Young people in Winnipeg writing on a chalkboard outside during a climate strike

Youth Climate Activism: Running a marathon, not a sprint

IISD youth engagement and water policy expert Emily Kroft sat down with climate educator Kristina Hunter to discuss how youth climate activists can prepare for a lasting future in sustainability.

By Emily Kroft on February 10, 2022

For young people actively engaged in fighting the climate crisis, the task can feel overwhelming, especially amid continued warnings that climate mitigation efforts are falling short of the ambition we need to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels. Yet youth activists are crucial for galvanizing public momentum in support of more ambitious climate action and will have to live with the consequences of today’s decisions. Many of them will also be tomorrow’s policy-makers. 

To discuss how to best support youth activists amid the challenges they face, I sat down with activist and educator Kristina Hunter, who has worked with youth in sustainability spaces for over 20 years. Kristina began her career by teaching environmental science courses at the University of Manitoba, where she mentored many students. In recent years, she has launched her own website featuring online content to support young people who want to be more involved in sustainability. 

Below is our conversation on how youth climate activists can reconnect with their larger movement, beat climate fatigue, and engage with their peers at home and abroad. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Learning From Sustainability Mentors

Emily: You started your career as a university professor but have since moved on to creating more online content. Can you tell us what inspired you to move to the bigger platform?

Kristina: Like a lot of people, I was feeling like we’re not focusing on the things we need to focus on. I felt like the earth is on fire and here I am talking about grades. I was lucky enough to talk to people about the environment each and every day, and yet it wasn’t enough of a focus on true action, and I think we also weren’t really respecting the urgency of the situation. 

I was seeing myself heading toward burnout and really seeing my students and others in the industry heading down that path as well. I thought that we need to refocus, and that's why I started a podcast and my own blog and website and online courses.

Emily: Something unique about your career is that you've dedicated so much of your time to working in a mentoring role, particularly to young people. What inspires you to be that mentor figure?

Kristina: Clearly, they [the young people] do. It’s so exciting and invigorating to be reminded that there are endless possibilities and to be challenged about asking, “Why not”? 

So many of us get stuck in that rut of “This is how we do things” and “This is how the world is.” We need to challenge ourselves and ask why. Why can't we do it differently? That is honestly what keeps me going, and I love being inspired by those young adults who are changing the world. 

I also love helping to give them the tools to be as effective as possible and to do it in a way that protects their own wellness and really understands that yes, it is urgent and serious. But we first need to care for ourselves.

Blending New Technologies and Historical Skills

Emily: Have you noticed any changes in how young environmentalists approach environmental issues, compared to when you got started?

Kristina: I’m so glad you asked this. It’s such an interesting thing to have observed this deepened connection that people have with the broader movement online. I know the social media and online world can be very challenging from a mental health perspective. But the connections that it gives have also been very beneficial in that we are much more connected now to global movements. 

When we see things like protests in Standing Rock, we feel and understand those issues much better because of this connection we can have with them. But young people now are also doing interesting things that some of my colleagues and I had always hoped for. 

They're going back in terms of understanding what was valuable about our historical skills and behaviours, so they’re learning how to preserve food and doing gardening with their grandparents. And these beautiful things are not just a throwback but preserving the heritage and knowledge that we need to capture. That also makes me very hopeful.

Forging Lasting Connections and Preparing for the Long Haul

Emily: I think there's sometimes a stereotype that young people don't care about things that happened in the past, but there really does seem to be a resurgence of recognizing how valuable that knowledge is. Something else that there seems to be a big resurgence of is in awareness in the climate community of activists from different parts of the world being more aware of each other and more willing to work together. What do you think is the driver behind that trend?

Kristina: You know I have seen that, and I have experienced it as well, and I understand this term “global community” on a new level. The pandemic has forced me personally to get online more. I think it's forced a lot of us to get online more, and we have recognized there are ways to forge real relationships, even if you've never met in person. To me, that is one of the upsides of the technology that we have and how we can use it to develop true relationships.

Emily: Something that I’ve heard you say a few times before is that when we take action on these big global issues, especially in sustainability, that we’re running a marathon and not a sprint. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Kristina: When I got into teaching, I really thought that I would be working myself out of a job. We’d educate more people about the problems, and then I wouldn’t need to teach this anymore. It didn’t quite happen that way. By the time I left teaching 20 years later, I was honestly feeling some despair about it all. 

The good thing is that I have seen a huge amount of change in that time. I have seen people really take a deep interest in understanding the root issues and how things are truly interconnected, how sustainability is not separate from equality and issues of racial justice and ecological injustices, and how those all connect and are part of the same issue. 

However, we also know we’re not acting fast enough. It’s definitely been my experience that we are in this for the long haul. And when we recognize that, I think we do things a little bit differently in terms of our own self care.

I think that this is a vital piece that we’re not talking about enough in the environmental movement in the movement of sustainability and justice. Yes, the big changes should have all happened already. We are behind, and it is urgent, and it’s an emergency on all fronts. Yet I think we need to approach it in the sense that we will be working on this for the foreseeable future. In order to do that, we must protect our own personal well-being.

So, how do we get there? It's really not how we sometimes think about self care. It's not about bingeing your show online. It's getting to the heart of what really is good for us. Sleeping right and eating right overlap with what's good for the planet. When we eat whole foods, eat lower on the food chain, that's good for the planet and our bodies. 

We also have to respect that we have a lot to do, but we're already doing good work. For anybody who feels kind of desperate that they’re not doing enough, make a list acknowledging all of the things you are doing that are good for the planet that are also good for yourself. Things that are good for your community, that build social justice. Make that list and refer back to it. We really want to avoid being overwhelmed by grief and be able to keep working at it and not burnout. 

Emily: Thank you so much Kristina for being here. If someone wants to know more about your work or contact you, where can they find you?

Kristina: I have a website—it is I chose the word flourishing because I truly believe that's what we all can do. Humanity can flourish along with the natural world, and to me that's what sustainability is. I also have a podcast called Live. Well. Green. I'd love to connect.