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How a sustainability scientist uses TikTok to fight climate anxiety with solutions

Alaina Wood discusses her content and how climate doom impacts mental health

When Alaina Wood started posting to TikTok in 2020, her videos mostly had to do with strange things around her “historic” apartment, such as issues with leaks and doors. Eventually, Wood, a climate communicator and a sustainability scientist, began seeing videos from users expressing guilt and hopelessness about climate change.

News surrounding climate change can be scary. Wood felt the heat and anxiety, too, but after seeing how rampant this feeling was on the platform, she wanted to let people know that solutions were out there — it isn’t too late. Wood, @thegarbagequeen, now has more than 300,000 subscribers on TikTok and posts videos ranging from debunking climate doom, highlighting new studies and reports, and even talking about her own experiences.

She talked with The Verge about the virality of “climate doom,” TikTok, and the importance of being practical when it comes to making a difference.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What led you to TikTok as a platform to talk about climate communication?

I downloaded TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic because I was bored out of my mind. I had a lot of free time on my hands. I never thought I would talk about climate change. In fact, the first few videos I posted were about weird things. I started seeing environmental videos show up on my “For You” page, a lot of which weren’t quite true. They were somewhat based in science or making people feel guilty about not being able to do more. I made my first video about the environment in May 2020 saying why I no longer consider myself to be zero waste. From there, I started building a community of other people who discuss climate change in the environment and realized that people want to hear about this.

@thegarbagequeen

I still promote reducing your waste .. but to do so within your means while understanding how solid waste is managed where you live. #zerowaste

♬ original sound - Alaina Wood

It’s interesting that you mention the zero waste video. I remember seeing one video in particular. You were speaking about a woman saying that she was going to stop buying bananas, and you concluded that people should “try their best” when it comes to zero waste and food sustainability. Can you tell me more about that?

I’m all for practical things. I live in an area that doesn’t have access to a lot of the things that you’ll see sustainability creators have access to online. I remember feeling guilty in college and first experiencing low waste, zero waste, sustainability and feeling bad that I couldn’t do more. How I go about it in my personal life — which is also how I encourage people to go about it online — is to just change things in your life that you interact with frequently — don’t try to change your whole lifestyle at once.

For example, I drive a lot, and I can’t use public transit (there’s like two bus lines, and they don’t go anywhere where I live). I just try to drive in a more fuel-efficient way, not speeding up or slowing down quickly if I can avoid it and setting cruise control when on the highway — little things like that. The average person can’t just go out and buy a new electric vehicle. They’re expensive. I still have a gasoline vehicle. So, for me, it’s just finding little tiny ways to make your life a little bit more sustainable. It will help, and people shouldn’t feel guilty if “I can’t do more.”

At the end of the day, yes, we as individuals need to make change, but so do the corporations and governments. Unless the corporations and governments start making big changes, we as individuals can’t as easily make those changes.

Another series you do is called “Good Climate News.” How did that get started?

Last summer, I was seeing that scientists were saying it’s not too late to solve the climate crisis, and people were saying, “I’m not hearing anything positive. What’s changing? I’m not hearing anything.” So I googled and looked through various news sources and made a video about it. That blew up so much, and people were saying that they wanted more, so I did another version. From there, people were asking for a series, so now I do it once a week.

Some of your videos put a spotlight on debunking climate doom, both on and off the platform. Why do you feel that it’s important to integrate it into your content?

Back when I first got started [in May 2020], I didn’t even know climate doom with a thing at all until last summer when I started noticing all these videos going viral, mostly to Bo Burnham songs from Inside, and I was like, “Wait this isn’t true.” People are thinking that the world is going to end in 10 or 15 years, and we’re all going to run out of food, and all of the things are going to go extinct.

People are freaking out about climate change, but on top of that, I was noticing the reaction, which was eco-anxiety. Even beyond that, eco-induced panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and people not wanting to have a future at all because they were seeing climate and thinking that was the truth. I feel like my duty as a scientist and climate communicator is to make sure the most accurate information gets out there, especially when inaccurate information impacts people’s mental health. I suffer from eco-anxiety, so I can understand how people are feeling when they experience climate doom, but I mostly get frustrated. Climate doom is what people see. That’s what goes viral, and [the message] never seems to be it’s not too late or here’s some climate solutions, but fear goes viral with just about anything.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from viewers?

I receive a lot of comments and messages on a weekly basis where people have let me know that they are attending a city council meeting or picked up a book on climate anxiety or thanked me for realizing that they have climate anxiety.

I also get constructive feedback from my audience asking if I could talk about a topic. If I talk about a climate solution, they ask if the solution could be scaled up or feasible, and I like it. I like TikTok because it’s an open dialogue where they can ask me questions. I feel like having more of a one-on-one conversation.