“Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise.” – Thomas Grey

Gen Z live inside of an hourglass. The sand leaks steadily from underneath our feet at an imperceptible rate so that we don’t realise the ground is slipping away until we are plummeting toward the bottleneck. The 21st century has been characterised by the impending, seemingly unstoppable doom of climate change and ecosystem collapse. There is a rising epidemic amongst young people of feelings of anxiety and dread towards a future made uncertain by global warming. This sensation, the drop in the pit of our stomachs from a fall that doesn’t seem to be ending, has caused mixed reactions amongst Gen Z. While those who use sustainability as an antidote to their anxiety are praised, others who appear to act in complete denial of climate change are frequently vilified. Young people who smoke cigarettes and partake in fast fashion appear to show blatant disregard for the impact of their actions on the climate. 

Unethical behaviours amongst young people are often attributed to delinquency and delayed cognitive development. While, in some cases, this may be true, the impact of climate change on moral decision-making in today’s youth is often overlooked. Gen Z hold the heavy responsibility of reversing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. As such, partaking in activities that cause both physical and environmental damage may stem from an attitude of wilful ignorance that allows young people to feel momentary freedom from this burden. With a reputation as one of the most climate-conscious generations,

Gen Z is often held to high moral standards regarding social and environmental issues. These standards make very little allowance for complex reactions to climate change that may appear to older generations as apathy. Subsequently, young people are owed a greater deal of compassion and understanding from older generations for their reactions to this unimaginable catastrophe.

Young people of the 21st century appear to be both driving and abating the effects of climate change. Some of the world’s most passionate and radical anti-climate change organisations have been spearheaded by Gen Z – reflecting their climate-consciousness. Yet, paradoxically, young people are the biggest users of disposable vapes and are frequent patrons of fast fashion giants. It’s an easy conclusion to draw that these behaviours (in a time of rampant climate change) seem to reflect opposing ideologies at best and a lack of general empathy at worst. In an article for the online publication Refinery29, ‘Gen Z & the fast fashion paradox’, Fedora Abu describes young people as “environmentally engaged yet seduced by what’s new and ‘now’”.  

This attitude represents an oversimplification of the mental and ethical impacts of climate change on young people. Abu depicts Gen Z as a generation whose ethical and moral beliefs are easily corrupted by consumerism-driven desire. Many adults are quick to overlook the extreme mental load felt by Gen Z toward climate change and the emotional maturity that lends itself to this responsibility. Amongst young people, there has been a notable rise in feelings of eco-anxiety – described by the American Psychological Society as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. Climate-related mental health issues manifest themselves through trauma, shock, substance abuse and depression.  

In an online article published by the University of Melbourne about the rise of climate anxiety amongst young people, recommendations to relieve negative emotions include partaking in sustainable consumption (recycling, picking up rubbish etc.) and becoming involved in environmental campaigns. While there is no doubt that sustainable consumption and activism are positive, they may not adequately alleviate the anxiety felt by some young people. Those who structure their lives around sustainability and those who indulge in unsustainable practices may seem like opposing forces; they are, in fact, two sides of the same highly anxious, existential coin – both equally valid reactions to a sense of disillusionment with 21st-century adulthood.  

Young people adopted their expectations of adulthood from the media they consumed as children. However, within a rapidly changing world, many feel a sense of disconnect with an experience of adulthood characterised by climate anxiety. Essentially, there’s a resounding sense that we haven’t gotten what was promised. As a child, my mother and I spent our bonding time in front of the TV – together she shared with me the television shows and movies that characterised her childhood and early adulthood. Before I was old enough to recognise it, the formulaic American sitcoms of the 90s and grand, romantic flicks of the 80s (often accompanied by a soundtrack of synth-heavy ballads) had begun to construct my worldview.  

Watched in retrospect and with the use of a fully developed brain, however, one aspect is glaringly missing from the portrayal of adulthood presented by the media that raised us – the omnipresent threat of climate change. While only linear time is to blame for the fact that media from the past can’t represent our current reality, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance amongst young people between the future we were raised to expect, and the way adulthood has unfolded before us. For young people, the rampant, mindless consumerism of the 80’s and 90’s appears like a neon-lit mirage. The increased uptake of sustainable practices by large corporations is a movement of the 21st century. As such, many young people have rarely made a purchase without considering the environment.  

For older generations, sustainability may provide feelings of empowerment and agency against the overwhelming monolith of climate change. However, sustainable living requires a significant amount of intentional thought against habitual, unsustainable habits built over generations. Within the domestic space, in particular, adopting sustainable approaches such as ‘zero waste’ living requires a significant mental load – the often invisible responsibilities of management and organisation. Whilst young people are rarely the organisers of large households, I believe a similar burden is felt towards sustainable consumerism.  

Sustainable consumerism is often denoted as ‘morally good’. Thus, any action or purchase that results in waste or promotes unsustainable production carries negative moral connotations.

Climate-based moral decision-making is largely all that young people have known. In some form, choosing not to consider the planet in every choice can provide young people with a prized commodity – freedom from pressure to act with morality.

For young people, living in wilful ignorance of climate change and damaging the planet (and their bodies) in the process is a form of catharsis and escapism. Drinking from plastic water bottles, smoking chemical-filled cigarettes and purchasing clothes mass-produced in sweatshops allows Gen Z to experience a pantomime of the careless, invincible youth that was promised.  

Viewed through a binary moral lens, older generations are quick to criticise young people as careless and apathetic. In reality, there’s an unshakable sense of dread amongst young people that a natural disaster will take our lives by the time we reach our parents’ age. In Thomas Grey’s poem ‘Ode on a distant prospect of Eton college’, he states “Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise”. In essence, if knowing something harmed you, would you be better off not knowing at all? If there’s one thing that Gen Z know, it’s that there is unavoidable harm in their future. If that is the case, and there’s nothing that can be done, may as well have a cigarette.  


Gen Z and eco-existentialism: A cigarette at the end of the world‘ by Layla Zak-Volpato is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.       

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