Eco-anxiety and India’s young

The climate crisis is creating panic and fear among Generation Z and young millennials; nihilism and antinatalism are growing. It’s also giving rise to a new obsession: apocalyptic entertainment

April 21, 2023 04:34 pm | Updated April 22, 2023 11:32 am IST

Snapshots of popular apocalyptic content and creators; and (left to right) Gen Zers Khyati Mehta, Chahat Rana, Kopal Nanda and Sumit Majumdar

Snapshots of popular apocalyptic content and creators; and (left to right) Gen Zers Khyati Mehta, Chahat Rana, Kopal Nanda and Sumit Majumdar

It was December 21, 2012, and 14-year-old Shaarvari Shreenath was convinced that the world was ending. The date was regarded as the end of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mayan calendar, and the media was rife with hypotheses of cataclysms that would soon ensue. “I remember hugging my friends, and saying to them, ‘If I don’t see you tomorrow, this is how I feel about you’,” says Shreenath. It’s been more than 10 years since — the world has not ended, but that sense of foreboding has never left the now 25-year-old from Chennai.

There were always issues cropping up: first it was 2012, then the ice caps were melting, the Great Barrier Reef was dying, and most recently, the pandemic. “Our generation has had to deal with these troubling situations all our lives,” she says. No wonder she firmly believes the apocalypse is imminent. “It’s not a question of whether it will happen or not. It’s just a matter of when, how and what we will do when it does.”

Shaarvari Shreenath

Shaarvari Shreenath | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Apocalypse now

Born between 1997 and 2012, the first Gen Zers came of age around the time of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which listed out the devastating impacts of a projected 1.5°C global temperature rise. Since then, ever worsening headlines about the climate crisis — supported by extreme weather events across the globe, from drought and floods to hurricanes and wildfires — have led Zoomers to be caught in a feedback loop of feelings of doom.

Is it any surprise that Gen Zers and young millennials are showing signs of a unique obsession with — even a celebration of — the apocalypse?

In a 2021 survey across 10 countries, led by Bath University, 45% of young people said their feelings about climate change negatively impact their daily life and functioning; 75% said they feel the future is frightening. More than half of those surveyed, 56%, were in agreement that humanity is doomed.

Their lives are saturated with doomsday-themed films (A Quiet Place,Don’t Look Up), TV shows (Snowpiercer,Resident Evil), and books (The New Wilderness, The Wall). Songs like Phoebe Bridger’s ‘I Know the End,’ which released in the middle of the pandemic, have resonated with youngsters across the world, with lyrics like: No I’m not afraid to disappear/ The billboard said ‘The end is near’/ I turned around, there was nothing there/ Yeah, I guess the end is here. The last couple of years also witnessed a surge in the popularity of video games such as Plague Inc., where players get to be a virus/bacteria/fungus, and the main objective is to infect as many people as possible.

A still from Snowpiercer

A still from Snowpiercer

Phoebe Bridger

Phoebe Bridger

These cataclysm scenarios reflect in their online conversations and sense of humour, too (think the Simpson meme on this being not only the hottest summer of our lives, but also the coldest summer of the rest of our lives). This year’s Oscar-winning Everything, Everywhere, All At Once has a black hole destroying the universe as the characters debate the meaninglessness of life. And most recently, HBO’s The Last of Us — a post-apocalyptic drama series based on a video game which is set in a future where a fungal infection has infected humanity, spawning zombie-like creatures and societal collapse — caught Zoomers’ attention, hitting 837 million minutes of viewership within a week of its premiere, surpassing every other HBO show to date (except Game of Thrones).

A still from The Last of Us

A still from The Last of Us

Don’t look to the West
Environmental economist Aseem Shrivastava believes this fascination with the apocalypse is primarily coming from the West. In Christian mythology, apocalypses have always occupied a central role, whether in the form of the Biblical flood or Noah’s Ark. And they are often accompanied by the idea of a messiah who will come and save all of us. Like in the film Interstellar, where Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), right before he’s leaving the Earth in search of a planet that can carry life, says, ‘We were born to be pioneers, not caretakers.’ According to Shrivastava, it is precisely attitudes like these that are the problem, where people are not engaging with the here and now; instead, they are obsessing over a Plan B scenario. “It’s a lazy response to the climate crisis; it doesn’t allow a deeper engagement with the here and now,” he says. “The merit of all of this is, it sells. It’s extremely market friendly, and newspapers, magazines, TV shows buy it up.” What is necessary, he feels, is for the new generation to rethink and re-establish their entire relationship to nature — which has completely broken down.

Chahat Rana, 26, a health journalist from Delhi, was one of many who binged The Last of Us. Having spent the past few years covering the pandemic, she says that though the show often “got too real”, she couldn’t stop watching it. “All the while I was thinking, ‘Could I survive something like this?’, ‘Will I be among the few who make it?’” says Rana. “It’s scary, but there is also a silver lining. It shows you the best of humanity in the worst of times.”

Chahat Rana

Chahat Rana | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“As we experience heat wave after heat wave, the youth can feel the climate crisis in their own bodies. No wonder they are pessimistic. I’m somebody who hopes for an apocalypse — because it will force people to rethink the system we live in. As long as a system works for the majority, there’s no real need for an alternative. But the moment it breaks down, a lot of people will get up and start asking questions. An apocalypse is necessary because we need that push.”Shyam SunderEnvironmentalist

How do you perceive it?

At a time when society and the planet aren’t ‘working out’ for many young people — a consequence of processes they did not initiate, and over which they have little control — perhaps there’s a certain sense of catharsis in consuming apocalyptic content.

Kopal Nanda, 27, an eco-influencer based in Lucknow, loves post-apocalyptic entertainment. When she is not growing, and learning from, her plants — her Instagram is full of experiments, and insights into optimum sunlight, soil and water — she kicks back with shows such as the 2021 fantasy drama Sweet Tooth, in which a boy who is half-human and half-deer sets off on a perilous adventure in a post-apocalyptic world. Contrary to popular perceptions of negativity, these shows make Nanda feel optimistic. “There is a sense of how after everything is destroyed, you can start afresh. It’s a new beginning.”

Kopal Nanda

Kopal Nanda | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Writer Janice Pariat agrees. She says that the word ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t mean the end. Etymologically speaking, it refers to an ‘uncovering.’ “Perhaps we’re drawn to apocalypses not because they’re the end of the world, but because we’re hoping there will be some kind of revelation,” says Pariat.

Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat

On the flip side, however, for many others, post-apocalyptic themes are terrifying. When Khyati Mehta, 17, was younger, she remembers reading a book that stated that the ice caps are melting and all coastal cities will be flooded. She was petrified. Today, as a member of the Goa chapter of the FridaysForFuture movement — a youth-led movement started by environmental activist Greta Thunberg (the India chapter, with 46,000 followers on Instagram, has been campaigning recently for #SaveJoshimath and #SaveMollem) — that fear has reduced, but not completely abated. “I see children in Delhi unable to go to school because of smog and pollution, and that gives me the chills,” says Mehta, who hasn’t opted to go for therapy yet. She addresses her eco-anxiety with concrete action: by planting trees or signing a petition.

Khyati Mehta

Khyati Mehta

“The tone of pessimism has only created fear. In my class, I try to uncover the relationship between our emotions and the natural elements; [help them] form a vocabulary of kinship with nature. You need an economy of attention — you just need to notice the wind and the water. ”Sumana RoyProfessor of Creative Writing, Ashoka University

On the opposite coast of the country, Sumit Majumdar, 20, from Kolkata is part of the Bengali Antinatalists. The society, which has over 1,000 followers on Facebook, believes that in a world full of suffering, it is morally wrong for humans to procreate. Add to that the worsening climate crisis, and giving birth becomes absolutely indefensible, he says. “If I don’t have children, I’ll also be reducing my carbon footprint in this world exponentially, since I’ll be eliminating my children’s, grandchildren’s and great grandchildren’s share,” he says.

Sumit Majumdar

Sumit Majumdar | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Holding up a mirror to people’s anxieties
“Apocalyptic content has always existed in comic books and video games,” says Aniruddho Chakroborty, a film critic with entertainment platform Film Companion. “It’s just that now it’s being adapted for the screen, because we’re in this moment in time when this content is extremely relevant, not to mention popular.” Meanwhile, pop culture writer and film critic Gayle Sequeira believes one of the most obvious reasons for the upsurge of apocalyptic content is the pandemic. While most of the content is from the West, India has had a few movies with similar themes, too, such as Avataran (an Assamese sci-fi film by Tarunabh Dutta), Carbon (a short Hindi film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and Wade (a short animated film set in a post-apocalyptic Kolkata). Sequeira believes one of the reasons for the popularity of these films is that they hold up a mirror to people’s anxieties, especially young consumers who have grown up amid climate change. Though it differs from film to film, she has also noticed that a lot of apocalyptic films tend to have a positive ending: “In a highly fraught time, they give you something to hold on to.”

Defining and tackling the problem

Sarah Jaquette Ray, a teacher of environmental studies in California, called Generation Z ‘The Climate Generation’ in a 2020 article for business magazine, Fortune. She stated how “for many youth, climate disruption isn’t a hypothetical future possibility; it is already here”, and that today, psychologists “have created a new vocabulary to describe these feelings of despair, including solastalgia, climate anxiety, eco-grief, pre-traumatic stress, and psychoterratic illness”.

Sonali Gupta, a clinical psychologist based in Mumbai and the author of Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear (2020), says she’s seen a substantial increase in Gen Zers and young millennials suffering from eco-anxiety, which is characterised by a chronic fear of environmental doom. “In 2014-15, there were hardly any clients who came to me suffering from eco-anxiety. That was also around the time that I first heard of this phenomenon, and started understanding how it surfaces in sessions,” she says. “Now there’s terminology and vocabulary around it, and more dialogue than ever before, which makes it easier for youngsters to bring it up in sessions.” According to her, eco-anxiety usually comes up as part of larger anxieties. “Suppose someone is struggling with sleeplessness. I’ll ask them why — they will say work, relationships, and climate change.”

Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Parents are becoming aware of this now. “Sometimes, they reach out to understand how they can help their kids, and as a therapist, I ask families to decide on one or two actions that they can take at a micro-level to reduce anxiety: whether it’s responsible consumption or sustainability.” For instance, one of her clients started a book club, where they read books centred around the environment. “It was a brilliant way of talking about their climate-related anxieties, and meeting like-minded people, concerned about the same things as them.”

Anxiety can strike at a very young age. Bengaluru-based psychologist Mamta Jain narrates the story of an 11-year-old brought to her clinic who was hoarding plastic: every time he saw plastic, he would pick it up and bring it home. It had reached a point where he would get hysterical each time someone used plastic. “Why? Because he had learnt in school that plastic isn’t biodegradable, and was going to kill the planet,” says Jain, adding, “We need to be very careful how we introduce children to news like this — if not done properly, it leads to panic and anxiety.” In the last few years, she has seen the number of cases of eco-anxiety rising. One of the ways to tackle this is in schools itself. “Every time you introduce kids to a problem, propose a solution,” she says, adding that in this way, children won’t feel like the problem is unsolvable. Do her clients watch apocalyptic content? Turns out the answer is yes. “They could be cathartic [for some] as they offer a release for their own deepest, darkest fears,” she says.

Politics of passivity
According to Mitul Baruah, Professor of Environment Studies and Anthropology at Ashoka University, young people are watching more apocalyptic content merely because it is being produced more. Moreover, the whole climate change conversation has become so dry and technocratic that it’s easier to just give in to apocalyptic scenarios, which lead us nowhere, he says. This reflects a “politics of passivity” — that it’s all over and done, so you might as well sit and play video games. Apocalyptic scenarios lead us nowhere; we are not asking the [necessary] political questions. “I’d rather people think of how we got here, rather than the end of the world.”
Dia Mirza

Dia Mirza | Photo Credit: Abheet Gidwani

“I always follow the words of advice shared by Jane Goodall, ‘Do not allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the crises. Start small, engage with your community, take individual actions, be a part of the solution.’ This has helped me and several others to deal with climate anxiety.”Dia MirzaActor, producer and UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador

Hope for the future

Children’s book writer Bijal Vachharajani is not stumped by the younger generation’s obsession with the apocalypse. “Look around us! It’s not a surprise at all. But to me, the question is how do you translate that into hope and action,” says the author of Savi and the Memory Keeper, a YA book about grief, the climate crisis, and the healing power of nature. “I find that young people have a lot of questions, and while they do have access to information now, there needs to be more spaces for nuanced conversations about the climate crisis, about our future on the planet, and action — whether it’s collective or individual. Fiction, music and films can play a huge role in addressing concerns and offering imaginative ways of looking at our future lives. For me, the most important thing is to offer hope.”

Bijal Vachharajani (left) and Abhayraj Naik

Bijal Vachharajani (left) and Abhayraj Naik | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It’s a point of view that Abhayraj Naik, an environmental activist and professor of climate justice at Azim Premji University, echoes. He believes the effect of apocalyptic scenarios is to expand our imaginative horizons. “We are trapped in false narratives, propagated by capitalism, consumerism and patriarchy. The first step to transformative change is to free the imagination from that. And whether apocalyptic scenarios cause hope or despair, they undeniably shake up the imagination — and that’s what we need,” he says.

Coming up with hands-on projects that address the climate crisis is an important tool. When directed to his students, it brings solutions of all kinds to the table, from climate-tech business solutions, protest and resistance movements, to arts and filmmaking. Naik is positive of one thing: young students working in the climate space today are some of the most hardworking and fearless people he knows. “Spend time with them, and you’ll feel the opposite of pessimistic. The apocalypse will be the furthest thing from your mind.”

Tansy Troy

Tansy Troy | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Children and dark humour
Tansy Troy, a young people’s playwright, has been contending with the question ‘can theatre speak to kids about weighty issues such as climate change and species extinction’? Her play Tara, Compass Crow, which stars school children and has a strong environmental message, has been touring the country since last October. What she has noticed is, there is a dark humour that prevails in kids’ engagement with issues such as the climate crisis. For instance, an upbeat chant in the play, ‘Freedom freedom birds are born to fly / Freedom freedom give us back the sky,’ was jokingly subverted by the kids to ‘Catch them catch them birds are born to die / Catch them catch them shoot them from the sky.’ At first, Troy was taken aback; she didn’t know what to make of this darkness. “But then I realised that the theatre is a safe space, and what children say here is not necessarily their truth. It’s just a demon they have to unleash, so that they can eventually move away from it,” she says.
Climate crisis takes the stage
Gaurav Singh Nijjer, a Bengaluru-based theater maker and arts researcher, recently put up Climateprov, an interactive performance that brings together human actors and AI to create narratives about climate change in urban spaces. Nijjer began the play by asking the audience about places in the city they had started noticing the impact of climate change. Nijjer and his team then created stories around some of the suggestions they received, such as the annual frothing of the Bellandur lake. “Another game was asking the audience what word comes to mind when they think of the climate crisis: answers ranged from flooding to things like depression, greed and apocalypse.” In the final section, they asked the audience for a fictional climate crisis in the year 2050. “One suggestion was the air in Bangalore has turned toxic, become like cotton candy. No one can breathe. We address these absurd apocalyptic scenarios in a humorous way, but keeping in mind the serious issue behind it. This gives people a venue to air their anxious thoughts, which is cathartic.”
Ayush Shukla

Ayush Shukla

Investing and Gen Z
A recent New York Times article, with the title ‘The World’s a Mess. So They’ve Stopped Saving for Tomorrow’, stated that “many adults under 35 are throwing financial caution to the wind” today. It also shared a study by Fidelity Investments in the US found that 45% of people aged 18 to 35 didn’t see the point in saving until things return to normal; they would rather live in the now and spend on experiences and things they loved. Is this the case everywhere? Ayush Shukla, a GenZ entrepreneur and founder of Finnet Media, says the U.S. market is very different from India. Compared to its volatility, accompanied by high inflation and low liquidity, “the Indian market has been looking up, and youngsters are increasingly educating themselves about investments in the stock market, SIPs and FDs”, he says. An interesting shift he has noticed, however, is the rise of green investing — where youngsters are choosing to invest in companies working with sustainable energy, solar panels and EV batteries, which are actively thinking about, and building, a better future.
Pessimism and atomistic solutions
Sarthak Tomar, 30, was a part of Extinction Rebellion (a global environmental movement) when he was younger, and ever since, has been working with young activists in the climate space in Bhopal. He feels that the biggest reason for the pessimism of India’s young is that they don’t know how social changes happen. Historically, they have seen that changes are helmed by kings and corporations, and they are neither. So, they feel helpless. “Everything around them tells them there is no society, there’s only individuals. That they’re only atoms of consumption,” says Tomar. This attitude reflects in the kinds of solutions they propose: usually atomistic solutions — for example, I’ll plant 400 trees, I’ll buy less plastic, etc. “But they are unable to think of themselves as part of a larger community. Such social alienation and atomisation leads apocalyptic scenarios. They become nihilistic.”
Climate anxiety books
In 2012, in an essay marking 50 years of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Margaret Atwood explained why it is considered one of the most important environmental books of the 20th century. Its subject was the human poisoning of the biosphere through the wholesale deployment of a myriad of 20th century chemicals, such as DDT, aimed at pest and disease control. The book met with furious resistance. Two of its core lessons, says Atwood, are that things labelled progress aren’t necessarily good and the perceived split between man and nature isn’t real. In the 21st century, Carson’s lessons are more relevant than ever, and writers like Richard Powers (The Overstory), Amitav Ghosh (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the UnthinkableThe Nutmeg’s Curse); Atwood herself with her MaddAddam Trilogy, Edward Wilson (Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life), Naomi Klein (All We Can Save), activist Greta Thunberg (The Climate Book) have chronicled climate anxieties through fiction and non-fiction. As Peter Frankopan writes in his latest book, The Earth Transformed: “The way that humans have interacted with the natural world and with climate has shaped and will change our world…” More stories need to be told.
— Sudipta Datta
Books coming out soon: Greening the Earth, an anthology of poetry edited by K. Satchidanandan and Nishi Chawla. Published by Penguin Random House, it includes poetry from poets across the world and is conceptualised as a response to the climate and environmental crisis. There’s also I’m a Climate Optimist by climate change activist Aakash Ranison.

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