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New Study Shows Collective Action Helps People Cope with Climate Anxiety

30 May 2023

An article published by the Yale School of Public Health recently caught my attention for its focus on collective action as a buffer to climate woes. 

The article describes a study involving nearly 300 university students in the United States. The study found that climate change-related anxiety was linked to depression among students who were not participating in group activities to address the problem of climate change. Group activities mentioned were things like community outreach, peer education, and participation in advocacy groups.

Reading this got me thinking about my own experience with climate anxiety and what I’ve been learning through Tomorrow’s Air. My experience anecdotally aligns with the results of the Yale researchers – learning about innovations to help restore our climate is invigorating, hope-building, mind-expanding, and surprisingly, dare I say it: fun. I hear this also from our individual traveler customers, our travel business partners, and our interns. Taking action in collaboration with others is not only helpful – we’re able as a group to focus and generate momentum for a set of climate solutions we would not be able to do alone – it also makes a person feel hopeful and upbeat. 

So if it’s so great I then ask myself, why hasn’t collective action been summoned to solve the climate crisis already?

One reason for this is, collective action can be very difficult. Reading the Yale study, I was also reminded of the article Tim Chester wrote for Adventure Travel News in May 2022: “The Power of Collective Action in Addressing the Climate Crisis”. Tim’s article traced a bit of the history of collective action in solving systemic problems that affect many people. Economists have been wrestling with the utility of collective action for decades – with some highlighting its failures, and others pointing up its unique successes – particularly with environmental problems. Mancur Olsen’s research was very influential and included models showing that unless individuals are forced (say, through regulation) they will not act in support of a common interest. 

On the other hand, Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s work offered an alternative to Olsen’s notion that the only way to solve common pool resource problems was for external authorities to regulate. Her work advocated for the viability of local collectives working with oversight from local, regional, and national stakeholders to solve complex environmental issues. Reading about Ostrom’s work, I imagine we in the adventure travel industry easily relating to her: unlike her contemporaries whose work focused in modeling, she started with real life examples, examining communal tenure in the meadows and forests of Switzerland and Japan, irrigation communities in Spain and Nepal, and fisheries in Maine and Indonesia. 

Tomorrow’s Air, and the collective action we’re gathering, is in a way a test case perhaps for Ostrom’s work (and more recently also Jouni Paavola in chapter 14 of this journal) whose research and findings suggest that ‘polycentric’ approaches (vs exclusively top-down regulation) are necessary to solve an environmental problem of the scale we are grappling with today. 

I’m of course dedicated to seeing the Tomorrow’s Air collective succeed in educating a broad travel community on climate conscious travel and marshaling meaningful investment to help scale up the work of climate innovators like direct air capture pioneer Climeworks, biochar producer Pacific Biochar, and enhanced weathering provider Eion, but I’m also equally as curious about the social experiment we’re embarking on together. Only time will tell which theory we end up proving!

If you’re interested in more collective action success stories, head over to Tomorrow’s Air where the team has recently launched a new series featuring local leaders from around the world receiving support through OneEarth. OneEarth is a nonprofit organization trying to further the success of collective action leaders to solve the climate crisis. They’re identifying collective action leaders working with groundbreaking science, inspiring media, and an innovative approach to climate philanthropy.