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Climate anxiety

New Study: Young People Envision a Dystopian Future

If we are to believe high school students from Denmark, life in 2060 will be anything but safe and comfortable. In a series of short stories, two-thirds of the 152 young participants in the study paint a dystopian picture of the future.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 10/26/2023

Destructive tidal waves and deadly droughts. Siblings gone missing. Parents dying. Lonely youth struggling for survival in shattered societies dominated by mistrust, greed, scarcity and violence.

It could be the plot of a new movie or show, but these are elements from a series of short stories written by Danish high school students in the research project "Climate Future Fiction," where a group of SDU researchers, together with partners at the SDU Citizen Science Knowledge Center, collaborated with English teachers and students from five Danish high schools.

The purpose was to engage in a dialogue with young people about how to envision the future in light of climate change. After a series of workshops, discussions, research presentations and writing exercises, the students were asked to author a short story about how they imagine life in 2060.

Refrained from a positive narrative

- Along the way, we encouraged them to consider a positive narrative for the future, but almost all of them refrained from doing so, says Bryan Yazell, Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Language and one of the researchers behind the project.

The other researchers are Patricia Wolf, Professor at the Department of Business and Management, and Karl Attard, Assistant Professor at the Department of Biology. The three researchers are also affiliated to SDU Climate Cluster, whose mission is to contribute to climate neutrality by 2050 through interdisciplinary research. More specifically, Wolf and Yazell are core figures in the SDU Elite Centre PACA, which aims to uncover a positive climate narrative that might empower mass climate action.

Bryan Yazell sees the fact that so many young people envision a broken and dangerous, dystopian future as a reflection of the massive influence of popular culture and the news media.

Climate anxiety in young people

According to a 2021 study, 60 percent of 16-25year-olds in 10 countries are extremely concerned about climate change, and two-thirds feel sad or anxious when thinking about the future. Source: The Lancet Planetary Health

New project under way

- The dystopian society where civilization no longer exists, and everyone must fight for themselves, is a classic narrative in movies and television. It is a story they have been told so many times. At the same time, the media also reports on ecosystems and weather systems that are on the brink of collapse, he says.

If the popular culture and the news media can influence young people's visions of the future as dystopian so strongly, can young people also be influenced in the opposite direction?

- That is worth investigating, and that is what we will do in our next project. The idea is the same: to have young people write a fictional vision of the future, but they will work more on reflecting on their own and each other's stories. This could involve discussing why they gravitate towards dystopia and becoming aware of the prevalent narratives they are exposed to in their lives. We will not ask them directly to author positive future stories, but we will encourage them to discuss with each other whether there can be other, more positive endings to their stories, says Bryan Yazell.

It is good that young people are well-informed about climate change, but it is not good that they feel incapable of imagining a way to manage it.

Bryan Yazell, Associate professor, Department of Culture and Language

Journalists and media need to reflect on their role

According to the researchers, the study shows the need for a space where young people can express their thoughts and feelings about climate change while also discussing their visions of catastrophe.

- If we are to address the climate crisis, it is important to have a conversation about what a desired future can look like - not just the undesired one. We want to contribute to increasing eco-awareness among young people; in other words, sharpening their awareness so that they can also have hopeful visions for the future.

Yazell also believes that the news media need to reflect on their role:

- Researchers and journalists see it as their task to convey their knowledge to us. But it is a problem if science communication paints so many doomsday scenarios, that they become a firmly entrenched narrative just like in the popular culture. It is good that young people are well-informed about climate change, but it is not good that they feel incapable of imagining a way to manage it.

Research in new narratives

The SDU Elite Centre PACA aims to uncover a positive climate narrative that might empower mass climate action. PACA is short for Mobilizing Post-Anthropocentric Climate Action: A New Root Narrative. Read more about the centre here.
Meet the researcher

Bryan Yazell is an Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Language, SDU Climate Cluster and the Danish Institute for Advanced Study. His research interest is to explore the social dimensions to literature, especially when it relates to public debates about welfare, climate change and migration.


Editing was completed: 26.10.2023