I arrived in Stockholm, Sweden, in the midst of an unprecedented Europe-wide heatwave, the first overt sign of the climate crisis I noticed. My arsenal of heavy duty Kathmandu gear would sadly go unworn.
It was a Friday morning and I made my way to the Riksdag, Sweden’s Parliament, where I knew Greta Thunberg would be striking. Holding her well-worn sign that says, “School strike for climate” in Swedish, Thunberg is quiet and unassuming when she’s not speaking to press or the UN. I thanked her for her inspiring work and she gave me a small nod of acknowledgment in return.
I wondered what the youth were like in the country where the climate strike movement began. I spoke to Emma, a 17-year-old who had been missing school to protest every Friday alongside Greta Thunberg since August 2018.
“Kids at my school support me, but they don’t want to join. I think everyone’s fit into their own routine, everyone’s used to a certain standard of living,” she said.
I told her I was surprised, surely they’re inspired seeing the change Greta has made?
“Well, people are in circles where everyone around them is doing the same thing, so it’s hard to break away from that,” she continued.
“I started striking because the Paris agreement was not enough… and I saw Greta and thought it was a concrete way to support the movement.”
Anna, who is 16 years old, has been striking every Friday since February and runs an environmental club at her school. It’s clear like many of us, even activists like Anna are caught between optimism and anxiety.
“I have to be positive about the future,” she said. Her voice was strained, like she had practiced the line without results. “Since this is such a routine-ish thing where we come every week, it’s possible to lose track of where this is all going, but I try to remember back to where my heart started and we have to have hope for a brighter future.”
I was uncomfortable about travelling for three months due to the massive carbon footprint I’d be making with each flight I took across the globe. I had planned to hop between Sweden, Iceland and Norway, and that was only just the beginning. My eco-anxiety was mounting. So I told myself that I’d get into carbon offsetting my flights, and this would at least help a bit.
Carbon offsetting is when you pay your airline or an organisation like Climate Care to invest in environmental projects that lower emissions, like tree planting, to try and balance out your own carbon footprint. I felt guilty for even having this privileged internal dilemma. I felt worse for trying to buy my way out of it with an equally privileged get-out-of-moral-dilemma-free card.
A week later, I was standing on a glacier mountain in southern Iceland, a glacier I was told may soon cease to exist. Glaciers worldwide are undergoing extreme levels of melting, with catastrophic mountain collapse now a widespread threat. As a glacier melts and retreats due to global warming, the mountain it sits on loses support and begins to fracture, which leads to the mountain then collapsing.
Every day we hear about unprecedented and “alarming” environmental disasters. There are so many warning sirens constantly blaring that it feels difficult to focus on any one of them, they just become a blur of white noise. I sometimes fear we’re already becoming desensitised to the news.
After an hour of trudging up the ice, I looked back down the mountain and stopped to catch my breath and warm my frozen hands. Dark clouds loomed over the horizon with ominous tones of grey, white and black painting the surrounds, but there was a beauty in the intense bleakness. In between sharp breaths, I was caught with pangs of melancholy. It was a feeling I’d been unexpectedly experiencing a lot on the trip, and I was unsure what to make of it at the time.
Since returning to civilisation from the barren wilderness, the source of my shame and confusion for these feelings became clearer. Modern capitalism tells us these sombre states are wrong, it shames us for feeling low when we have such an abundance of consumable pleasures at our fingertips. Then it points us in the direction of the nearest shopping centre to buy and consume until we feel better, temporarily.
Consumerism is built on cultivating people’s discontent. We’re conditioned to always want something more, even if we don’t know what that is exactly. So we continue consuming, naively looking for the right things to make us happy, whatever that means. But what we are trained to never do, under any circumstance, is openly voice our grief, or we risk breaking the spell that capitalism has cast over us. It’s part of the same vicious system that’s created the climate crisis we now face.
The bitter winds stung my face and made my eyes water as I looked around at a landscape that at one point in time was seen as unconquerable. Sadly, humanity’s greed proved that wrong. Life is often just painful, and like the glacier sometimes there’s simply no warmth or refuge in sight. Melancholy is a powerful emotion we should pay attention to; it can help us accept that life is inherently difficult and that suffering is a universal experience. It’s a gentle understanding that modern life forces incredible contradictions and pressures on all of us. It’s crucial to accept this now more than ever as the climate crisis rages on, while consumerism and politicians insidiously tell us that everything is okay.
But we all know that it’s not okay. As Greta Thunberg said, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
Two weeks later, Iceland marked its first-ever loss of a glacier to climate change by holding a funeral, which over 100 people attended including Iceland’s Prime Minister. A plaque was mounted with a message to future generations to acknowledge we know what’s happening to our planet, and what needs to be done.
In these moments of distress for the planet I know that I’m not alone. If we reach out to each other and unite in our shared pain and anger, I truly believe that we can create positive change.