Gen Z and the endgame of sustainability

By Muriel Baki

AS a college student having grown up in the turbulent 2010’s, this generation has witnessed a barrage of political, social, economic and environmental disasters. 

After a decade of sensationalized politics, a recession and a seemingly endless news cycle of natural disasters; this generation is fed up with the self-serving nature of the capitalist machine. Our experiences as well as our unique access to information have led to a heightened awareness of social, political and environmental issues. 

The advent of social media has only amplified the voices of concerned scientists and activists and increased the pressure to be socially conscious or ‘woke.’ Defined as slang by Merriam Webster, woke means, “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial, environmental, and social justice).” Obviously, awareness and action towards these issues is needed and should be a priority for everyone. 

The problem is that our society has become so obsessed with appearing woke both on social media and in real life, that the appearance of wokeness has begun to replace the action. 

After being exposed to countdown clocks and earth overshoot days, it is not surprising that, in the United States, more than 50% of Gen Z members rank climate change as one of the top three issues facing the world– but only 20% say they take action to minimize their waste. Similarly, only 37% say they reduce their energy and utility usage. 

This is a problem. If we really want to be remembered as a generation marked by civil and social action, we need more than pixels to back it up. Internet activism on its own is not enough to show our capitalist overlords that we will no longer consume mindlessly, satisfied by cardboard labels and allowing billionaires to tell us our plastic bottles are being recycled. 

It has become so easy to publish material online that many ‘news’ sources are not backed up with fact, and users must be on the lookout for false information. Morgan O’Leary, sophomore elementary education major, said, “I feel like I’m most likely to get information about climate change from social media, but that information would need to be backed up with more research.” Without further research, many individuals buy into the tales woven by corporations, often contradicted by the actions of their perpetrators. 

One of the earliest public announcements regarding the environment was known as the “Crying Indian” campaign, which showed a supposedly indigenous person finding litter in nature, and with the voiceover, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” reads the voiceover. “And some people don’t…People start pollution and people can stop it,” the voiceover concludes, as the camera zooms in on a tear rolling down the person’s cheek. 

This ad was first aired in 1971, and was paid for by Keep America Beautiful, a group established in the 1950s by leaders from packaging companies like the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. This is just one historical example of the millions of inaccurate claims being made by companies about their impact on the environment everyday. Large-scale corporations use these claims to deflect responsibility off of themselves and place it onto the individual.

Senior Arts and Entertainment Industry Management major Natalie Leclair said, “I think people our age have witnessed so much environmental destruction that they have become desensitized to it. The surprise I used to feel when I heard about a wildfire or oil spill has been replaced with a sense of impending fear about the future of earth.” The ‘sense of impending fear’ experienced by so many Rider students has developed into a diagnosable mental disorder. The blame we should be placing on corporations has been deflected back to us through false media. 

This false media has fed us a narrative that we are individually at fault for the current state of our environment. A landmark study of ten thousand young people across ten countries demonstrated that only 5% of surveyed individuals were ‘not worried’ about the climate crisis. A later question indicated that of the other 95%, nearly half feel like they have personal responsibility for the crisis. This is due to the complete deflection of responsibility from governments and big companies. 

Whether we like it or not, climate change and its effects will be the crisis which defines Gen Z. Time is up. Recognizing the false claims fed to us through consumerism is the first step to taking actual concrete steps away from being a society which consumes resources like a melting popsicle. Using social media and other online tools to educate is the first step, but our dollars are our most powerful tool. In a capitalist culture, we speak loudest with our choices, and if these choices are informed by science and research instead of propaganda, we can begin to make real changes. 

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