moves around. Because the unpleasant confrontation with the gaze of those who make fun of ecology or who no longer want to hear about it is not uncommon. Insults are also legion, whether online or offline.

The school setting is not exempt, as shown by a new study on eco-delegates carried out by Florine Gonzalez. Indeed, if some eco-delegates experience their status as an opportunity to assert their sensitivities, others have described being the laughing stock of their comrade for this, some even experienced it as a punishment.

Shame of not assuming the green label and concealment strategies

In other words, if these young people find allies within certain groups they belong to, the diversity of the people they encounter on a daily basis leads them sooner or later to undergo moments of adversity, even confrontation, that some live with more or less difficulty. The shame of initial belonging is then replaced by the shame of the degraded label of “green”. Taking on the identity of a young person committed to ecology is therefore not obvious. whether facing strangers but also those close to you. An 18-year-old girl involved in the Youth for Climate movement confessed, for example:

"At certain times, I say nothing, I let it slide, I don't talk about it because I know it will create conflicts, I know the person will perhaps make fun, and then it will annoy me. "

A little girl alone in a classroom, her head in her hands
In an environment that is sometimes much less concerned about climate change than they are, young people can have difficulty accepting their ecological beliefs. Tom Wang/Shutterstock

On social networks, sometimes wrongly considered the favorite terrain of young people, the ostentatious display of convictions is also not always welcome or even the preferred option of young climate activists. The latter often find themselves using several accounts in parallel: some to discuss environmental issues, while other profiles will never be the means of sharing ecological values ​​as shown Mathias Przygoda in his doctoral work.

There is perhaps also a risk of stigmatization in relation to our professional life […]. It's true that I've already asked myself: "Will what I share on social networks influence people who will look at my Facebook? And who will say to themselves: 'Ah yes, eco-friendly, who has 'looks a little radical, it's dangerous, I'm not really going to take her on my team.' " (Marie-Louise, 18 years old)

This is just one example of a concealment strategy. They testify to obstacles encountered, sometimes revealed experiences of violence against them that young people now want to avoid. They also constitute means of ensuring that certain scenes of social life escape the need to argue and defend themselves, again and again, sometimes at the risk of their exasperation, or even their exhaustion.

Nearly one in three young people say they are ashamed to express their opinions on environmental issues. Provided by the author

Shame of not being up to par

Added to this is the pressure to make people lie prejudice which young people are regularly victims of, particularly when they speak out. Publicly exposing one's ecological commitments is not easy for young activists: they have to be convincing in the face of adults who very often consider them condescendingly as "carefree", "dreamers".

A 17-year-old activist, involved in Youth For Climate, confided: "I'm not afraid to defend what I believe in because I think it's true and it's natural, it's just above all a fear of use the language poorly or get the figures wrong. There is really this requirement to be at my best in order to appear credible since already, here I am speaking as an activist at Youth For Climate, there is this double judgment of both by the discourse that is being carried out, that is to say around the climate and social crisis, and the fact that we are young and therefore by being young there is this judgment of: “Ah, immaturity, carelessness!”

Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, attends the European Economic and Social Committee event. Sitting, she is surrounded by adults who are standing
Like Greta Thunberg, young climate activists can often suffer from the condescension they perceive from generations older than them. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

In addition to speaking well and defending their cause well, young activists often find themselves having to prove that their commitment is "authentic", sincere, and that their actions are the only results of their deep convictions, and not of the concern to be notice or come into conflict with their parents. Thus, we must not only act, but show that we are acting in "good faith", sincerely, in line with our values, which induces additional pressure to the extent that a display is not enough. It must be supported, defended, justified and controlled.

The violence of one's own gaze

But if the young activist can succeed in overcoming the shame of his belonging to a polluting society, the shame of stigmatization, a new shame awaits him, the intimate shame of not living up to his own convictions. It is then no longer the view of others that weighs, but rather one's own view which imposes itself on oneself. Everything then potentially lends itself to examining one's ability to respect, at all times, one's values: from the choice of means of transport to hygiene methods, from the consumption of clothing to one's leisure activities... Perhaps a critical examination unending. Finding the limit of one's commitment then becomes necessary work for young people who do not all have the same resources.

Because if some manage to curb their ardor or live up to their activist demands, others will only find a limit in the bodily expression of their discomfort. We are then told of the fatigue felt, even of exhaustion... In addition to worries linked to the future perceived as gloomy, we add worry for our own health, our distress, even warning signs of depression. In other words, everything happens as if the commitment process carries with it the risk of the individual feeling over-responsible in the face of a challenge that is far beyond him.

"We had a lot of pressure on our shoulders to manage all the events, publications and everything. So, that stressed me out more than anything else, because it was a lot of pressure, knowing that when you do your studies, you I also have stuff to hand in for classes, so it was more like that and when you're in an association, it's voluntary, you do all that in your free time [...]. I wouldn't say that it helps me , because it puts extra pressure on me." (Sarah, 21 years old)

From the experience of the limit to the risk to one's health

The climate challenge is certainly global, but the causes for committing to this line are almost innumerable. From defending the rights of women and/or linguistic minorities, to involvement with migrants or LGBT communities, ecological commitment is most often accompanied by a global vision of a society to be improved on several fronts. . Asked about the dwindling of resources, a young 19-year-old activist explained: "It will either create wars, it can also create displacement of populations which will also create xenophobia, and as a result it will be a real mess from a political point of view.

group of protesters holding up a sign that says “eco-anxiety epidemic”
The fight against climate change can sometimes lead to mental health problems such as exhaustion or depressive episodes. JBoucher/Wikimedia, CC BY

This results in a risk of dispersion for young committed people who report the difficulty in choosing among the offers presented to them. Unsurprisingly, there is then the difficult question of the temporality of the commitment. In a connected world, the possibility of continuing to be informed, to exchange ideas, or even to organize events online, permanently, is becoming yet another limit to be defined. All of life can then be colored by commitment, and the question “Am I living up to my own values?” can potentially be asked at any time. Managing the transition from “strong” times to “weak” times is also one of the difficulties to overcome. If the preparation in advance, sometimes for months, of operations with media reach requires energy and a certain constancy, which often intensifies as the event approaches, the "days after" are sometimes difficult when intensity is replaced by vacuum. It is not only necessary to manage the spatial and temporal limits of the commitment but also the rhythm of it.

If commitment has always been mainly perceived positively, it is clear that there is a "hidden side", as the result of contradictions, or even of yet another paradoxical injunction that we impose on the youngest: get on the stage commitment, but at the risk of contempt. Take charge of your future, but at the risk of putting your health at risk... So measures to encourage commitment should now be accompanied by attention to its sometimes unsuspected effects, especially since the eyes of adults often seem aimed at young people, who are expected, more or less explicitly, to "save the world".

Jocelyn Lachance, Teacher-researcher in sociology and lecturer, University of Pau and the Adour region (UPPA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/ 1000 Words

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