Hopeless, not helpless: Young Catholics face climate crisis

Gen Z and Millennials harbor anxiety and grief about Earth’s future. Together they’re building networks of care for themselves and neighbors in need.
Peace & Justice

Not long ago, a well-meaning Catholic leader deeply embedded in social justice initiatives told me that young people would be less hopeless about the climate crisis if they could find a way to respond with action. I wanted to retort, “Don’t take my hopelessness away from me!”

My own lived experience, in addition to teaching ethics and theology at Loyola University Chicago, has taught me that Generation Z and Millennials do not need to be rallied to act in response to the climate crisis. So many are aware, so many are active. From where I stand as a Millennial and after many conversations with Gen Zers, we need older generations to walk with us toward our dark futures and hold space for our feelings of hopelessness, instead of dismissing them or trying to persuade us otherwise.

Gen Zers and Millennials were taught to reach for the stars. But bare survival is a more apt expectation of a future on this burning planet. We are having to change our mindsets from imagining future upward mobility, exotic travel, and successful careers to accepting that our futures will be full of droughts, floods, fires, toxic air, and rising water. We need support as we move through anxiety, grief, depression, acceptance, and, yes, hopelessness in reaction to this reality.

What exactly does that kind of accompaniment look like? It does not look like fixing problems, and it doesn’t sound like the words, “Don’t worry. Everything will be OK.” Accompaniment means creating a container for one another’s pain and making space for each other to release difficult emotions.


Anxiety and grief

As climate anxiety and climate change grief become buzzwords in psychology circles, we need something more than information about the plight of our planet and encouragement to take action. Accompaniment needs to become the response in Christian communities. We need to accompany one another through these difficult emotional experiences, just as we work together to care for the Earth.

Every generation is dealing with its own form of grief and anxiety related to climate change. Millennials and Gen Zers require a particular kind of accompaniment given the life phases we are in and the five, six, seven more decades we may have left to survive on this burning planet.

I have Gen Z students who have been involved in the Sunrise movement since they were in high school. One spends his time and energy creating protest art for marches and rallies. Many are fraught with despair and anger as they select majors and bear the burden of fabricating life goals. I have heard students say things like, “Who cares what major I choose if our futures are so uncertain?” A gnawing hopelessness darkens their life plans because, as a society, we have not guaranteed them that the “American dreams” we pressure them to reach for will rise up to meet them down the road.

We are having to change our mindsets from imagining future upward mobility, exotic travel, and successful careers to accepting that our futures will be full of droughts, floods, fires, toxic air, and rising water.


My Millennial peers are raising children against the backdrop of piercing concern for their offspring’s survival. One friend recently moved her family from their Chicago apartment to rural Ohio to be able to plant fruit and nut trees so that their young child will have alternate sources of food when he is older. They are also working to go completely off the grid, researching how to heat their greenhouse with geothermal energy. Recently, I received word from my cousin and his spouse that they slept in a car with their small children to wait out the Oregon forest fires, ready to leave their home and flee to safety at any given moment.

I am one of those Millennials who thinks a lot about climate change when my spouse and I consider having children. Watching my friends and relatives raise their children amid climate crises is terrifying. I know of other Millennials who are choosing not to have children as they listen to their peers lamenting about parenting through climate emergencies.

This is why we are hopeless: For Gen Zers who are beginning their adult lives and Millennials raising children (or choosing not to), the COVID-19 pandemic will most likely not be the most bizarre or terrifying global crisis we will face. As long as disaster capitalism continues to fuel unpredictable weather patterns and environmental tragedies, we will continue to suffer one disaster after another.

It is imperative that we reach net zero emissions because we still have the opportunity to limit global warming and decrease air pollution. We could see the benefits of these changes within 20 years. And even if we succeed in reaching the goal of net zero emissions as a nation and somehow also establish global ecological solidarity, we still have to pay the price for the past decades of environmental recklessness. This means that even if we were to answer the call of the most recent climate change report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to cut global CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will still continue to warm “at least until mid-century,” as reported.


Gen Zers and Millennials are worried about the time between now and “mid-century,” when the planet will continue to warm, causing perpetual climate emergencies in the meantime. And because of this, we are weighed down by hopelessness even as we advocate and act to slow or stop global warming looking forward.

Mutual aid and accompaniment

Our hopelessness is an emotion we need space to feel, but it does not hold us back from forging ahead in creating strategies for survival and care. In many cases, hopelessness shapes our perspective, the way we live our lives, and our expectations for our futures.

Take, for example, the countless mutual aid networks that have sprung up in response to the many crises spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rooted in the past and present survival strategies of communities of color in the United States, mutual aid networks proliferated throughout 2020. Unemployed neighbors used their time to network and link needs with resources.

For Gen Zers who are beginning their adult lives and Millennials raising children (or choosing not to), the COVID-19 pandemic will most likely not be the most bizarre or terrifying global crisis we will face.


In communities like mine on the North Side of Chicago, neighbors collaborated on food and medication distribution, rent fundraisers, and mask making, providing patchwork solutions to our community’s basic needs. With Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid resource in hand, we continue to learn together how to ask for what we need without shame, reject patterns of white saviorism and individualism, and create solid networks of community so that we have what we need and neighbors to lean on when the next disaster strikes.

In my mutual aid network, we use talking circles to process the emotional labor that comes along with organizing. These help us connect on a deeper level, creating a community of emotional support. Talking circles create a container to hold painful feelings and process them. Talking and listening circles create a holding space for each person to voice their thoughts and feelings around a difficult topic. An example of how to construct talking and listening circles can be found in The Circle Way resource.


According to author, international speaker, and neuroscience educator Sarah Peyton, the promise of accompaniment for climate anxiety can be as impactful as decreasing the effects of trauma. Sometimes accompaniment can be wordless, a walking-with in spirit and silence. It is an embodied promise to be there physically next to someone so that they are not alone. Other times accompaniment can be asking about someone’s feelings and not shying away from harsh answers.

Accompaniment is in the invitation, “Tell me more about how you feel,” followed by a reflection to clarify, “It sounds like you are feeling _____ and needing _____. Do I have that right?” This simple pattern of reflecting back what feelings you hear your conversation partner expressing and allowing them to expand on them could go back and forth many times. This technique is used in nonviolent communication and allows someone to talk through their feelings and needs without judgment or analysis, which can often stop the flow of connection.


Catholic teaching and tradition provide solid foundations for uniting around caring for our common home. In the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), Pope Francis makes it clear that ecological conversion is a spiritual and moral imperative and so many Catholic communities are concerned and active in response. But we need more effective ways to accompany one another through the dark, painful, and emotional terrain of facing ecological hopelessness. And many Gen Zers and Millennials are yearning for a particular kind of accompaniment as we look to the future.

To our elders, I dare to ask on behalf of a few younger generations: Come find us and walk with us. We need your emotional support as we walk into the dark. We have given up our fireworks, but we’ve got plenty of candles to share.

Image: Unsplash/Joshua Newton

About the author

Dannis Matteson

Dannis Matteson is a Ph.D. candidate at Loyola University Chicago in integrative studies in ethics and theology, a mutual aid organizer, and a co-founder and member of EncounterPoint, a faith community and hospitality space for individuals and groups collaborating on spirituality and social justice in Chicago.

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