“Happy” Earth Day? Here’s What Young People Think

Three Millennials and ten members of Gen Z share scorching, optimistic, and skeptical thoughts about their future and the future of the planet.

a NASA composite image of the Earth viewed from space with sun shining on the entire half shown

Some Millennials and Gen Zers see Earth Day as silly, a distraction, a way to ignore real problems, or a corporate ploy.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. License: CC BY 2.0.
When I was a kid in the ’80s, the constant threat of nuclear apocalypse kept my friends and me up at night. At the same time, the probability of full-scale thermonuclear warfare was small. So we kids put our trust in the adults in power and forgot about it most of the time. Anxious nights aside, we listened to Casey Kasem on Sundays, spent our pocket change on candy cigarettes at the Quik Chek, and applauded in the movie theater when ChatGPT’s distant ancestor in War Games told its creator, “The only winning move is not to play.”

But earlier this year, the Doomsday Clock—which originally signaled our proximity to the threat of atomic armageddon and now incorporates other indicators, including climate change—got closer than it’s ever been to metaphorical midnight.

An unusual Earth Day editorial

Now Earth Day is coming. As a human, a mother, and an environmentalist, I cherish the history of Earth Day, which began as a 20-million-person protest of industrial pollution. (BuildingGreen’s founder, Alex Wilson, was even the Earth Day organizer at his junior high in 1970.)

As a lifelong cynic, though, I roll my eyes at the current Earth Day organization’s social media kit, whose pre-written posts you—or your marketing intern—can copy and paste into your feed of choice.

But instead of subjecting you to middle-aged cynicism, I decided to give the mic to people for whom the threat of mass destruction has a much higher probability than the Cold War ever did. In fact, that destruction is already well under way.

Thirteen young people responded to my online poll, which asked seven open-ended questions. Here’s what they had to say.

Earth’s one, puny, co-opted day

“Earth Day feels a little silly to me,” wrote one respondent, born in 1991. “I understand and appreciate its origins and am sure some organizations approach it in a sincere way, but it mostly seems like an opportunity for companies to self-promote and greenwash,” she added. “I also just think we should be past the point of needing a designated day to talk about the environment and climate change.”

Amanda Farman, who is a Millennial and BuildingGreen’s new peer networks administrator, started with the positives: “I love that there is a day for the Earth,” they said. “It deserves celebrating and needs our attention!” But, they went on, “I think that learning about the climate crisis and reflecting on what you can do to help is something that needs to happen more than once a year.”

“I don’t always like when something that should always be addressed and acknowledged is given a day,” agreed Faith Lynn Bassett, born in 2004. “It makes it feel like it’s being relegated to somewhere it can be ignored.”

Benson was born in 2004 and goes to college in North Carolina. Earth Day is a nice idea for school kids, he said, but adults need to take direct action. “From how fast the Earth is deteriorating, we need fast legislation that’s pretty much effective immediately if we want to save anything,” he wrote.

“I've never seen [Earth Day] come with any specific change that helps the planet,” concluded an anonymous respondent born in 2000.

But first-year medical student Jason Nagourney, born in 1999, was more optimistic: “Earth Day is another day in which we can advocate for harm reduction for our pending climate crisis, including reducing fossil fuels, increasing our electrical capacities and making it easier to live in a less polluted planet.”

And Amber McFerren was downright excited, calling Earth Day “a fun celebration of the world that we have!”

Two respondents simply wrote, “Ambivalent.”

Another, born in 2004, also used the word “ambivalent” but elaborated as well. “All these holidays feel like just more excuses for corporations to advertise their limited-edition products or at least get in some nice, shiny cause marketing,” they said. “If a way of making the world better is seen as profitable, I am skeptical of its efficacy.”

Young people are very, very worried

Regarding what environmental issues they were most worried about, this same respondent had a heartbreakingly eloquent answer. “I look into my future, and I see the death of everything and everyone I love,” they said. “We are engaged in a war between ourselves and the things we have created, and every day I look around myself, and I see us losing.”

Farman had trouble choosing which environmental issues troubled them most but took the opportunity to talk about marine ecosystems. “I’m worried that the ocean is out of sight, and so people won’t feel the impact of what’s happening to it (and to all of us on land, since we depend on it to exist) until it’s too late,” they wrote.

Noting that it’s impossible to separate major environmental issues from one another, an anonymous respondent asked what happens when large parts of the planet become uninhabitable for humans—and what that will mean for the most vulnerable. “Will the region I live in be safe in 50 years? Will my parents’ house be washed away?” she asked. “And on a larger scale (rather than my personal fears), I’m most concerned about the implications for equity as climate change progresses.”

“All of them,” echoed another person, who then also talked about climate impacts. “My friends in the west live through their summers with a constant haze of wildfire smoke. My extended family in Puerto Rico are hammered by hurricanes that are getting more severe with every passing year,” they said. “I see drought, flood, and famine on the horizon. And horrifically deadly chemicals keep getting spilled into our water and the air we breathe. These are all existential threats to life on Earth.” Meanwhile, they were skeptical of solutions like solar geoengineering: “Pollution can be cleaned, but cooling an entire atmosphere (without the use of Bill Gates’s stupid global lampshade idea that would cause global famine) is insanely difficult.”

“Climate change climate change climate change,” wrote Nagourney. “If the answer isn't climate change, then you are not worried enough about it.”

Another respondent, born in 1998, who goes to New York University (NYU), added, “We can do better—we are smarter than burning everything to generate steam to turn a turbine—and as a human with a brain, we should be doing better. We should be using our brains for something that matches our own complexity.”

Some young people have hope. Some don’t.

“I’m not sure. I genuinely do not know,” wrote medical student Thomas Pawlowski, born in 1998, in response to the prompt, “What environmental issue or issues do you feel most hopeful about? Why?”

Others, but not all, were more optimistic, especially about technology. “Alternative fuel for cars, as hybrids and electric cars are becoming much more affordable,” said McFerren, while Nagourney pointed to “the exponential decrease in the price of renewable energy, battery creation, and the electrification of our economy.” And Daniel Ridlehoover, born in 1986, added, “Energy. Our current battery tech seems to be slightly preferable to our petro-options, but I think we’ve identified that burning rare resources for energy is not wise.”

Two respondents looked to past global cooperation as a source of hope. “The one environmental issue that really gets me hopeful is the hole in the ozone layer, which is slowly but surely fixing itself due to the quick work of banning bad chemicals from being used,” noted Benson. Another anonymous user joined him in celebrating that accomplishment, while others looked to the future of the planet—perhaps even without humanity’s destruction in play anymore.

As one respondent put it, with humans out of the picture, “Life, as always, will find a way back.”

Young adults have written off the rest of us

Things got a bit salty when I invited young people to speak to their elders.

“For those in power, who are willfully preventing meaningful and equitable climate action: move over,” wrote one person in response to the question, “What is your message for older generations?”

“You do not know everything,” insisted Bassett. “Your age gives you no wisdom, only habits you need to break.”

Another simply wrote, “I wish you would listen.”

Benson was more loquacious: “Why are you fighting this effort to protect the Earth?” he asked. “Even if you might not see this planet’s environment degrade, why must you be so ignorant of the issue? Your younger peers, your kids, your grandkids, their grandkids will have to live in this cesspool of environmental death and decay that your generations created in the name of profit. I just don’t get it. I’m sure it’s not every person [who is] part of the older generation doing this, but to create a bleak future for these people is just ... downright awful.”

Another had a similar, if more succinct message: “You f*cked up and sentenced your descendants to hell on Earth.”

“You all enjoyed the fruits of environmentally harmful technologies and benefits and are now asking us to pay for—and make sacrifices for—their repair,” said Nagourney.

“I do not and will never forgive you,” said another respondent. “But I understand.”

To today’s kids: “Choose love”

Invited to speak to their juniors, the respondents were kinder, encouraging action rather than pointless anger.

“Fight harder than we have because the consequences will hit you even harder than it will us,” said Pawlowski. Similar advice took on a slightly more revolutionary cast in the words of another respondent. “Fight like hell to fix what your forebears destroyed, and if you can’t succeed, burn it all down,” they wrote.

The NYU student, rather more hopefully, encouraged solidarity and collaboration, simply writing, “Let’s get it.”

“Future generations will have to reimagine so many things, let go of a lot that our society has come to expect, and adapt to a new climate,” said another respondent. “It will take immense open-mindedness, humility, and cooperation.”

“We’re all in a really terrible spot,” another person agreed. “We don’t have the option to be complacent or to live peaceful, stress-free lives. We don’t have the option to continue in our parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps, or to experience their prosperity,” they continued. “We will always, though, have the option to love, and to fight. I say we choose that. Choose love. Choose to fight. This is it. It is now or never.”

 bar chart showing birth years from 1986 to 2004 on the x axis and hope level from 1 to 10 on the y axis.

These data are limited and unscientifically gathered, but it’s interesting to note that the average “hope” score for respondents born before the turn of the century was 6.67, while the average for those born between 2000 and 2004 was 4.71 (despite one extremely optimistic person).

Source: BuildingGreen, Inc.

Fighting, clawing, depressed

Twelve of the thirteen young people hadn’t previously seen the AR6 Synthesis Report recently released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a document some scientists have tried to frame as a “message of action rather than despair,” according to The Guardian’s Fiona Harvey.

Nagourney alone was familiar with the report, and he took away a very different message: “2.5°C is no longer viable,” he argued. “We have to fight and claw to stay under 3.0°C.”

Another person took a look at the document and said, “From what I’ve read, the report is fairly hopeful in its offering of pragmatic solutions to prevent the most dire consequences of climate change.” But, she added, “I just can’t imagine the world will get it together to actually take the action required. So I feel depressed about it.”

Not holding their breath

Global heating is not the only peril young people face. There’s also the sixth mass extinction, which has already begun, and not all of it is attributable to climate change. Only Nagourney was already familiar with the UN’s COP15 and the resultant biodiversity framework, and he was pessimistic about it: “It is a small step for an organization that has no teeth to really enforce anything,” he said. “I do not hold my breath on any UN plan for action for anything.”

The same person who looked at the IPCC report also clicked through to this one, noting, “From my high-level perusal, this agreement looks amazing, and I would love to see it come to fruition. But again, I’m just skeptical that we can pull it together to get it done.”

What this survey taught me

I’m still processing how I feel about these answers.

One small takeaway—keeping the very limited and unscientifically gathered data in mind—is that the respondents who reported feeling more hopeful tended to be older. But none of these younger adults, except perhaps the one who marked her hope level as 10 (that end of the spectrum described the future as “so bright I’ve gotta wear shades”), sounded particularly positive in their answers. Even that person recognized that “overheating of the earth and subsequent flooding will destroy many communities and ecosystems.”

Perhaps what I learned is that these people, or some of them anyway, have some optimism despite knowing what’s in store for their future. As Nagourney put it, “Pessimism and apathy are a privilege that we cannot afford right now.”

Let’s get it.

Published April 21, 2023

Melton, P. (2023, April 21). “Happy” Earth Day? Here’s What Young People Think. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/op-ed/happy-earth-day-here-s-what-young-people-think

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April 25, 2023 - 8:13 am

Thank you for this. Brilliant idea, courageous reporting. I've thought a lot about environmental hope in recent years. With a wonderful team of undergrad and grad students, we're producing a podcast called "Building Hope" that features environmentally visionary architecture projects designed for master's thesis. After all our conversations about bringing a new vision to work as entry-level architects, none of these comments surprised me. There's so much to learn as a newly-minted architect working in a firm, but to my mind one of their greatest assets is not knowing all the old, status-quo ways of doing things. They can question everything. They can share the research from their thesis projects and ask, why don't we do it this way? Indeed, action leads to hope and not the other way around.

April 25, 2023 - 9:58 am

I think that is so true, Julie! I wonder how much of the age breakdown in the chart is because older young people have started to have careers that feel like positive action.