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Student climate activists at Stellenbosch University (SU) are facing an uphill battle to make meaningful change whilst riddled with eco-anxiety.

The United Nations (UN) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have indicated that the climate crisis is worsening, and the fate of the Earth and humans as a species rests heavily in the hands of major corporations, governments and institutions. Because of this, activists may at times feel that their efforts are futile. 

Eco-anxiety, according to the Guardian, is a feeling of impending doom around one’s future due to climate change, and is a phenomenon that is increasing in occurrence amongst the youth. 

Head gardener of EcoMaties 2021/2022 (the Stellenbosch University sustainability society), Jessica Hall, a second-year BA (Humanities) student, says, “Eco-anxiety is a mixture of feelings. It is an overwhelming sense of helplessness, [and] anger at past generations, huge corporations and ignorant people.” 

Eco-anxiety can be paralysing and disheartening, as it is “a sense that the destruction that’s happening within the climate crisis is out of our individual control and that, despite our individual choices and hoping to be listened to, our future is headed towards dystopia,” says Danielle Grave, a BAHons (International Studies) student, EcoMaties member and climate activist. 

A beautiful poster made by children who attended the Climate Strike on 24 September, highlighting the importance of the activism that took place that day. Photo: Skyla Thornton.

The current discussion of climate justice at SU pertains mainly to linking the concerns of the student activists with the initiatives being carried out by the university itself. “There are exciting and hopefully fruitful conversations being held between the academic and administrative staff with students, trying to create a conversation that includes everyone,” says Matthew Wingfield, PhD candidate and member of the Climate Justice Charter Movement (CJCM). The CJCM is a cause that aims to approach the climate crisis in an intersectional way by focussing on empowering the people most affected through transforming their work environments, communities and political power structures, whilst simultaneously protecting and preserving the planet.

The university initiatives, such as the School for Climate Studies and the new strategy for environmental sustainability, promise sustainability and the reduction of the carbon footprint of SU. Further information about these initiatives will be publicly available from the university in the future, as this project is still in progress. 

A summary of current predictions of the climate crisis can be found at the website, which shows that the global temperature will have increased to 2oC degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. We are currently at 1oC warmer, and could be at 1.5oC within the next 10 years. Even the 1oC change has caused major storms, more intense heat waves, flooding and droughts all over the world, with the worst effects impacting the African continent. 

“The climate discussion is fundamentally about life, and there is no sphere in which this discussion is not relevant,” says Grave. What is needed now is a collective movement towards a just transition, through an intersectional approach to the climate crisis, as highlighted by the CJCM.  

“This is not something that a couple of activists can or should do, this is everyone’s fight,” says Grave. Herein lies the hope and opportunity for students to lead transformative action. 

Members of EcoMaties attended a Global Climate Strike, which took place at the Parliament Buildings in Cape Town on 24 September. The strike also included a handover of demands to a representative of parliament specific to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). 

The handover taking place at the Parliament Buildings at the Climate Strike. Photo: Skyla Thornton.

Hall says, “It was an electric environment filled with amazing performers, speakers and protestors, and I am really looking forward to the next one. Protesting puts pressure on parliament to make changes, and is also one of the easiest ways to make connections within the movement.”

As seen by the global trend of increased climate activism, the climate change discussion is being held mainly by the youth, who continue to challenge the status quo. “We cannot wait for the adults to take charge because they are not going to,” says Wingfield. 

“My wish is that all Maties will get involved in the struggle for a just future! In the coming year, EcoMaties will be a place where students can come together, bring their ideas and have important discussions. I want to encourage people to become artists and teachers in their everyday life. Watch this space…” says Micha Ruwiel, the chairperson of EcoMaties. 
To get involved in the Climate Justice discussion, one can attend an upcoming climate strike, or find out more information by contacting EcoMaties. The society can be found on Instagram, Facebook, and at weekly gardening sessions at Welgevallen Experimental farm.

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