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I do not remember the first time I learnt about climate change, but it was in primary school. In tests and assignments, we would be given marks for stating how to solve it. The answers were always easy; reduce carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels; stop using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs); switch to renewable energy and plant lots of trees. Little did I know of the ‘Big Tobacco’ level of climate change denialism the world was facing. The CEOs of major tobacco companies met in secret in New York City in December 1953. Their goal was to mitigate the harm of smoking, which could lead to lung cancer, as studies have revealed. Following this, the founder of the public relations giant Hill & Knowlton created the spin of the century to bamboozle the world into believing that smoking was completely safe.

They released ‘A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ to the media, where tobacco industry titans purported to care about their consumers and would not put them in harm’s way. This led to the catastrophic effects of smoking continuing for close to five decades. Before I knew all this, I was a ‘gifted’ child who sat as quiet as a church mouse in class and absorbed everything the teachers uttered. We were told the Amazon forest acts as the lungs of the planet and that it was of the utmost importance to protect it. Plastic was the enemy. Every single individual in the world is working towards a greener, safer Earth. In my childhood innocence and naiveté, I believed it all. The adults in charge cared about future generations, other species, and this infinitesimally small blue rock we call home.

There was a cartoon that used to play after school on TV called ‘Captain Planet’. It looked ancient because it first aired in 1990 and stopped before I was born. Its premise was that the spirit of the earth, Gaia, gathered five young people from around the world and gave them rings that could summon Captain Planet, an environmental superhero who fights greedy corporations who pollute and plunder. Its opening tune was seared into my mind: “Earth, fire, wind, water, and heart! GO PLANET! With your powers combined I am Captain Planet! Captain Planet, he’s our hero, Gonna take pollution down to zero. He’s our powers magnified. And he’s fighting on the planet’s side. Gonna help him put asunder bad guys who like to loot and plunder.”

In high school we were made to plant trees and clean rubbish along roadsides. To this day, I find anyone who litters irresponsible. I had hope. The prospect of the planet’s future faded into the back of my mind as I battled teenage angst, schoolwork and bullies. The years went by and in the blink of an eye I had finished tertiary, about to go out into the world on my own.
Nothing has changed. Droughts, flooding and other natural disasters have afflicted a slew of countries that produce an astonishingly small proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the climate crisis has been politicised. A 15-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome was torn apart and was metaphorically burnt at the stake for protesting against the impending crisis.

I no longer have hope. Though purely anecdotal, a substantial number of Gen Z feel like me. It is a cruel world that’s on fire with ceaseless wars, ‘natural’ disasters and boomerswho worship money over everything. In my view, there has developed nihilism of a kind, but I am no sociologist and may be proven wrong.
Xolile Mtembu

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