It’s hard for the olds to overestimate just how scared young people are about climate change. I’ve had many students say that can’t imagine having children in the future because why would they bring kids into an uninhabitable world. That doesn’t mean they are giving up. It means that they have no faith in the olds to do anything about it. And really, why would they?
“Once you learn how damaged the world’s ecosystems are, it’s not really something you can unsee,” says Rachel Larrivee, 23, a sustainability consultant based in Boston. “To me, there’s no point in pursuing a career – or life for that matter – in any other area.”
Larrivee is one of countless members of Gen Z, a generation that roughly encompasses young people under 25, who are responding to the planet’s rapidly changing climate by committing their lives to finding a solution. Survey after survey shows young people are not just incorporating new climate-conscious behaviors into their day-to-day lives – they’re in it for the long haul. College administrators say surging numbers of students are pursuing environmental-related degrees and careers that were once considered irresponsible, romantic flights of fancy compared to more “stable” paths like business, medicine, or law.
“I cannot imagine a career that isn’t connected to even just being a small part of a solution,” says Mimi Ausland, 25, the founder of Free the Ocean, a company that aims to leverage small actions to remove plastic from the ocean.
Democrats in Washington hope to channel this energy through the proposed Civilian Climate Corps, a federal jobs program for young people to help fight the climate crisis and conserve public lands. While funding for the New Deal-inspired program is tied up in budget negotiations on Capitol Hill, youth activists say they hope it would help kids fresh out of high school land environmental-related jobs.
“The Civilian Climate Corps would actually allow a lot of young people to have a direct pipeline to these careers,” says Matt Ellis-Ramirez, 22, a Chicago-based volunteer for the youth-led environmental activist organization the Sunrise Movement.
Young people are finding their way to these careers, though, with or without the federal government’s support. Brooke Hoese, a 24-year-old undergraduate in Texas pursuing a career in restoration ecology, is taking an interdisciplinary approach. They spent the summer working on a farm that practices regenerative agriculture, a method to restore soil biodiversity, to contribute toward an integrative studies degree involving ecology, literature, and philosophy.
“My goal is to use the lens of literature and philosophy to study and hopefully help repair humans’ relationship to our environments,” they say.
College campuses across the country are now finding new ways to help students like Hoese integrate climate studies across various disciplines. The University of Southern California in Los Angeles, for example, launched the Sustainability Across the Curriculum program earlier this year to teach the college’s 20,000 undergraduate students how their majors intersect with sustainability and the environment.
You have to start somewhere. And this is good. It’s hard to see enough happening to mitigate the worst parts of climate change, which are getting not only measurably worse by the end, but experientially worse, like even regular people can tell. That’s….not good. But again, you have to start somewhere.