How 2 Gen Z Climate Leaders Turn Their Eco-Anxiety Into Action: ‘This Isn't a Fad. This Is the Future'

Amy E. Price | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

The climate crisis impacts everyone, and young people feel especially stressed about the warming planet.

In 2021, a global study of 10,000 young people found 45% of those between the ages of 16 and 25 said climate anxiety was affecting their daily lives, and both the United Nations and the American Psychological Association say humans are increasingly at risk of climate change-induced mental health issues.

In a recent conversation at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, tech founder and philanthropist Alexis Ohanian spoke with two Gen Z climate leaders about how they manage their eco-anxiety.

Hope and joy as tools of resilience

Maya Penn, 22, has been a vocal climate activist since she was 8 years old and founded the sustainable fashion brand Maya's Ideas. In the last year, she took part of the 776 Foundation and Fellowship Program launched by Ohanian, where he invests money and resources in Gen Z-led climate initiatives and businesses.

Penn says the biggest way she confronts climate anxiety is by taking action, and her biggest motivator is using hope and joy as tools of resilience. Most recently, Penn says she channels her climate anxiety through art, namely through her first animated short film "Asali: Power of the Pollinators" with executive producer Viola Davis, which comes out in April.

She also stresses the need to tap into Black, Brown and Indigenous communities to measure negative impact as well as seek solutions.

"So many marginalized communities are of course most adversely impacted by environmental issues, but also have so many of the solutions, the tools and the traditional ecological knowledge" to create better alternatives, Penn says. "They just need resources to be able to support and scale that. So I want to see more supporting of those amazing ideas and communities."

She adds that she hopes corporations will take a larger responsibility given their impact on climate change, and says they could take up great conservation efforts by collaborating and open-sourcing their solutions.

"There's this race to cater to this green market and do this and that," Penn says. But "this isn't a niche. This isn't a trend. This isn't a fad. This is the future of both business and nonprofits, and I think it's really important to understand that we will go farther together. This isn't just a marketing opportunity."

We have 'the highest chance of being able to solve' climate change

Rostam Reifschneider, a 2021 MIT grad, is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Hydrova Inc., a company developing circular economy and decarbonization solutions for the aluminum industry.

He says his eco-anxiety comes from not being able to work on everything all at once. "There's a lot more challenges beyond recycling that we're going to need to solve," he says, like policy changes or sweeping cultural shifts to move away from relying on things that contribute to a warming planet.

Taking a step back and being realistic is crucial: "I have to trust that there's a lot of other amazing people out there tackling the other areas," he says.

He also takes a look at the upside as a means of self-preservation. It's easy to get depressed about the state of the climate, he says, but "I get really excited about technology and innovation and the power that we have in our hands today to make change. Right now, we have the most weapons in our arsenal to fight climate change than we ever have before."

"So while the existential threat is the highest it's ever been," Reifschneider continues, "we also have the highest chance of being able to solve that, and that gets me really excited about this."

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