How do you solve a problem like the climate crisis?
Radical action from political leaders and corporations, basically.
But that’s a little tricky for the average person to make happen, so instead we focus on individual efforts to fight the rising tides, realise how little we can do alone and descend into extreme ecoanxiety as a result.
One way people are dealing with ecoanxiety – that intense dread that comes with the knowledge that climates are increasing and we’re running out of time to fix things – is not by burying their heads in the sand, but turning their misery into memes.
On Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter there are thousands of memes dedicated to promoting environmental action, encouraging people to ditch plastic, and summing up the internal screaming of a generation faced with destruction.
Why? Is making memes a form of political action? Is it a valid form of protest? Does it pose therapeutic benefits for those of us struggling to carry on in the face of environmental chaos?
Steffi, 17, is a student from Singapore and the creator of the climatememes420 account.
The Instagram is made up of references to the government ignoring vital data from climate scientists, illustrations of relatable birds declaring ‘we are all going to die in wildfires and floods’, and that cute little lamb from an episode of The Simpsons.
Steffi says she was motivated to create a climate change meme account by ‘necessity and passion’, and balances an hour or so of creating memes each day with a science research internship, school, and ‘normal teen stuff like playing video games, watching TV shows and sleeping’.
‘Our Earth is dying and not enough is being done to stop it,’ Steffi tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I want so much to make more people aware of the issues surrounding climate change.’
Steffi chooses memes to spread her message because they work.
‘They’re funny, engaging and package information in a palatable manner,’ she says. ‘They’re also pervasive in youth culture, making them effective in spreading the message to our future generation of leaders.’
The team behind climate_memes, Climatepedia, hopes that the packaging of memes will help important messaging be spread more widely.
Climatepedia is an organisation made up of young people actively educating the public about the climate crisis, working in university campuses to create community events, panels, and change public policy. Their associate director, Gianna, realised that they could reach people more widely if they took to the internet and used those catchy formulaic images that are designed to go viral.
The idea of their meme account is to speak to the people most ready and necessary to get involved and make a change: young people on the internet.
‘Our generation spends so much time online that a culture of sharing content has made it so that information can now spread faster and wider than ever before,’ Gianna tells us. ‘Combining information with humor allows the content to be more attention grabbing and increases the chances of going viral.’
Rather than the more general ‘the earth is burning, here’s a video of a dog screaming to sum up how I feel’ memes, climate_memes try to give their output a positive spin.
‘We try to stray away from fear based content that is unfortunately overused in media and instead motivate the public of the action they can take to become part of the solution rather than the cause,’ they say. ‘Whenever we post content displaying the unfortunate consequences of climate change, we also look for more uplifting solutions to inspire people to take action in their own communities.’
They say that while all their memes are ‘strictly factual’, they’re designed to be funny, too – for the purpose of saving the earth.
‘Sometimes humour is the best way to bring light to an issue as urgent as climate change, so we hope funny posts encourage people to share the information,’ says Gianna.
The squad behind Sustainabiliteens hopes that the humour of memes will make environmental issues an accessible area for people who might not have received education about the climate crisis.
They’re an account run by seven different teenage admins, who help to run student-run strike groups and post memes on Instagram when they can.
One of the account’s creators is 16-year-old Ella, who wants to show other teens that they’re not alone in feeling worried about the planet.
‘I find it gets spoken about in vague terms in the media sometimes, and I hope that people who visit our meme page get a glimpse of what the climate crisis actually means for us and our planet,’ Ella tells us.
‘I also want people who see our memes to see that they can take action on this crisis in easy, manageable ways. Finally, I want any adults who see the memes to realize how serious youth are about this, and how much we want change.
‘Seeing that other teenagers are thinking the same things as you about climate change can show you that you’re not alone in your fears, and maybe spur you into action.’
The creator of climemechange, who’d prefer to stay anonymous, believes that environmentalists are facing a bit of an image problem. Scientists repeating dire statistics can feel off-putting and boring – memes are a way to get people interested.
‘Virtually no one had been successful at making the subject of climate change engaging and entertaining,’ they tell us. ‘Why? It’s complicated, sometimes unsexy, and once you finally wrap your head around it it’s depressing.
‘I thought it would be a fun challenge to see if I could make it more digestible and thereby get more people to pay attention to the issue.’
The climemechange account now has more than 33,000 followers who stick around for videos of shiba inus crying (‘me switching between enjoying myself and remembering we’re in a climate crisis’), screengrabs of Paris Hilton calling in sick to work because we ‘only have a few years before climate change takes us all’, and jokes about being horny for renewable energy.
Like many young people faced with ambivalence from those in power, the people making these memes are haunted by ecoanxiety.
Making the memes can be therapeutic, allowing the creators to vent their biggest concerns at a time when it feels few people are listening.
‘For me it’s just a little way to take the pressure of thinking about climate change off for a bit,’ says Ella.
Memes can’t get rid of all their anxieties, of course. The account creators still feel guilt and overwhelming anxiety about whether they’re doing enough.
‘I’m scared,’ says Steffi. ‘I feel ecoanxiety every day when I wake up and see more heatwaves, more floods, more disastrous consequences of our climate neglect.
‘I feel like I’m at least trying to make a difference and helping the situation by spreading awareness.
‘Some part of me does still feel fear and anxiety that I’m not doing enough or if what everyone is doing isn’t good enough.’
Marion, the creator of The Basic Environmentalist, says her knowledge of just how dire the situation is can put her in a state of woe.
‘The more I know, the more upset I get,’ she tells us. ‘It’s easy to fall into climate anxiety because I’m SO aware of what’s going on.’
‘I feel scared,’ Ella tells us. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever have to deal with the worst effects of climate change, seeing as I live in a pretty privileged country and in a region with a fairly stable climate, but my children will.
‘It’s at the point where me and a lot of my friends feel like we can’t have children because their life will be very hard due to climate chaos.
‘I also feel unmotivated a lot of the time. Why work hard at school to get good grades to go to university when you’ll be spending most of your life just trying to survive anyways?’
The stress can also be a motivating factor to keep pushing for change.
‘I see stories of so many courageous role models rising up and fighting for the change they believe in,’ says Steffi, ‘and I see that some of them are teenagers, just like me.
‘It gives me hope that maybe one day I can be as driven and inspiring as them. That maybe one day just enough people will take action, or maybe one day our future could be even brighter than what we can imagine now.’
Marion echoes this, using her 27,000 strong following as evidence that she can make a difference.
‘I’m definitely motivated to make a change,’ she says. ‘I truly believe that every action counts. Inspiring one person to pick up a piece of trash can lead to a whole world of global initiatives.
‘Whenever I get an overwhelmingly positive response on a post and have people resonating with the ideas and messages I send, I get extremely hopeful.
Memes are a way to take that anxiety and terror and convert its power into something more constructive. They can make us laugh and feel that glow of recognition, sure, but they can also deliver important information or motivate us to keep fighting in the midst of environmental misery.
Making the memes helps the creators to vent their worries and feel heard, but the meme consumers benefit too.
‘More people than I can count have reached out to say my posts have helped them deal with their depression, anxiety and understanding of the key issues,’ the creator of climemechange tells us. ‘That alone makes me feel like this is a worthwhile thing to be doing.’
Maybe we can change the world one meme at a time.
Just as each meme is one single drop in the sea of the internet that can spread far and wide, its creators want to show that each individual action can have a positive impact. We have to keep going.
‘I hope people realise how serious the issue of climate change is, and I hope they understand that every little action they take helps,’ says Steffi. ‘Not only do I want my memes to educate people, but it would also be great if they give people a little hope for the future and some motivation to change their lifestyle for the better.
‘We can all make a difference, whether it be reducing waste, cutting down on private transport, or even lobbying for climate action policies.’
Gianna adds: ‘From changing individual habits to persuading governments to change their policies, our memes remind us that we have more power than we believe.’
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