An optimist and a pragmatist waged a war in my mind this past week. I know, that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But let me explain what I mean.
I’m not proud of this, but I probably go on social media like TikTok almost every day of the week. I’m sure a lot of kids my age do. At this point, participating on social media feels more like a fact than a choice. Just the other day, I woke up around noon, picked up my phone and began my routine meandering through the For You page. I was immediately greeted by an exasperated grunt from Hank Green, science educator, author and TikTok influencer, as he gave his thoughts on the psychology of the climate crisis in response to occasionally misleading headlines.
I watched a post by Black creator @straw_hat_goofy saying he’d almost rather experience racism in his comments section than the fury of the Star Wars fandom.
I watched creator @nimay.ndolo rant about the current state of sustainable fashion. When greener options are wildly expensive and fast fashion can provide socks for $9 dollars, you can’t always blame people for saving money so they can still pay for their other needs. She ended her video by reminding viewers “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”
I watched a post by @goodmorningbadnews about the deterioration of capitalism in the U.S., citing the consistent accumulation of wealth by the top 1% during a pandemic when many Americans were in a financial crisis.
I scrolled, scrolled and scrolled, on and on and on.
That morning’s scroll represented about eight minutes of content. It’s a good cross section of the videos I see every day. In that short period of time, my page covered issues of racism, the climate crisis, some long term negative effects of capitalism and a light sprinkle of “Star Wars” fan slander on top. Given the popularity of TikTok, I know I’m not the only person being reminded of some of the most urgent social and environmental concerns every day, before I’ve even left my bed.
I’m not saying this type of exposure is an inherently negative aspect of TikTok. A lot of creators do a great job of educating people on loaded topics in a clear and concise way. I appreciate watching these videos to keep myself at least a bit informed. However, I think an important piece is missing from these doomsday reminders: a tangible, actionable solution. Being thrust everyday into thinking about all the ways you’re powerless in stopping such blatant suffering, dysfunction and harm is, to put it lightly, a lot.
The Optimist living in my head embodies my hope for the future and my faith in humanity. I like to think of her as a ballet dancer. She may be a little naive, but she believes in the power of the individual. She believes that everyone’s story is worth listening to and that every human being is born with the capacity for good, from the people she sits next to at local coffee shops to those she passes on the way to class. The Optimist is aware of how simplistic this worldview might be. But, she holds her ground because she knows — with enough momentum and cooperation, with enough fellow Optimists involved — coordinating their movements in a choreography of real change can sweep the ugly powers that be off of their business shoes. She imagines a world with a good sense of rhythm that doesn’t always dance with two left feet.
The Pragmatist is my objectivity paired with my often overwhelming sense of dread. Let’s call her a chemist. She takes human nature and the patterns of history into consideration when attempting to predict the evolution of the future. It isn’t promising. While the Pragmatist sees hate lessening with every generation, she wonders what it would take for any group larger than 1,000 to agree on anything. She comes to the conclusion that they never will. People are too reactive. Opposing opinions when put in the same beaker are too spontaneous in nature and the experiments of the past corroborate her findings. The villainising of those with different political views, different lifestyles, different religious beliefs, it’s a chunk of pure potassium being thrown in a vat of H2O. The climate crisis is an acid actively corroding the earth and no one’s looking for a base to neutralize it. She can’t imagine a better future because, scientifically, it won’t come to pass.
The Optimist and the Pragmatist are not compatible, which is why they’ve been fighting. All that comes of my internal wrestling is a visceral, inescapable stuckness. The immovable weight of the looming sky above me. But I have to put on my gloves and step in the ring. As a member of the generation of revolutionaries, my future depends on it.
I feel hopeless and stuck as if it’s my duty, but I find myself wondering how other kids handle the weight of our reality, or if they even think about it.
I set out to check in on the general psyche of other Gen Zers to see if the problems we’ll inherit as we transition into adulthood affect anyone else as deeply. To do this, I made a Google form and distributed it via social media, posing questions meant to pick people’s brains about how they see the world today, how they might see the world in the future and how it all makes them feel. With responses from eight participants, I gathered some helpful information.
I gathered answers anonymously, simply because I wanted responses to be as honest as possible. While my version of a better world would be one where anyone feels confident in sharing their thoughts with their full chest and their name attached, I acknowledge that honesty isn’t always safe today. For the purposes of this article, I aimed for honesty over anxiety. I also feel this method mimics a comfortable mode of communication for the majority of Gen Zers: faceless discourse on the internet.
The first question in this survey asks, “How often do you think about the social, environmental, economic, political etc. issues of today? How does this impact you emotionally?”
“Every day, it makes me feel a lot less hopeful for my future and discourages me from pursuing my true passions and dreams”
“I try not to think about the state of the world and the country as much as possible, because it severely impacts my mental health seeing as I am unable to create change on my own, simply watch the world waste away before my eyes.”
“I really like ducks”
What’s with the duck-related answers? There’s a few of these, and they are ridiculous, but they reflect a type of comic relief that I’ve observed when it comes to Gen Z and the acknowledgement of important issues in online spaces. Some kids process the heavier things in the world through humor and memes. I’m not exempt from this.
While laughing is a relief, I worry sometimes how much humor might undercut and trivialize the issues’ importance. It feels like a coping mechanism. Take the Schlissel emails. A grown man using his work email to send “lonely” to his secret lover in broad daylight is comedy gold, but the merch and the memes distracted from yet another example of sexual misconduct at the University of Michigan. We’re allowed to have fun, but at what point does levity come at the expense of adequate severity?
“I try not to think about them too much, to be honest. Some people say that we should constantly be thinking about these issues due to how important they are, but I’m not in a financial, personal, or professional place to try to put all of these issues on my own shoulders right now. If I think about it too much, there’s always the chance of becoming simultaneously stressed and demotivated, the latter due to nihilism, and then I can’t focus on improving myself and my skills to better the world in the future when I’m more prepared for it. I’ve heard about these crises nearly every day of my life. I’m not phased anymore, I’m just sad.”
Right off the bat, I could tell I found people with the same concerns as me, and the same feeling of stuckness. There’s comfort in this unity, but there’s also already an air of hopelessness across the board. These responses tell me that focusing on the future is discouraging and has adverse effects on mental health. It’s understandable to want to block out the future and approach life day-by-day. After all, even with nearly apocalyptic realities in sight, we still have homework due. We still have internships and interviews and a severe lack of funds.
But, there’s also pressure to avoid passing on the same fate to the next generation. Our reality is a culmination of the decisions of our predecessors. The question now is how to balance our individual health and wellbeing with our activism in a way that breaks this exacerbating generational cycle.
The second asks, “In your opinion, how do you think our generation processes the weight of all these problems, knowing they will likely come to a head in our lifetime?”
“We numb out by over stimulating our senses with media, even if we don’t realize that’s what we are doing. Or we focus on smaller issues. Or we do our part to feel like we are contributing to the greater good rather than the bad, even if ‘doing our part’ makes little to no difference, it relieves some anxiety for the individual.”
“I think our generation is terrified, and rightfully so. I think many of us are permanently damaged and the way we feel things are incredibly impersonal and distant. We are so detached from the world around us yet we see everything bad happening all at once at our fingertips.”
“God I fucken love ducks”
“Some take it head-on. They take this weight and say, ‘Put it on my shoulders, I need to bear it and make the world better now.’ But people can burn out really quickly this way. We still have this mindset that we’re sort of invincible, that we’re strong and we can take on anything. Yet at the same time, I think that these issues are so commonplace, so normal in our lives now, that most of us bury our heads in school and social media and friends and such, lamenting about issues and not knowing how to do anything about them. What else do you do when you feel so small in the world?”
Numbness. Burnout. Detachedness. We seem to be all at once hyper aware of the bad in the world and of our attempts at escaping it. Social media is a vehicle for providing information and helping people forget for at least a few minutes, at most a few hours. It’s because of platforms like Twitter and TikTok that people have access to an unprecedented degree of connectedness, and yet they also foster violent political divisions. Based on these responses, it appears that social media is trying to fuse the Optimist and the Pragmatist into viable coexistence. Kids live inside these paradoxes everyday, and it’s not doing our mental health any favors.
The third question was one that I was most anxious to see the responses. It asks, “Do you think change on such a large scale is plausible and achievable?”
“Change can definitely be achieved by the world. Now is it likely, I don’t think so sadly due to the many ideals and opposition of groups in the world. It’s very hard to come to a single answer when everyone thinks they’re right. I think change on a large scale is plausible and I hope for it, it just seems so far.”
“I don’t know anymore. I can hope.”
“Perhaps, in a perfect world, where those in power aren’t afraid of losing it. People think everything is black and white. Nobody wants to compromise. Fear is easier to sow than knowledge.”
The answer that hit me the most was the simple “maybe”. That one word carries the weight of a war behind it. Again, there’s the paradox of knowing change can happen and knowing the chances are incredibly slim.
That last response, claiming “fear is easier to sow than knowledge,” is a perfect summation of the state of how information spreads in the age of the internet. Once you decide you want to affect change, one of the first courses of action is educating yourself on the cause. One of the first places you might look is online. The thing is, anyone can publish whatever combination of words they want, so young activists are faced with figuring out what sources to trust. Fear sells, and people know this. Fear can grow in a way that makes people irrational, and it won’t always be dispelled by true information. That makes widespread fear one more thing on the list of barriers we have to overcome.
Question four asks, “How do you imagine the world will change in 20 years? 50 years? 100 years?”
“Only continue to heat up and get further and further away from reversible change to a cleaner earth.”
“The box is gonna get shaken up in some interesting ways, but democracy will ultimately backslide within the next hundred years and large equatorial areas will become uninhabitable, unless we start taking obscene amounts of climate action.”
“Ducks are so fucken cool”
“I think that developing countries will go to shit with overpopulation, developed countries will move nearly everything online, and a coming generation will reject this and rebel by throwing away their tech.”
“I don’t know, honestly. Maybe something dramatic will happen and social and government powers, responsibilities, and priorities shift to the right places. I just hope it’s not too late to change, or else it is possible that humanity’s death in another mass extinction may happen by our own hands. I can’t predict the future when it’s this volatile.”
These responses read like prompts for dystopian novels, and they’re all predictions of the worsening of current trajectories of overpopulation, democracy and environmental disaster. As I said before, it’s understandable to not want to think about the future right now. However, not thinking about future ramifications is part of what got the world caught up in our current messes. We’ll have to start thinking ahead at some point.
The fifth was more of an exercise of creative thinking. It prompts you to “pick one issue you feel the most passionate about. Imagine a world, however far in the future, that you feel has completely solved this issue to the best of its ability. What does this world look like? How does it operate?”
“There would be no more death from hate.”
“Man, in a world where people simply have their human rights, anything would be possible…I can’t even imagine what kind of positive change could be enabled by enabling that kind of joy in people, but I’m sure it’d be amazing.”
“I fuck duck”
“For me this issue is climate change. I think it’s impossible, but a sustainable world would look like small communities living together, sharing what they have and living sustainably. There is trade and likely socialism so that everyone is taken care of. There is an absence of greed and materialism. It’s impossible.”
“In my little world, we are able to back out of the extremes of capitalism. People are people again, not just a means to profit. People’s lives matter, no matter their socioeconomic status. People can afford to live, eat, provide for their families, and be happy. Price gouging of necessary medical supplies and care is eliminated. In this world people care for people, no more companies caring only for profits.”
“Imagine that we’ve solved global warming. Public transportation is abundant, perhaps in the form of Maglev trains and solar-powered buses. There are gardens or solar panels or water catchment systems on every rooftop, massive parking lots are replaced with native greenery, there are advanced filtering systems for water and air, there’s perfectly recyclable aluminum and plastics, and there are improved socioeconomic structures that allow for the decreased consumption of plastics and general excessive materialism. Birds are screaming in your window every morning. But it’s okay, because at least they’re still alive.”
No matter what level of Optimist or Pragmatist the participants had living within them, I wanted to get them to exercise the former as much as they could with this question. I can’t help but notice that many of their solutions have to do with reversing what’s already come to pass. Reversing systems of government, reversing the impacts of climate change or even reversing the growth of big cities in favor of smaller communities. On the flipside, there’s a push toward progress in giving everyone equal opportunities no matter their background, and progress in dispelling hate. Physical and systematic reversal, legislative and emotional progress. If the last question inspired dystopian novels, these responses could help flesh out a utopian setting for a work of fiction.
And finally, in question six, I wanted participants to start connecting their ideal futures to today. It asks, “In what ways could people start today to work toward this imagined world?”
“Learn about others.”
“Reduce their plastic, grow their own food or go vegetarian, carpool more, thrift clothes instead of buying brand new, just simple things that don’t even take much effort but produce less waste.”
“It’s dumb and corny, but the whole “be the change you hope to see in the world” is what gets me through the day.”
“Try to avoid advertisements. Focus on internal values rather than external goods. Create a culture of sharing and trust, open door policy. Do what you can to not overconsume.”
“I don’t know how to combat large companies that are destroying the world. I only know we can do it together, but the world feels so divided, it’s hard not to feel hopeless.”
These are the answers that give me the most hope of all. The ideas are actionable, tangible. I can imagine implementing them in my own life. The best part is: They aim toward ideal futures that kids in my generation came up with. We have the capacity for radical, creative brainstorming. It doesn’t matter if the utopia is never fully realized. By visualizing the world you want to see and thinking of how you can get there, you can forge a true north for the needle of your compass to follow. Utopia can be a political tool in this way, and I believe everyone should wield it as much as they can.
Hank Green describes science fiction as “when you are asked to believe that [the story] takes place in our universe with the same rules as our universe… Now, does it make an effort to explain how many of the things that wouldn’t be possible like laser swords and artificial gravity and hyperspace travel would be possible in our universe? No, it doesn’t explain it, but it asks us to accept it. It is our universe.”
At this point, substantial change might feel like science fiction. After dredging up hopelessnesses and placing them in the forefront of your mind, I have a favor to ask: Try to use your imagination.
I’d like to ask you to believe that climate change policy and action can take place somehow under the rules of our universe, that the prominence of white supremacy can be weeded out and eradicated from the current systems or replaced entirely, that capitalism can be reversed and billionaires made extinct and the prison industrial complex abolished and transgender people’s rights honored, all under the rules of our universe.
Create an optimistic utopia straight out of science fiction that you can aim for, like a north star to track in the sky. Dance to the beat of your ideal future, and teach others the steps while you’re at it. The spontaneous chemical reactions aren’t going away anytime soon, and it won’t stop being discouraging, but reactions don’t last forever. Your utopia may never be fully reached, but every move toward a hopeful future is a step in the right direction.
If you would like a space to throw your thoughts into the void, feel free to submit your own answers to the survey here.
Statement Correspondent Danielle Canan can be reached at email@example.com.