In recent years, the consequences of climate change have become a looming threat to the lives of communities across the world. This rising concern about climate change has led to the creation of terms such as “eco anxiety” and even a glossary to address the range of emotional and psychological responses to ecological disturbances. The prevalence of climate catastrophes and ecological disasters has specifically affected members of the Gen-Z cohort, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, such as women of color.
Jamie Margolin, the 17-year-old founder of a youth climate activist group called Zero Hour, said in an interview with Bustle that this anxiety also stems from conflicting narratives youth are given by their society. That is why it is becoming more necessary for individuals to craft their own narratives of environmental awareness and activism — ones that precede narratives of fear and helplessness.
There is no doubt that our communities are developing a keener environmental awareness. In order to combat this gradually overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of these environmental issues, students at UCI share the ways in which they channel their frustration and concern into powerful change with the help of sustainability resources and spaces on campus.
The Sustainability Resource Center, or SRC, is a physical hub on campus that provides educational resources and programming to help cultivate an environmentally conscious campus. One element of the SRC that makes it such a unique program is that it is run by a student and staff team who co-create events to engage both the campus and surrounding Irvine community.
Students, campus partners and community members are free to visit the SRC to find leadership opportunities in the realm of sustainability. Programs such as the Costa Rica Program, On-Campus Sustainability themed houses and EarthReps training program are some notable examples of programs supported by the SRC. For example, the Costa Rica program is an academic experience and travel program that allows students to dedicate their spring break to learn about global sustainability through involvement with local communities in Costa Rica. Immersing oneself in experiences like these to understand sustainability on the community level is important for those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of what sustainable action can look like.
Victoria Nguyen is a third year student at UCI majoring in social ecology and minoring in global sustainability, public and community engagement and education. Currently, Nguyen is the Residential Life Coordinator at the Sustainability Resource Center and Housing. She plans activities, presentations, workshops and events on important sustainability topics in the context of student life, like Zero Waste and Environmental Wellness. Nguyen’s activism is fueled by an understanding that the ways students practice sustainability is different for each one. Contrary to popular belief cultivated by social media, living sustainably does not have to be a perfect process.
“We don’t all have that privilege and access to the resources to achieve a completely zero waste lifestyle,” Nguyen said. “ It’s so expensive, it’s so inaccessible. And you should never ever ever feel guilty for having to choose one thing over another because you can’t afford it at the moment.”
Knowing this, she dedicates her time to initiating open-dialogues with students across campus with her sustainability and social equity workshops, zero waste training and advocacy for sustainable practices and facilities in housing communities. In March 2020, the SRC was awarded a TGIF grant to implement a compost system in student housing units.
“I feel like my job is done if I can diversify the meaning of sustainability by engaging students in sustainable topics through activities and open-dialogues — rather than extensive lectures or preaching,” Nguyen said.
In addition to conducting outreach with the SRC, Nguyen also teaches preschool students about Sustainability as a UROP research fellow and interns for Little Ants Nature School, which operates in graduate housing.
Like Nguyen, Alex Lou channels his environmental activism in a unique way. Lou is a third year biology major at UCI. Lou is one of the two ASUCI Sustainability Project and Garden commissioners under the Office of the Internal Vice President. Lou combines hands-on education, hard work and a lot of soil to fulfill this need to act sustainability in this time. In the past year, Lou has transformed the Ants in Your Plants Garden into a flourishing space in which students could learn how to garden and harvest produce.
“Our garden acts as an educational tool for students interested in sustainable agriculture and developing self-sufficiency. We also help fight food insecurity by donating produce to the FRESH Basic Needs Hub,” Lou said.
For Lou, acting sustainably is a balanced coupling of building essential skill sets and giving back to the community. Lou and his co-commissioner Joseph Nguyen also host events on campus such as Zot-N-Clothes and the Sustainability Fair in order to help provide resources and education about sustainability to students.
From creating Garden Restoration Days to sharing with his Facebook group what he recently baked with ingredients from the garden, Lou brings together the surrounding student community through an activity that is close to his heart.
Both Nguyen and Lou practice sustainability through different means that suit their talents and interests. However, there is a common thread that connects their views on sustainability today: Nguyen and Lou both acknowledge that the difficulty for young people to act sustainability is a cause of living in an aggressive consumer-society.
When students are constantly forced to work to make their own ends meet, sustainability could be one of the last priorities. What Nguyen and Lou reveal through their involvements is that students must redefine living sustainably for themselves. Even in a broken and difficult system that demands so much of young people today, there are ways to combat environmental crises that do not involve placing oneself in an economic burden.
“Living in an unhealthy throw-away society fueled by a capitalist burn-out culture and political corruption has made it a norm to carelessly dump people and objects when they no longer meet our needs and expectations,” Nguyen said. “Sustainability is about cultivating a world of kindness, empathy and love so that it becomes natural for us to respect our earth. So that it becomes impossible for us to ignore the impacts that our actions have on ourselves, others and inequity across the globe.”
Being sustainable does not have to be separate from the other aspects of our lives. Our view of nature being the opposite of modern human life and technological advancement is constantly constructed by this capitalistic way of viewing the world. Nguyen and Lou are challenging these narratives by asserting that living one’s normal life and being sustainable should be inextricably connected to each other. Many of us simply have not put enough thought to it yet.
“Living sustainably, especially for busy college students, can be seen as a hassle [or] impediment to daily life. Living in a fast-paced, consumerist society where everything is given and done for us, it is challenging sometimes to just slow down and evaluate our own impact.” Lou said.
Nguyen and Lou also reveal here that sustainability is about cultivating a mindset of care and mindfulness for the world that provides us life. Students must not allow the demanding expectations of institutions to desensitize them to processes that are affecting their lives and others in the present.
Instead, they can focus on what they can do in their own power to practice a mode of sustainable living that works for them. Student-life sustainability should not be seen as an impediment to the flow of our busy lives but a way to enrich it. By practicing sustainability, one can improve their practice in mindfulness, relieve stress and engage in activities that are meaningful and life-giving to them, all while preserving the earth for future generations.
Vian Nguyen is a Staff Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.