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29 November 2022

Climate Apathy in The Age of No Hope: Confessions from a guilty environmentalist 

GENEVIEVE STEVENS

Before the age of fourteen I didn’t care much for the climate.

 

Climate change, if I ever thought about it at all, was for the people from GreenPeace who came door-to-door with flyers about whaling, or the people my out of touch relatives called “radicals”. When I was fifteen, all that changed. It only took six minutes and two seconds to persuade me that climate change was the single biggest threat to face my generation. I remember it clearly: my religious studies teacher showed us a video by the American rapper Prince Ea called “Sorry”. It is an urgent appeal, explaining why caring about the environment is the single most important thing we can do. Watching it back, the market now saturated with emotionally charged climate rhetoric, the video seems somewhat simplistic. But at the time, in my Year Eight classroom, it was the single most  affecting video I had ever seen. I became vegetarian almost overnight, dyed my hair peroxide blonde and stopped shaving my legs. My parents looked on with a mix of horror, disbelief and carefully concealed pride. 

I can hardly call myself a bona fide climate activist, but since being at university I’ve been an active member in several climate groups: Extinction Rebellion, People and Planet, Edinburgh Youth Resistance. I have attended countless marches, participated in die-ins, climate share circles, teach-ins, eco-craftivism, and endless flyering. I used a keep-cup religiously and would walk home from Lidl balancing week's loads of groceries in my arms when I forgot my bag for life. I even had my obligatory vegan era. And now, in fourth year I find myself, with shame, buying a cappuccino in the library café from a disposable cup. And you know what’s worse? I don’t even feel that bad about it. And so, sitting in the library nursing my overpriced coffee, I find myself wondering what has changed.

Eight months ago, I moved to Australia for my semester abroad. Endless sunshine, road trips and weekend’s surfing on the East Coast. Perhaps what made it so idyllic, was that I was only there for a short time. Long enough to familiarise myself with the countless coffee shops, the city’s parks and the Aussie slang, but not long enough to feel any kind of real political connection to the place. I was vaguely aware of Melbourne politics through casual conversations at the pub, I knew to be performatively happy when Labour won the general election halfway through my stay. But I didn’t feel invested in a wider political system, I consumed the news passively, aware that I sat just outside of the system. 

What’s more, I had left behind the carefully cultivated friends I’d made back home, the climate allies who inspired me to be better, who held me accountable when I veered off course, who taught me how to re-patch clothes and make vegan carbonara from cashew nuts. In this new city I was surrounded for the first time by people who didn’t really care. Suddenly, I was painfully aware of the political echo chamber I existed in back home. These people ate red meat, sometimes twice a day, drove SUVs and chose flights over trains because “it’s cheaper, duh!”. At first I was horrified, I couldn’t compute how these people lived, consuming with wild abandon whilst me and my friends painstakingly calculated the different environmental implications of every plant-based milk. I was overwhelmed by the ridiculous injustice of it all. I guess it’s true what they say, ignorance really is bliss.  

 And so, as the weeks rolled on, I became increasingly apathetic. Climate concerns were replaced with worrying about where we’d camp on our next weekend away or if I’d ever catch a glimpse of an illusive koala. Sure, I continued to recycle, I took the 16 hour train to Sydney instead of flying, but on this six month adventure around the world, my climate anxiety diminished, warnings of climate collapse reduced to a distant memory. Without the networks of like minded individuals, it was easy to simply drift, swept up in the overwhelming ease of  forgetting it all. 

And if I thought returning to the UK would kickstart my climate enthusiasm, I was sorely mistaken. Arriving back in Edinburgh after so long away only propelled me further into a state of disillusionment. A fractured Conservative government, talk of a global energy crisis and a rampant housing crisis. The ever-increasing list of more pressing concerns shunted climate politics firmly to the bottom of my agenda. And what’s more, everything just seemed so goddamn depressing. It was hard to find the strength to get up, let alone to care. 

In this age of gloom and doom I found it hard to visualise myself with a future. 

 

Making long term goals seemed futile when I struggled to conceive of a world ten years from now. With so much uncertainty, the idea of committing myself to a career path seemed hopeless. When friends asked me what I planned to do after uni, I would coyly reply “there’s no point in getting a job, don't you know the world is ending?”. I made plans in yearly intervals, overwhelmed by the prospect of planning ahead. And so, I committed myself to a few months of climate nihilism. All hope was lost, what was the point in even trying?

And it is in this state of climate cynicism that I find myself sipping a £3.20 latte out of a Styrofoam cup with not a care in the world. Life as we know it is ending, let me caffeinate in peace before we watch the world burn. 

And who can blame me for feeling this way when year on year global climate rhetoric only becomes increasingly depressing? Bushfires, hurricanes, Jeffrey Bezos pissing carbon into the stratosphere. An endless tirade of statistics, climate sceptics and natural disasters. I can’t help but think back to last year’s COP-26 summit in Glasgow, an event I attended for two days, marching in the rain with my friends. I was unbelievably proud to be there, endlessly humbled by the groups of young people fighting for a future they believed in. People from all walks of life marching with a common aim, a universal wish for a better future. Yet, despite it all, the event was little more than a farce; promises to “phase out” coal were replaced with a frustratingly ambiguous “phase down” and commitments to 1.5 degrees were largely abandoned. Tens of thousands of people mobilised in climate solidarity, and for what?

Reflecting on my newfound apathy, I've realised that not caring about the climate has been fun.

 

I worry less and have lots more free time. I am rarely consumed by guilt and book inexpensive mini breaks to Europe. Climate denial is glamorous and ever so sexy. It is Aperol spritzes on balconies on weekends away, it is steak dinners and a new outfit at Christmas. Giving a shit about the climate is anything but. It is long, expensive bus rides, struggles with Mooncups in public loos and staycations in the rain. And here lies the problem. Who would want the latter when the former is just so damn irresistible?

Caring about the climate needs a rebrand. Because surely there’s nothing hotter than fighting tooth and nail for a future you believe in? Until we change our attitudes towards climate change, who can blame people for taking the easy route out? Let’s make giving a shit unbelievably sexy. Because since when has ignorance been so hot? 

And so, after a yearlong hiatus I’m committing myself back to the cause. A cause that I’m ashamed to say I ever abandoned at all. Because climate denial is anything but glamorous, it is an excuse for inaction, a wilful ignorance in exchange for an easy life, it is passing the blame and admitting defeat. It is so easy to check out when there is no one holding you accountable, when your efforts feel futile, and all hope seems lost. But hope is all we have. Hope is the only thing that stands in the way of us and climate collapse. And so, with pleasure, I am waving goodbye to my climate apathy. Because now is not the time to give up, now more than ever we must find it within ourselves to look past the doom and gloom. To find the glimpse of hope that may make it all worthwhile. Because surely there is nothing hotter than giving a shit?

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