Why it is powerful to meet panic with hope

Climate change is real and so, apparently, is “eco-anxiety.” April is a month where organizations around the world focus on environmental issues, and we are so delighted to have had the opportunity to sit down with journalist and author Diana Kapp. Her new book, Girls Who Green the World: 34 Rebel Women Out to Save the Planet, releases this month. Kapp shares why it is powerful to meet panic with hope when it comes to the environment, the women who have made change in service of the planet, and how parents and educators can support the next generation of environmental rock stars.

What are you seeing in terms of anxiety about the planet?

Around the world, young people are worrying over the precarious state of the planet. A 2021 Lancet survey of 10,000 youth found that 56% believe “humanity is doomed.” Forty percent said they may forego having kids, for fear of what the planet’s future holds. Eco-anxiety is an exploding field of psychology because therapists are hearing such existential angst in their young patients. A friend of my daughter’s goes to college in Vermont, and she’s been darting between her classes freezing all winter. But she thinks it’s a waste to invest in a warmer coat. “In a few years, there won’t be any more snow, anyway,” she said. A Columbia professor friend shared a comment by her student as she left the classroom a recent Friday afternoon: “She said ‘See you Monday, if we’re still around.’”

Why do you think we need to pivot from panic to hope? 

This gloom and doom outlook is understandable — but counterproductive. When we feel helpless, we feel paralyzed. And we can’t afford a sense of inevitability resulting in inaction. There is too much at stake. Instead, we must harness hope. And women are offering an awful lot of fodder for hopefulness. 

How are you seeing women show up for environmental issues?

Innovative, frame-breaking work is happening all over the world, women moving the needle in every environmental realm — clean energy, plastic alternatives, waste reduction, planet-friendly food, fashion, activism. Hope is the overarching theme of Girls Who Green the World: 34 Rebel Women Out to Save the Planet, which I wrote to inspire young people, particularly young women. The collection of profiles spotlights changemakers who are refusing inaction. I wrote because I am a firm believer in this wise adage: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See. These women can inspire us all to tap our own power for the planet.

My book showcases women turning mushrooms into leather, plastic bottles into boardshorts, and carbon dioxide into something that tastes exactly like bacon (seriously!). Mary Anne Hitt shut down 339 polluting coal plants with grassroots organizing — you should know her.

This is amazing! Are you willing to share a compelling example from the book?

Early in my research, I uncovered an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named Susan Solomon who drove the work that ultimately fixed the ozone hole threatening the planet in the 1980s. Back then, this gaping hole was the environmental issue. When she was a young scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), she volunteered — when no one else would — to go to Antarctica and do critical experiments to understand why the atmosphere was quickly disappearing. We’re talking 18-hour-days shivering on a research station roof in -40 degree temps to measure concentrations of chlorine in the air. Through some snazzy work, she discovered that the problem was CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons, the stuff in aerosol spray cans and refrigerators. When her findings of chlorine levels 100 times normal hit the news wires, an emergency meeting was convened in Montreal, which produced the Montreal Protocol. For the first time in history, every single nation on earth signed on and agreed to discontinue use of CFCs. Today, the ozone hole is basically healed. The problem is so yesterday that many young people don’t even know the tale. Solomon’s story reminds us that we can come together to do the urgent work we must do to save the planet. Susan Solomon is how I found my way to a message of hope, and her story opens the book.

What is your message to girls and their families? 

Do you know who’s best at shifting climate-attitudes in this country? Tween and teen girls. There’s proof: Researchers showed that 10- to 14–year-olds’ exposure to climate change coursework regularly trickled down to parents and changed their views on the subject. And: Daughters were more effective messengers than sons.

How can educators support young people who want to step up for the planet?

There’s an accompanying toolkit for educators. My favorite activity inside teaches young women to use the power of the pen for activism. I walk you through teaching how to write a powerful op-ed or letter to a representative or business. You can then highlight the story of Shelby O’Neil, one of the book’s chapters. She cold-wrote the CEO of Dignity Health, Delta Airlines, Starbucks, and more, urging them to quit offering plastic straws. Her letters resulted in face-to-face meetings with these CEOs, and to huge reductions in straw distribution. Young women will be motivated by her pluck and can-do attitude.

Diana Kapp is a journalist and author in San Francisco, CA. Her latest book is Girls Who Green the World: 34 Rebel Women Out to Save the Planet. In 2019, she wrote Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business.


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