How Community Activism Is Saving Me From My Climate Despair

Written by Jessie Van Amburg

Finding optimism has motivated me to fight like hell to protect the planet.

As a Girl Scout, I learned to always leave a place nicer than I found it. During my days as a troop member, the maxim primarily applied to camping sites, but now, as an adult, it feels relevant on a much larger scale. Being mindful of those who come after you, and ensuring that you leave a world for them to enjoy, seems like a big part of being a human being. 

As an adult, though, the “Girl Scout Way” has long felt inaccessible in that broader application. Thanks to the human-made climate crisis, the global temperature is rising, glaciers and ice sheets are shrinking, and so-called “once in a lifetime” storms seem to happen on a regular basis. Yet most days, it feels like the people in charge—officials we vote into office to govern such matters—aren’t doing anything to stop it. Frustration related to this inaction used to keep me up at night, grinding my teeth, and doomscrolling through my newsfeed. If the most powerful people in the world don’t care, I thought, or can’t get anything done, then what hope do the rest of us have on our own? 

I’m not alone in my climate anxiety, also called ecoanxiety—a concept that was popularized in the early ‘90s—which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.” A 2021 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that 59 percent of people aged 16 to 25 around the globe were “very or extremely worried” about climate change. And a survey conducted by the APA in 2020 found that 67 percent of U.S. respondents were “extremely or somewhat anxious” about the impact of climate change.

“[Feeling this way] is normal,” says Robert Feder, MD, a psychiatrist, member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, and the APA representative to the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. “People are very concerned about [climate change] and worried about their futures and the futures of their family and the world in general.” He stresses that climate anxiety is not an illness or disorder, but rather a healthy reaction to the state of the world.

Unfortunately, this worry can cause many of the hallmark symptoms of an anxiety disorder, like panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath, and ruminating thoughts. If left unaddressed, Dr. Feder says a person’s climate anxiety can develop into depression, causing feelings of hopelessness and despair. That rang true for me—until last summer. 

Photo / Jackson Van Amburg

My climate activism origin story

My perspective started to change last July when I got a message from my friend Veekas: “We’re starting a climate justice group!” he shared in our group chat with other friends. “If you’re interested in learning more, come to our house on Wednesday evening!” I had never been involved in any kind of community organizing before. But what could it hurt to go try? 

The icebreaker activity at that first meeting—which consisted of about 15 people gathered on Veekas’s back porch—was to share what brought you there today. I felt a little bit like I was back in Girl Scouts as we went around in a circle, talking, one by one, about our fears for the planet, our collective disdain of Senator Joe Manchin (who at the time, had just tanked a huge spending bill because it contained provisions for fighting climate change), and our desire for a better world. 

I’m tired of standing on the sidelines and feeling powerless. I want to do something with this anger.

“I’m angry,” I said when it was my turn. “I’m tired of standing on the sidelines and feeling powerless. I want to do something with this anger.” A chorus of nods and snaps greeted me from the rest of the group. For the first time in a long time, I felt a little bit lighter. I’m not alone

In subsequent weeks, our little group evolved rapidly. We named ourselves—Beacon Climate Action Now (BCAN), since most of us were based in Beacon, New York—and settled on our core mission as a politically engaged, progressive group centering climate justice and community care. 

We sketched out visions of a green future on the back of old pieces of poster board, welcomed in dozens of new members, and debated about the focus of our first campaign. By August, we landed on the answer: Petitioning the city of Beacon to pass legislation that would ban fossil-fuel hookups in new construction. Thirty percent of New York’s carbon emissions come from buildings, so by ending fossil-fuel use in new buildings, we’d significantly cut back on future state emissions.

From there, we mobilized. I knocked on neighbors’ doors in 90℉ heat to try and get petition signatures, I led a smaller committee to put together fact sheets about natural gas, and I talked to community members at the farmers’ market about our campaign. I was suddenly spending my weekends canvassing or brainstorming strategy with my friends over walks by the river. But it didn’t feel like work. It was fun. 

Photo / Jackson Van Amburg

Engaging in climate activism single-handedly transformed my outlook on this existential issue—and it currently helps me better manage my anxiety around it all. I can’t pinpoint exactly when the shift happened, but I’m grateful for it. 

This outcome didn’t surprise Dr. Feder, who wrote a research-based guide for therapists in 2022 to help people with climate anxiety. “One of the primary things that people ended up reporting about as being helpful was getting involved in some sort of purposeful action to make a difference,” he says. 

The “why” is multifaceted, though. For starters, doing this work has connected me to experts and advocates who have taught me about the solutions alongside the vast problems that previously felt insurmountable to me. 

Basically, I’ve learned that the climate crisis is not a “closed case,” as Dr. Feder puts it. “We try to help [people] see that the situation is probably not as catastrophic as they’re seeing it,” he says, “that there are things that are happening that are good.” In my case, better understanding the fixes—like electrification and regenerative agriculture, to name a few—makes the huge crisis seem a bit more approachable, and gives me some hope for the future.

Being a member of BCAN has also helped me feel less isolated, which Dr. Feder says is a critical part of addressing climate anxiety. My husband and I didn’t know anyone when we moved from Brooklyn to Beacon in 2020. Joining the group has not only introduced me to so many new friends, but also provided us a natural outlet to hang out and connect with each other. That social support alone is crucial for my mental health. “The fact that you're working together on something with an endpoint goal involves an inherent hope,” adds Dr. Feder. Hope, he says, is kryptonite to climate anxiety.

And wow, is hope powerful. In October, BCAN organized a free festival to support our campaign. We had live music, performed by group members; a raffle with prizes donated by local businesses; a climate-themed story hour for kids; and an interactive trivia game to educate folks about the benefits of gas-free buildings. It was so much work to pull together, with very little lead time, and absolutely no money. But seeing hundreds of people show up on that beautiful fall day completely took my breath away. People actually wanted to turn out and make change on a scary issue—and we showed them it could be fun and healing to do so. I rode the high I felt following the event for weeks. 

Breaking down my feelings of climate anxiety further were the tangible results to our efforts we were seeing. At the end of March, our city council unanimously passed one of the most ambitious municipal electrification bills in the nation, banning fossil fuels in new construction and major renovations starting in 2024. That bill started as a mere idea in my friend’s backyard, and was championed by a group of 50 volunteers, many of whom had no prior organizing experience. It might also help push the state to pass its own version, making the impact on state-wide emissions even greater. If that’s not proof of the power of collective action, I don’t know what is.

How to start sparking change (and quieting your climate anxiety)

If this all sounds appealing to you (and I hope it does), there are a few places where you can start getting involved. 

First, look up local chapters of national organizations that you like and see if they have meetings you can join. Some great options include Food and Water Watch (which focuses on safe food and water), the Climate Justice Alliance (which centers addressing inequality), Sunrise Movement (which is geared toward young people) and (which targets the fossil fuel industry). 

There may also be independent groups in your area more targeted to your community’s needs. Examples include LA Forward Action and East Yard Communities in Los Angeles, We Act or NYC Environmental Justice Alliance in New York City, or regional organizations like Midwest Environmental Justice Network or the Southeast Climate and Energy Network. Other groups also focus on specific populations most affected by the climate crisis, like the Indigenous Climate Resilience Network and the National Black Environmental Justice Network

Educate yourself about what your city government offers in the realm of climate activism, such as climate-themed community forums or committees focused on environmental policy ideas. Attending city council meetings could be a good starting point to see what’s in progress (if anything) and where there might be opportunities to contribute or make change. 

Photo / Veekas Ashoka

If you’re not finding an existing group doing what you’d like to do in your community, you could always gather with friends and acquaintances and build your group from the ground up. You might be surprised what you can accomplish. Take BCAN, which now boasts over 50 members and is crafting a climate-justice policy platform and endorsement process for this year’s municipal elections. We also recently joined New York Renews, a coalition of hundreds of smaller climate justice groups, in order to tap into and support larger state-wide initiatives. 

Even Dr. Feder has taken to activism to address his own eco-anxiety as a member of groups including 350NH (the New Hampshire affiliate of 350) and No Coal No Gas. Organizing with others to take action on the climate crisis has “basically given me a feeling that there are ways of intervening in the situation that have possibilities for success,” he says. “[Organizing] gives you a sense of real action about it.” 

Yes, I am very aware that it will be a long fight to make the changes that need to be made. And yes, there are days where caring about the Earth—and climate justice—feels like you're chipping away at a boulder with a toothpick while everyone else denies that the boulder is even that big. 

But ultimately, I am choosing to have faith in a better world rather than accepting the fate that seemingly has been handed to us through decades of inaction. Being optimistic about that fate motivates me to fight like hell to protect my future and that of everyone I love—even on the most difficult, frustrating days. So if you’re overwhelmed thinking about how to leave the world a better place, take this step with me. You’re not alone.

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