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Climate anxiety at Bristol University – what can we do to help?

To be a student at Bristol is to be confronted with an array of plant milks in your flat’s fridge door, bump into a Depop-clad ‘rah’ around every street corner, and stumble across Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests on your doorstep.

By Madison James, Second Year Politics and French

To be a student at Bristol is to be confronted with an array of plant milks in your flat’s fridge door, bump into a Depop-clad ‘rah’ around every street corner, and stumble across Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests on your doorstep. Just last month, XR graffitied Senate House in protest of the University taking millions worth of research and consultancy fees from polluting defence firms. Beneath these instances of students trying to make a difference, however, there is an undercurrent of anxiety which is growing ever more concerning.

Last year, it was revealed that over 70 per cent of students at Bristol have suffered from climate anxiety. Activism, especially climate-based, is at the heart of Bristol’s culture, and as students within the city, we can’t help but be affected by this more than most. However, given that 71 per cent of all carbon emissions in the last 35 years have come from only 100 companies, it seems futile to make eco-friendly lifestyle changes as individuals when faced with the magnitude of the problem. Is it worth compromising our mental health when we can only do little to change things?

Jake Gazzard, whose speech at last October’s climate strike inspired many Bristol students, argues that rather than being detrimental, climate anxiety can be a useful force to elicit change: ‘To talk about climate anxiety, it is really important to understand that this is rooted in government and corporate inaction to tackle the climate crisis.’

‘Of course, when faced with global environmental eradication within the next 30 years, people will be scared, especially when seeing how little people in power seem to care. This fear is natural, and it is important to recognise, understand and process those feelings.’

‘Such feelings only become problematic when this dominates your life. Many of my friends use this fear as motivation to campaign for change, and it becomes less of an anxiety and more a passion for environmental justice.’

This sentiment is shared by Louis, a Zoology student and member of Bristol’s Conservation Society. ‘It's around this age where a lot of people come to terms with the fact that we are the generation [that] is going to play a vital role in the climate crisis and that puts a lot of pressure on people.

‘To talk about climate anxiety, it is really important to understand that this is rooted in government and corporate inaction to tackle the climate crisis.’

‘This isn't necessarily a bad thing though; I think that the things we are told to do on an individual level aren't entirely helpful in the bigger picture, but that doesn't mean individuals can't make change.’

The question remains as to whether the outcomes of COP26 have helped to assuage young peoples’ fears at all. Throughout the conference, climate activists raised criticisms over everything from the accessibility of the event itself to the pledges made by leaders failing to be substantial enough, and it is difficult to see the positives. Jake’s own speech was motivated by the lack of governmental action over the past few years, as they continue to make empty promises about reducing their use of fossil fuels, casting doubt on the ability of COP26 to generate the meaningful change needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

To some extent, it is therefore up to the public to try and make a difference in whatever way we can. Complicating this is a question of ability: not all have the resources or ability to go greener.

Notably, going vegan is touted as one of the best things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, but it is a privilege that may not be affordable for many students or achievable for many whose health would be compromised.

However, it is important to recognise that even making small changes, such as swapping out meat for plant-based alternatives every so often, can go a long way toward making a difference. Rather than buying expensive meat substitutes, which can make a significant dent in your bank account, cost-effective options like pasta, rice and vegetables can be added to your diet, as well as lentils and other pulses to ensure that you’re getting the right amount of protein.

Aside from experimenting with vegan alternatives when possible, there are also many other simple lifestyle changes students can make that, as well as being eco-friendly, may also be healthier and less expensive.

A Veganuary Review.
The gentrification of the ‘Depop girly’

Notably, many students are choosing to shop second-hand as a way to combat the polluting and unethical elements of fast fashion. While some are questioning the growing gentrification of platforms such as Depop, lesser-used apps like Vinted and eBay, alongside vintage kilo sales, are often great ways to discover affordable gems.

On the transport front, Bristol is becoming ever more hostile towards the use of cars, with a Clean Air Zone set to be introduced this summer. Research has shown that even walking, cycling, or using a Voi one day a week can have a significant impact on carbon emissions in cities. However, many challenges still exist around encouraging drivers to make use of public transport or to walk to their destinations. Simultaneously, utilising public transport is not always an option: whether for health reasons, work, or simply safety at night, greener alternatives to a car are not always the best or safest ways to travel.

Constantly making the most environmentally friendly choices is not always possible and failing to live up to an unattainable ideal can cause feelings of guilt and anxiety. Rather than allowing the constraints of eco-perfectionism to intensify these emotions, focusing on making changes in other areas of your life is a better use of your energy. Even using Ecosia, a search engine extension which helps to plant trees, is a low-effort way in which almost everyone can make an impact. Forming a balance of greener lifestyle choices is undoubtedly better than making a series of radical transformations that may be personally unsustainable in the long-term.

Students, as part of a university which possesses a considerable amount of power and influence on the global stage, are also in a unique position to affect meaningful change by holding Bristol to account using individual and collective action. For instance, the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion has recently criticised the University of Bristol for its response to the climate crisis, particularly concerning their acceptance of millions in consultancy fees from defence and arms firms, which they have branded ‘ecocide criminals’.

In response to accusations of greenwashing, Ruth Day, the SU’s Student Living Officer, has said that ‘Bristol SU is currently developing a Climate Action Plan to assess and benchmark the current impact of our activity across all aspects of our organisation. We’re setting ambitious targets to reduce our emissions in line with University and city targets to achieve Net Zero by 2030 and we will be publishing this plan publicly.’

'Zero waste shop in the Bristol SU' | Bristol SU / Charlotte Anderson

‘This year we’ve also set up an affordable zero waste shop for student use, taken a delegation of students to COP-26 in Glasgow and have won commitments from the University to increase its impact investment, engage in shareholder activism and not invest in companies complicit in human rights abuses in its refreshed Ethical Investment Policy.’

‘With climate anxiety, feeling like you can make and are making a difference is really important. Join the Bristol SU Sustainability Network or one of our student societies that are putting concern into positive action. Do reach out to wellbeing support if it is getting overwhelming, there is support out there to help you manage it.’

Sebastian Key, the SU’s Undergraduate Education Officer, adds ‘We’ve introduced sustainability champions who are student staff working across different schools. We’re working with them to audit and develop their curriculum so that students are equipped with relevant skills and knowledge for a sustainable future.’

‘I’m also really excited that we’re hosting a second Bristol SU Climate Emergency Day of Action on Friday 29 April. This will have a mix of different events and opportunities for students to consider their individual impact, influence the University’s institutional aims and critically assess the global context.’

It may seem unfair being expected to make seemingly inconvenient lifestyle changes when the onus lies on our elected leaders and the most polluting companies to make radical transformations. Equally, it may be impossible for students to do everything we want to do to help.

Bristol's youth respond to the climate crisis in latest We The Curious exhibition
An insider look at COP26

However, there is a vast range of simple and easy things that you may already be doing to help, and all these small-scale, imperfect actions add up to something bigger. In Jake’s words, ‘Individuals shouldn't feel pressure or guilt to fight climate change as the weight of this responsibility falls on our world leaders. But that doesn't mean that personal change is meaningless. People united do have the power and as these movements grow, and more people make personal changes, governments will have no choice but to act.’

Featured Image: Facebook / Bristol SU

Do you think Bristol is taking enough action for climate change?