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Moving from eco-anxiety to eco-ambition: our new education imperative

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By Lee Howell

· 8 min read

One of the key concerns among educators during the COVID-19 pandemic was that “children are more susceptible to stress than adults”1 and therefore faced higher risks of developing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression as result of their social isolation. Although we are no longer in the midst of a pandemic, the concern over the mental wellness of young people has not diminished. In fact, we are facing another global crisis that is generating significant stress for young people worldwide: unabated climate change. 

Climate change is hardly new for parents and teachers but there is growing scientific evidence that climate-related distress is weighing heavily on the emotional state of young people globally. The Lancet, a leading peer-reviewed medical journal, published a study in December 2021 showing that a majority (59%) of young people (aged 16-25 years) in ten countries were “very or extremely worried” about climate change2. The results were based on a survey of 10,000 young people (1000 per country). The survey generated considerable news coverage as 75% of the respondents said that they think the future is frightening -- to the extent that 45% also expressed that climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.

It is important to recognize that the survey respondents are not reacting irrationally and in fact, their concerns about their future are scientifically supported. Two months before the Lancet article, a study was published on the meteorological hazards expected to impact future generations as a result of climate change in Science Magazine, a peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The article estimated “that children born in 2020 will experience a two- to sevenfold increase in extreme events, particularly heat waves, compared with people born in 1960, under current climate policy pledges. Our results highlight a severe threat to the safety of young generations and call for drastic emission reductions to safeguard their future.”3 The authors highlighted the intergenerational inequities in exposure to climate extremes and called “for ambitious mitigation to improve intergenerational and international justice.” Their recommendation is absolutely necessary from a policy-making perspective but hardly sufficient for a young person thinking about their own personal development and future career prospects.

Where are we now?

The BBC recently published a story, “Climate change: Rise in Google searches around ‘anxiety’”4 as a scene-setter for the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) taking place in the United Arab Emirates. It states that English language search queries about "climate anxiety" using Google were 27 times higher in 2023 when compared to the same period in 2017. I found this neither surprising nor alarming after the media attention given to the studies published by The Lancet and Science Magazine in 2021. I believe, however, that we can infer from this type of story that when more people are searching about a problem (“eco-anxiety”) then it could be because more people are also searching for its solution. And indeed, I suspect that is the case today. 

The impact of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation will be felt mostly by the Net Zero Generation, the first to be born entirely in the 21st Century and expected to live their working lives in hopes of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Again we need to be clear that young people have the most at stake when it comes to the future of the planet. Then how can we help young people to find the agency, ambition, autonomy, and authority to tackle our planet’s biggest problems?

What can we do?

The first step is to introduce “systems thinking” into our classrooms as soon as possible. Without systems thinking, young people are likely to respond to systemic global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss with either anxiety, anger, or apathy. None of the three is a good place to be for any adolescent. What young people are missing today is a sense of personal agency – agency is critical for them to shape their own behaviours and responses to circumstances beyond their control. Without agency, it would be difficult for any young person to discover the ambition to work on the necessary intergenerational solutions which, by the way, would also help reduce climate related distress or “eco-anxiety” among their peers.

But why systems thinking? The one thing that Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z and now Gen Alpha can agree upon is that we live in an interrelated and interdependent world – this holds true geopolitically, commercially, and ecologically. Therefore all of us, regardless of our birth year, need to recognize that our world is a complex system before we set about trying to transform it. Systems thinking is a way of "making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts."5 By being cognizant of these intricate relationships, we gain a clearer understanding of how we can contribute to positive action. Moreover, it can reveal leverage points, areas where small changes can have significant impact within complex systems. By pinpointing these leverage points, we can strategically direct our efforts towards the most effective solutions. Individuals and communities can then take meaningful action, whether through personal lifestyle changes, grassroots initiatives, or advocacy for policy reforms.6

How do we do this?

Systems thinking provides a framework for understanding the complex issues we face and showing that there are intergenerational solutions if we take collective action, which in turn can help alleviate eco-anxiety. The first step is to build the necessary scaffolding which is why the Villars Institute and Minerva Project have co-developed a flexible intergenerational course on systems leadership7 for both young and adult learners. It starts by highlighting the importance of practical approaches to complex problems. It is delivered by a deep learning platform where a class online might begin with a Socratic discussion about a key concept, such as the difference between a complicated versus complex system. It could then flow into a simulation exercise in smaller groups to explore how the difference between the two systems can yield vastly different behaviours and outcomes.8

Another design dimension to learning and teaching about complex systems is to make the experience accessible, relevant, and enjoyable. People are likely to be drawn to the system that directly impacts their daily lives, but they need to visualise it and see how it is changing to understand it. Data alone will not do any of this. This is why we promote EarthTime among our partner schools. EarthTime is a digital platform based on open source data that allows users to interact with visualisations of the Earth's transformation over time.9 It allows teachers and students to combine huge data sets with decades of images captured by NASA and European Space Agency satellites. Its creator, Professor Illah Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon University, designed the platform to empower even those with the smallest voices to unlock the power of data and to create their own narratives to fight climate change. But for this approach to scale, we need pioneering schools and educational institutions to commit to not only introducing systems thinking into their curricula but actively foster systems leadership within their communities. It is exciting, therefore, to be supporting a new learning curriculum on “Systems Transformation Pathways” focusing on complex systemic challenges in four areas: Biodiversity, Energy, Food, and Migration. 

The “Systems Transformation Pathways” curriculum is being developed by the UWC Atlantic College, which was among the first secondary schools in the world to follow an international curriculum and helped create the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme over 60 years ago. It is once again partnering with the International Baccalaureate (IB) organisation to develop a curriculum anchored in systems thinking that is fundamentally action-oriented, it replaces written exams and classroom-based learning with relevant, ambitious, necessary work in complex and authentic real-world contexts. This summer, a select group of pioneering students (16-19 years) were chosen take part in the “Systems Transformation Pathways” as part of their two-year Diploma Programme (DP) that includes three higher-level subjects, one standard-level subject, and the DP core curriculum. In this first year, 20 students will take part in the pilot which will be evaluated by the IB with the intention that all UWC Atlantic students will be able to take part in the pathway by 2027 and perhaps become available to nearly 2 million students studying at over 5,000 IB World Schools in 159 countries.

This initiative itself is a demonstration of systems leadership, which is working with others by using systems thinking to generate a shared vision. This vision in turn creates agency and purpose that can catalyse large-scale action and systemic change. I close with this thought from a recent article from the Villars Institute: “…[F]inding ways to take collective action can help in dealing with eco-anxiety because it fosters hope through action. Systems thinking and systems leadership provide a framework for understanding the complex issues we face and showing that there are solutions if we take action, which in turn can help alleviate eco-anxiety.”

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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This article is part of BASE Foundation's Climate Forum: Decoding COP28 Key Themes with Experts series and featured in illuminem's Thought Leadership series on COP28, proudly powered by Tikehau Capital.


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About the author

Lee Howell is the founding Executive Director of the Villars Institute, a Swiss nonprofit foundation dedicated to accelerating the transition to a net zero and nature-positive economy by promoting systems leadership and intergenerational collaboration. He is also a Titular Professor at the University of Geneva’s School of Economics and Management (GSEM).

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