How to Combat Climate Anxiety with Activism, Art, and Imagination

Published Sep 26, 2023

Categories

Climate and Energy

Artist and activist Kaitlyn Quach speaks with us about their journey from climate anxiety to climate activism, and the essential role their art plays.

Artist and activist Kaitlyn Quach speaks with us about their journey from climate anxiety to climate activism, and the essential role their art plays.

In artist Kaitlyn Quach’s imagination, there is no meat industry in 2064. Energy comes from wind, solar, and nuclear fusion. The most fashionable clothes are upcycled. Homelessness has ended and libraries are everywhere.  

Kaitlyn is a Queens, New York-based artist currently writing a sci-fi comic about an AI bot learning from humans in a climate-changed future. While they have been writing this comic for years, the story and its setting didn’t always take this form. They recently began rewriting it since joining the climate movement. 

After years of feeling helpless in the face of the climate crisis, they read Greta Thunberg’s book, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. It completely changed their perspective. 

They started searching for nearby climate actions, signing up for email alerts, and joining rallies. That’s how they connected with Food & Water Watch.

This year, Kaitlyn joined our New York team to help pass the All-Electric Buildings Act, which bans gas hookups in new construction statewide.

Since joining the climate movement, Kaitlyn has gained community and confidence that what they do matters. Their art has begun to take a new shape, too. It’s gotten a clearer purpose: to help people feel like there is hope, that amazing things are possible, even when you feel like you aren’t strong enough to make a difference. As they put it:

“I want to make people like me feel like we’re not broken. Or useless or ridiculous. These values [sensitivity and gentleness] are super important in sustaining community or caring about each other. I think that’s how we’re going to save the world, or at least help the world become better.”

Stand with Food & Water Watch in our fight for a better world! Join us at Against All Odds, our annual benefit to protect the planet.

Recently, we spoke with Kaitlyn about their journey through climate anxiety to activism, and the role their art plays. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You so wonderfully lay out your story of becoming an activist in this comic, but can you talk a little more about your journey? 

I think climate change is something that I’ve been aware of for a long time. Ever since they first taught us about “pollution” — they didn’t say “climate change” back then, they just said “pollution” or “global warming” — it was always in the back of my mind, ever since I was little.

But I was like, “Well, I’m a kid. I shouldn’t have to worry about that,” or I was just thinking about whether lunch was going to be bad or something. 

As I got older, I started seeing more signs. I would see the news or occasionally someone on Instagram would doom-post about it. And I’d be like, “Oh my god, this is a real issue, and I don’t know what to do about it.” I just kept thinking, “I’m just one person, I’m not rich, I’m not powerful. What could I possibly do against this?”

It just got worse and worse over time, to the point where I couldn’t even do anything because I just really felt like everything was doomed. Like, “How much time do we even have left?” 

But then I took this class called “World Energy” in school. I took it because I was writing a sci-fi series and I wanted to learn more about the science behind energy, especially renewable energy. 

That teacher had us read this book, and it was the Greta Thunberg book. I was like, “Oh no! This is probably going to be really stressful for me to read.” But all it took was reading two pages, and I was already radicalized.

Her speeches are just so empowering because she doesn’t shy away from the real facts. She doesn’t shy away from how serious it is, but also she describes it in this way that’s extremely empowering. You know, like, “You have the power to make change. If a whole bunch of people decided to act, then we could make waves.” 

That changed my whole perspective on everything, and that’s when I started Googling. I was Googling “nearby climate actions,” I was signing up for emails, and that’s how I found out about the City Hall rally [for the Gas-Free NYC campaign].

And then I just kept going to stuff. I would just get an email and go, “Okay, I can make this rally, I can make that rally, I can attend this Zoom meeting,” and then I would try to go.

Every time I do one of these actions, they always say there’s more, or like “There’s this thing on that day.” And I said, “Okay, I can make that.” So that’s kind of how I kept going to things. 

We focus a lot on the science and politics of climate, which are of course important! But why do you think art is helpful and even vital to the climate movement? 

I think art is so important! In general, a lot of my work talks about the power of art, about how it often goes unnoticed or unappreciated in a society that values STEM. 

Everyone is like, “Computer programming, lawyers, doctors.” Everyone knows how important those are, and they’re like, “Oh, you can’t ride your paintings into space.”

But you consume art every day. Art is like the soul of society. It’s so necessary. Because without it, there’s no joy. It’s a big source of joy for a lot of people. 

And connecting that with something as important as activism, I think, can really show people how important the climate crisis is and how powerful they themselves can be, and it could really help empower people.

Because the point of good art is making someone feel something.

A lot of your art and comics are in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Do you connect those with climate issues?

I think it’s showing more and more in my work. It’s really elevating it in a way, because right now, I’m really focused on my sci-fi work, and it takes place in 2064 after an AI bot takes over. 

And I’m thinking about how the AI’s interaction with art, as well as activism, changed it. Because you know how in every story, AI ends up destroying humanity? I make it start out that way. 

The AI was created by billionaires, so it was just like the billionaires when it was first created. It valued efficiency over everything else, and it was pretty heartless.

But then it came into contact with artists who were not billionaires, and it’s like, “Wait, I don’t understand why they do this thing. I don’t understand why they dance, why they draw and stuff,” so there’s a kind of transformation that occurs. The AI decides to give humanity a chance. 

I also think my work is kind of like a suicide prevention method for myself. And I think activism as well has that purpose because it makes me realize I have value. 

I can just be there. I don’t have to be super skilled or make a lot of money or be super successful or even well-liked. I just have to show up, and that means a lot. Activism really helped reinforce that, and I’ve been trying to put that into my work to make people realize that, too.

We recently had an event where artists spoke about how art can foster community and activism. How are community, art, and activism all connected for you?

I think every kid likes drawing. When we’re kids, we do a little bit of everything. We dance, we sing, we draw, and I feel like that’s natural for every kid. But as we grow older, it’s discouraged because it doesn’t make money.

But what we do as children, everybody has the capacity for it. Everybody knows the joy that it can bring. It’s just society that beats it out of us, in a way. 

Just to be able to indulge in something or do it with a bunch of other people; it could really be a great community-building thing. 

I think about improv because of the one time I took improv classes, and we were just playing around. I’ve never done anything like that before.

I was with people who were a lot older than me — I was the youngest person there — and these people were, like, professional people, too, from all sorts of industries, from all sorts of backgrounds, and we were just playing around. 

It just blew my mind that it was so much fun, and we were just pretending and stuff, being whacky and silly. And in the end, we ended up really close with each other and really comfortable with each other. 

So I think that’s the role that art could play in building community, because, in a way, art is a form of play. Performance, dance, singing, just working on a painting together … that sort of creates the feeling of play and unity and light-heartedness, and I think it could really help foster hope.

You write that with your comics, you aim to “spread messages of hope and empowerment” and highlight “the value of being gentle and sensitive.” Why are things like hope and gentleness important during these uncertain and turbulent times?

Because I sort of think the opposite of “Every man for himself.” I’ve heard this too many times in my life. I hate it when people are like, “Just suck it up. That’s just how things are, just suck it up.”

So in response to things like that, the whole “Just suck it up” mentality that everybody has, or that everybody grew up with and now inflicts on the youth, I’m kind of like, “Well, maybe it’s good to be gentle and sensitive. It’s okay to feel things.” 

I hate it when people tell other people, “Oh, you’re just being too sensitive.” Society has devolved to value stuff like being able to power through anything, not needing any help, hyperindependence, being a powerhouse 24/7. 

And sure, people like that exist, people who can sustain that lifestyle exist, and they’re lauded for it. But then there are people like me who are softer and aren’t able to grow that hard shell that is so valued in society. 

In my work, I want to make people like me feel like we’re not broken. Or useless or ridiculous. These values are super important in sustaining community or caring about each other. I think that’s how we’re going to save the world, or at least help the world become better.

It’s not through the sort of hyper-individualism that’s encouraged by society; the sort of hyper-competitiveness, the hustle culture. I feel like that stuff was ingrained in me from a young age, and it just destroyed me later on. It took a lot of unlearning on my end, and I want to help others in that unlearning through my art.

How do you see sensitivity and hope specifically when it comes to climate and climate anxiety?

Sometimes it’s harder for me than other times. But all I have to do is read Greta’s book, and I think about the frontline communities who have no choice but to face the firsthand consequences, and it makes me so angry. It makes me really upset that the people higher up aren’t doing more, or they’re just turning a blind eye to it. 

And this in itself is an act of caring. Because I’m really sensitive to this kind of thing, to the suffering — I care a lot, and so that motivates me to continue attending rallies, to try to make it, no matter what.

If I have the energy that day or the capacity that week, I go out of my way to head into the City to attend whatever it is or head up to Albany for the day. 

It’s being sensitive and caring that allows me to keep refilling that hope, to keep it alive, I think. It’s not being tough, or having high endurance, or being the best, or achieving a lot. It’s completely different from that mode of thinking that has been encouraged. 

How has your experience as an artist shaped you as an activist? And vice versa — how has your journey as an activist shaped your art?

As an artist, I’ve always found creative ways to deal with things. I feel like I struggle a lot with many things because I had a lot of undiagnosed stuff when I was younger; I didn’t have access to the right resources.

So I would have to come up with ways to cope with it or keep going. And I think in the beginning, the concept of climate change was so overwhelming. I couldn’t really visualize what I was fighting.

It was like corporations-slash-president-who’s-not-doing-anything-slash… It was like a whole bunch of stuff, so instead I imagined Sauron’s Tower, like from Lord of the Rings. I just imagine the one tower and I’m like, “Okay, I’m fighting that.”

And it helped me, using my imagination and creativity to visualize something, or a scenario. It helps keep my head in the game because something about imagination is so — I don’t know — it’s the reason why Dungeons and Dragons is so big. 

A lot of people are able to heal or conquer personal issues through playing D&D, and there’s just something about playing pretend or roleplaying or just using your imagination — there’s just so much potential in that. 

And as an artist, I never really shut that part of myself off. I had to constantly be thinking about things and being creative and coming up with new ideas. So, that part of it lends itself to activism.

Vice versa, I think it’s helped clarify the themes I want to explore in my work. 

Before this, I would have the concept for something cool, but I wouldn’t really know what the theme would be. So I would kind of be going in blind, like, “Oh, this happens, and that happens.” 

But then, ever since I discovered activism, and ever since I began to work on my self-confidence, realizing that I’m not useless or worthless for not being able to achieve as much as everyone else, that has really helped clarify the messages underneath all my work. It helped clarify my role as an artist in this world. The pieces clicked into place.

Now, I can clearly state what I want to do with my art. I want to help people, I want to give them hope, I want to give them strength. 

The comic that I’m working on, I just restarted it, because there was an old version of the comic where I didn’t really know what the theme of the story was. I didn’t even know what the story was gonna be.

But ever since I started activism, I’ve been like, I’ve gotta restart the story, because now everything has changed. The message is really clear.

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