To imagine a better future

“What kind of world do you long for?”

I’m sitting in a room full of high school students. We all have construction paper, markers, paint, journals, and other art supplies in front of us in the middle of the floor. A student next to me repeats the question.

“Like, what do I long for in life or for the world?”

“Both,” Jason (Climate Generation’s YEA! MN Coordinator) who’s leading the activity, responds.

We all sit in silence for a moment, then I hear shuffling and marker caps popping as a few people begin to draw and cut and paste and write. I take a breath and close my eyes, trying to imagine something that doesn’t exist yet, hoping something will materialize on the back of my eyelids.

Why is this so hard?

No one had ever asked me this question before.

At least not in a way that they expected me to provide an answer. I’m still amazed that it took this long for me to take some time to think about this. It sounds like such a fundamental question to ask myself to understand how I see the world. What kind of world do I long for? I’m still painting the picture in my head, and it’s been months now since we did this activity.

When I used to think about climate change, or the environment, it was always tangled up in feelings of loss, scarcity, and fear. These negative emotions pushed me to do something to stave off the existential dread of planetary destruction.

When I applied for the Minnesota GreenCorps, they asked me why I care about the environment, what motivates me, or something similar. My answer was (I think) pretty clearly rooted in my fear of what the future could hold. I said something along the lines of “Climate change is the greatest threat to humanity,” and “I’m morally obligated to respond.” For someone so committed to sustainability, it’s ridiculous that I didn’t see how unsustainable this mindset was for me.

Through my service at Climate Generation, I’ve learned that there’s a better way for me to do this work; a way that is rooted in hope and strength.

I remember listening to some of our YEA! MN youth share what they envisioned for the world during that activity.

“We’re using 100% renewable energy.”
“Everyone has housing.”
“There is no police violence.”
“Everyone has clean air and water.”

Sometimes it can be easy to forget that these are the things we’re working towards when we’re constantly inundated with news about disasters and injustices that seem to pull us farther and farther away from them becoming a reality.

I think that’s why it’s so important to be intentional about the stories we tell ourselves. I’d been telling myself a story where the best I could do was work to avoid the bad things. This story was so centered on disaster and so grounded in a feeling of helplessness. No wonder it was so hard for me to imagine a different kind of world.

Now, I try to ground myself in what’s possible. I’m learning to tell myself a different story.

One where my actions make a difference and every day I’m taking a step closer to a world that I would be happy to live in.

I know I’m not the only one who has been stuck in feelings of helplessness and fear. Whether it’s from a direct experience of a climate disaster or even the threat of one, climate change poses serious mental health risks. While many adults have been able to avoid thinking about climate change for much of their lives, youth growing up today do not have that luxury.

Many of the young people I’ve worked with this year have shared their fears about the future with me. This is why it’s so important to focus on what we can and are already doing to create a better future. Centering ourselves around a shared vision isn’t just about team bonding with youth. It’s a way for us to create a community of support that acknowledges those fears, but encourages hope and builds up youth to become more powerful climate leaders.

I have a post-it note on my desk now that asks me every day, “What kind of world do you long for?” It has made a world of difference for me. Maybe it can for you.

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