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The importance of agency in the climate activism space

Margaret Wilson Merritt | Rural Youth Organizer: Kennebec County

There are usually two ways of thinking that come to mind when it comes to how people think about the climate – investment in fixing it or denial. There is, however, a third state – fatalism. You know that it’s big and terrible and feel that little or nothing can be done.

This is a very common sentiment, especially on social media — young people deciding to put off or not have children because of the climate, joking about not having that long to live, and so forth. In a Lancet study from 2021, 50% of young people surveyed reported feeling helpless about climate change, with 55% agreeing with the statement ‘the future is frightening’ and 75% agreeing with the statement that ‘humanity is doomed’.

While it is a frightening time in history and in no way should climate fears be dismissed, it is untrue that there is nothing to be done, despite the adverse effects we currently experience. Alternative energy, more sustainable lifestyles, a rethinking of our current growth based system, and community and political action at all levels are all things to be done that can be helped by any one person. There are also well-known factors that can still make this feel helpless, like the lies perpetuated about recycling, which was long a basic thing that anyone could do to help the environment. The core of this endemic despair is a lack of agency.

When we zoom in and look at the State of Maine in particular, other problems with agency appear that are not frequently considered by the climate movement, such as poverty, access to community, and a gap between people and government. In a recent talk I had with Maggie Somers and Megan Hurley of Maine Conservation Voters, and among issues like a lack of clear messaging, they both pointed to the effects proximity and income.

“I'm from Maine and we grew up pretty poor... Going into college I definitely wanted to get to a degree or two that would help me make money, and so I think if I had wanted to follow my passions I would have been like in or extreme or like something like that but I got 2 degrees in business and mass communications because I didn't know how else to make money.”

Climate work is seen as very time consuming and connection heavy type of work, which means that many people, especially in a state like Maine, feel that they literally cannot afford to participate. When it comes to volunteering, it can be difficult to spare time away from work, school, or family, and definitely impossible if regular meetings fall outside a weekend. As for a form of work, the wages did not cover living expenses for 56% of jobs in the state last year.

With these larger sources of impact cut off, smaller ways of making a difference have a problem of a lack of trust (voting) or a lack of information. While climate change on the largest scale is often discussed, such as sea level rise, the local effects are barely mentioned, which creates a lack of incentive and a lack of agency in that state. While some of this is due to the unpredictability of disrupted weather patterns, most of this is due to poor messaging.

As the past few years have shown, many people do not know how to use their political voice on a small scale or outside an election year. As of November 2022, the United States is 31st in voter turnout, despite a recent rise. This is the simplest form of engagement, and so contacting officials, running for local office, and so on are even lower. This likely has a wide number of causes, including public distrust, decreased civic education, and the lack of time and money mentioned earlier.

If we are, as a movement, going to grow stronger and bring others in, we must account for informational and economic gaps and make participating easy for those not in the middle class. It is the right thing to do, morally and strategically, to keep the world livable and beautiful for everyone.


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