The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Climate-change anxiety is now a part of growing up. Pop culture has caught on.

Ivy George, left, as Amabella and Laura Dern as Renata Klein in “Big Little Lies.” (Jennifer Clasen/HBO)

The kids are anxious.

Can you blame them? In a nation inundated with news of mass shootings and the separation of migrant families, the youngest generation must also learn to cope with the debilitating knowledge that they will be the generation most affected by climate change, should it continue on the trajectory scientists believe it will take. In a report published in April by the Harvard Public Opinion Project, 46 percent of those 18 to 24 years old said climate change is “a crisis and demands urgent action.”

“Here’s this big situation that’s clearly getting worse, and that we didn’t start. We inherited it,” Lynn Bufka, associate director of practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association, said of what might run through a young adult’s mind. “What are we going to do?”

That anxiety has started to boil over into popular culture. Although movies and television have long toyed with doomsday scenarios, we’re now seeing deeper, more poignant treatments of the issue, with scenes of children and young adults trying to grapple with their fears about a fast-changing world. In the nihilistic new HBO series “Euphoria,” for instance, an anxiety-prone teen addict defends her post-rehab drug use by remarking that “the world’s coming to an end, and I haven’t even graduated high school yet.”

Last Sunday’s episode of “Big Little Lies,” which airs before “Euphoria,” included a subplot in which Amabella (Ivy George), daughter of the fiercely protective Renata Klein (Laura Dern), passes out from a panic attack while learning about climate change and sustainability.

“How many gallons of water does it take to make a single pound of sausage?” her teacher asks, to which the second-graders respond, “A thousand.”

The teacher continues: “A thousand gallons. And how many showers does that add up to?”

“Over fifty.”

There’s a sudden thud, and a cut to Amabella’s tiny feet poking out from behind a closet door (where she had presumably hid to try to calm down).

Later in the episode, a child psychiatrist informs Amabella’s parents that their daughter is worried about the planet’s destruction.

“Her class is evidently talking about climate change, and she’s gotten the message that we’re doomed,” the psychiatrist says.

Renata swiftly storms into the principal’s office, where he tells her that “the children are constantly bombarded with climate change.”

“It’s our job to deconstruct it so they can process it,” Amabella’s teacher adds.

“Good for you,” Renata retorts. “You deconstructed my little girl into a coma.”

Regardless of whether this was an appropriate second-grade lesson plan, it isn’t unreasonable for the teacher to assume that children of the digital era have encountered this kind of information already. A United Nations report in October attracted quite a bit of attention — still not enough, some would say — over its message that the world has just over a decade to take “unprecedented” actions to curb carbon emissions.

Adults, at least, have the ability to vote, to write their representatives, to control their household habits — but many of them still feel helpless. Imagine how children must feel.

“Younger children, in particular, that’s going to be very hard for them,” Bufka said. “I think another piece about climate change is that it feels much bigger than an individual. I take public transit, but I’m not getting rid of all those cars on the road that I can see outside my window. If I stop using straws, is that really going to make a difference? The kinds of actions one might take have to scale up to a larger level. That can feel overwhelming to an individual.”

Independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch built much of his recent zombie movie “The Dead Don’t Die” off this apprehension. The creatures rise up because of an unsustainable human activity (the fictional “polar fracking”) that knocks the Earth off its axis. We witness a small town’s adult residents fall prey to zombies one by one, their attackers a representation of the relative apathy humankind has exhibited toward serious issues such as the world’s destruction. The only glimmer of hope resides in a juvenile detention center, where a few of the town’s youngest residents express concern about what’s happening to the planet.

Though we never learn the kids’ fates, it’s hard to imagine a positive outcome.

That sense of resignation is explored in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” nominated for best original screenplay at the Oscars this year. The film is, as Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday put it, an “austere drama of one man’s apocalyptic crisis of faith.” The story is prompted by the suicide of an anguished eco-activist whose wife was pregnant and who had worried about bringing a child into an ecologically doomed world.

In the “Big Little Lies” episode, Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) undergoes her own crisis of faith over a single scene. She stands onstage during a PTA meeting, presumably to persuade everyone to support Renata’s mission to change the science curriculum, but she winds up doing the opposite as she descends into tears. This is largely because her husband found out she cheated on him, but also because, as she tells the other parents, “we tell ourselves we’re going to be fine, but we’re not.”

“Climate change is important. It’s important. But it’s also a lot to load up on a lot of second-graders. I’m sorry that the whole world might go kapooey?” Madeline begins. “They need to know that? You know, I think a part of the problem is, we lie to our kids. We fill their heads full of Santa Claus and stories with happy endings when most of us know most endings to most stories . . . suck, right?

“Let’s just get real. There aren’t a lot of happy endings for a lot of people, you know? Be it climate change, be it guns in school. And our kids are afraid.”

Note: This story originally cited a report from the American Psychological Association in which 58 percent of surveyed Gen Zers reported feeling stressed by news coverage of climate change. It has been updated with a statistic from the Harvard Public Opinion Project.

Read more:

‘Everything is not going to be okay’: How to live with constant reminders that the Earth is in trouble

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