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Suffering from eco-overwhelm? How to be a ‘climate optimist’ (and actually make a difference)

23 min read
AUTHOR: Elisa Roche contributor: Anne Therese Gennari
Grass growing in the shape of the word hope

With temperatures rising, rubbish littering the oceans and excess packaging everywhere it is easy to feel despondent when it comes to the climate crisis. But a new generation of ‘climate optimists’ believes that by mastering basic neuroscience and psychology we can not only change how we feel about the situation, but also inspire others to change too.

Key to this is taking small, achievable steps that can help us to regain a feeling of power, and finding common ground with friends and neighbours over how they are directly affected by climate change.

The ultimate goal is to turn individual action into community action for maximum positive impact. Simple daily changes can include composting, eating more vegetables, staycationing, cycling or walking whenever possible and petitioning local councils about proper recycling, water and/or air quality.

Leading the charge is New York-based Swedish speaker, educator, and environmental activist Anne-Therese Gennari, who uses her media presence to teach simple mind tricks for flipping our perspective, even when the news appears to be all doom and gloom.

“Climate Optimism is not about turning a blind eye to all the negatives,” says the infectiously upbeat and calming 31 year-old, “Because in order to choose being an optimist, we have to work from a place of awareness. Climate Optimists reframe disaster notions and headlines, shifting the narratives. Instead of loss and sacrifice we present notions of growth, opportunity and how the future can be better, together.”

Climate Optimist and campaigner Anne-Therese Gennari

Climate Optimist and campaigner Anne-Therese Gennari believes collective positivity can change the world.

Climate Optimist and campaigner Anne-Therese Gennari believes collective positivity can change the world.

Gennari believes it is even possible to change the minds of people who either seem to have a total disregard for saving the planet or who have lost hope of being an effective change-maker, by shifting their attention to something that affects them personally.

“When talking to others about climate change we should never shame,” she says. “Try to find common ground. Ask questions instead of pushing your agenda. Talk about what is happening in your local community, use storytelling to engage people on an emotional level before delving into stats. Talk about solutions and make people feel like they can do something to make a difference.”
And Anne Therese firmly believes that leading by example is the way to go, especially when you are the odd one out.

“We are such social creatures that we have a lot more power than we think to change embedded identities within our eco systems. So even if you are the first in your neighbourhood to put solar panels on your roof, or the first among your friends to start driving an electric car, you can shift those norms and start creating a new way that others may start identifying with as ‘normal because they will have seen it in action.’

Expecting her first child, Anne Therese feels the need to use her voice for good now more than ever and she wants to make sure that big corporations are also leading by example. She spoke to Gilles Tisserand, Vice President for Climate and Biodiversity at Tetra Pak, to find out what changes the multinational company is making to help support individuals like her on the ground.

Meeting a multinational: how big brands are stepping up

The Sweden-founded, Switzerland-headquartered packaging giant, best known for its beverage cartons, is a world leading food processing and packaging company worth over €11 billion.

“I’m pretty sure you will have had an interaction with Tetra Pak recently, be it your juice box or soya milk in the morning or the ice cream you had while bingeing your favourite episodes on Netflix,” admits Gilles, who is aiming to make Tetra Pak a zero emissions company by 2030 and shares the same ambition for its value chain by 2050.

“If you are feeling overwhelmed by the News, my advice is to take action,” Gilles agrees with Anne Therese, “It can be a really small step like buying a product with a low carbon footprint, or maybe look into travelling locally. Take that first small step and you will start to see how you can improve things.” 

At Tetra Pak, the company is also “doing something.” Aware of its responsibility to ensure that recycling its packages is as simple as possible for every consumer, it has been driving a series of global initiatives designed to make a real impact. And Tetra Pak knows that better recycling is only possible based on a joint effort – with governments, municipalities, waste management companies and customers, all working together.

“We are aiming for minus 46% greenhouse gas emissions across the value chain by 2030 and that’s a massive body of work, it’s monumental and we can only do so through collective actions,” says Gilles. 

We have created a programme with our suppliers called ‘Join us in protecting the planet’ which is self explanatory. It’s an initiative where we work hand-in-hand with our suppliers in minimising climate change and in fighting deforestation.

What’s positive is that we can already demonstrate real progress. We have, for the past 12 years now, dramatically reduced our climate impact across the value chain, while expanding the business. To do that, close collaboration with our suppliers is essential. For example looking together at ways to lower the footprint of the materials we use to create our packaging.”

Tetra Pak's pioneering street waste programme in Brazil.

Tetra Pak’s pioneering Longa Vida project uses the Cataki app to connect waste pickers to recycling cooperatives in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Diego Padgurschi.

Tetra Pak’s pioneering Longa Vida project uses the Cataki app to connect waste pickers to recycling cooperatives in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Diego Padgurschi.

The evolution of packaging

Over 70 years ago, Tetra Pak was well ahead of its time with some early ‘aseptic’ packaging, that is cartons that help to prolong shelf life, thereby contributing to reducing waste. These packs can be stored for much longer without the need for refrigeration and can be shipped long distance to help people access foods they normally wouldn’t be able to.

But the company is also increasingly aware that collection and recycling systems around food cartons vary significantly from one country to another and so it is working with authorities, waste management companies, recyclers, customers, new apps and consumers globally to scale up. This includes designing carton packages that have already ‘recycling built in’, meaning that are made with a simplified material structure and increased paper-based content. In this area, Tetra Pak has recently come up with a unique concept, a fibre-based material replacing the aluminium layer you find inside its cartons. In effect, the company wants to do better itself while also stamping out ‘wish cycling’, the well-intentioned but disheartening practice of putting something in the recycling bin in the hope that it will be recycled, without knowing for sure that it will be. 

Tetra Pak's connected packaging

Tetra Pak’s interactive connected packaging drives consumer engagement and helps shoppers to feel involved.

Tetra Pak’s interactive connected packaging drives consumer engagement and helps shoppers to feel involved.

“Our carton packages are recyclable. They are collected and recycled worldwide, where waste management and recycling infrastructure is in place. But for us at Tetra Pak, that’s not enough,” acknowledges Gilles, “Besides designing packaging solutions for recycling, we are co-investing with partners to expand recycling capacity and technologies, implementing campaigns to improve collection, growing recycled material use and applications and joining forces with our customers to help them communicate the correct recycling route. So messaging through labelling and design is very important. We are also increasingly using our connected package platform to help consumers understand the value of correct recycling. By scanning the QR code on the carton you turn the pack itself into an interactive learning tool that helps to create an experience and explains the journey of the product and how and where it can be recycled.”

“It is my innate belief that we can strive for something better than we know today and that the world tomorrow can be more beautiful than anything we’ve seen. That is the vision that we have to keep feeding ourselves. Instead of doom and gloom, let’s say, ‘What an exciting time to be alive because we get to be a part of a shift towards something better!”

Anne Therese Gennari, AKA The Climate Optimist

Climate Optimism starts with knowledge

Internally, Tetra Pak is teaching all staff about its sustainability challenges, opportunities and the company’s efforts so that everyone is well informed, no matter their role.

“Sustainability is one of the key pillars in our 2030 strategy which means that we have heavy internal communication around this,” says Gilles. The company is trying to learn from others too. “In 2020, we set up a panel with six independent external advisors with very broad areas of expertise in matters such as the environment, climate or social and cultural challenges and we are taking their feedback and embedding their ideas into all of our operations, actions and strategies,” says Gilles, “When it comes to helping our customers to have a positive impact, we know that first of all it’s about reducing. So that’s reducing the impact or energy that we use ourselves and decarbonising of the materials we buy. By using renewable plant based materials such as fibre or plastic made from sugar cane we are drastically reducing the CO2 footprint of our packaging. Avoidance is also important and it is in the heart and design of everything we produce in our own factories. As for compost, as a company we are working on the concept of the re-use of food waste. For example, you can re-use cereals to make beer. Beer Spent Grains (BSG), the leftovers from brewing, are fantastic and can be used to make proteins or alternative mylks. So we are working on projects like these to ensure that we minimise waste and that we re-use wherever possible. 

“Let’s not forget that packaging is very important,” Gilles continues, ”It helps to protect the product and make it widely available. But we equally know that today we face a massive challenge on how we produce, how we distribute and how we consume. And together with Anne Therese we really want to take the time to explain how each individual can help, but also, moreover, how we as a company like Tetra Pak can have a positive impact. Our aim is to enable the transformation of the food system so that it can be sustainable and resilient. And we are on a positive reduction pathway so we can lead by example, but we can only do it through collaboration.”

Anne Therese’s guide to becoming a Climate Optimist

Landing in awareness versus awareness overwhelm

What does it mean to be aware of all the negative climate news and still feel empowered to take action? I often say “Awareness hurts, and that’s okay“. By this I mean that, sometimes, learning the truth is painful but in order to affect change we have to act from a place of knowledge. But what does that awareness actually look like? And what happens to us emotionally when we get introduced to a higher level of awareness? I think it’s something we don’t talk about often enough. Maybe you watch a documentary and learn about ocean plastics or you read a great informative book about the environment. Afterwards you feel frustrated and think, “That’s not okay! This isn’t the world I want to live in. We must work for change!’’ 

This is a really powerful energy to have because it’s how we create change. However, what usually follows is something gloomier because, after the initial frustration has been sparked, we naturally want to talk about it with others. And the more you have a conversation around the subject, the more you realise that it’s not just about you or your actions. It’s about corporations and laws and governments and so many huge power play systems that you have very little control over. And so you start to feel like a tiny fish in a huge ocean, you start to feel defeated and think “Who am I to do something anyway?” And that’s how you end up in a place of overwhelm.
There is so much negative information out in the world. But we need to make sure we don’t stay there. We can do this by ourselves or by reaching out to people around us and by understanding that we might be small fish but together we can create a huge wave. Understand that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, it’s very human and normal. But don’t get stuck there.

Understanding the psychology of positive change

Climate psychology is fascinating. You might ask yourself, “How is it that I’ve known about climate change for so long and we (as a society) have also known about it for so long and yet we still aren’t doing more? Sure, we are taking small steps but we aren’t really treating it as the crisis that it is!”

In order to understand this we have to look into psychology and neuroscience to see how we as humans respond to different types of information.

Here’s a crazy fact: the more that people learn about climate change, the less they tend to do! Studies have shown this. But the question is, why? It doesn’t make any sense.
There is an incredible book called What we think about (when we try not to think about) Global Warming by Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes. He dives into this topic in depth and he talks about ‘The Five Ds.” These are five barriers to action: Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial and iDentity. And I think many people will be able to relate to these and it might help explain why we aren’t doing more.
Distance: for most of us, climate change is something that is happening in other places, in other worlds, in other countries and to other people, even to other species. It might be happening in the future, but it’s not happening to YOU right here, right now unless you live in a flooded area or you have been caught in wildfires or similar. For many people it’s really hard to feel like climate change is HERE. So although we do care about other people and other species and we do care about the future, it’s really hard to turn this into action now because it doesn’t trigger us immediately enough.
Doom: this is how we talk about climate change. There is a lot of doom and gloom and talk of  helplessness, loss and sacrifice. This kind of communication actually creates a barrier to action.

Dissonance: you might know about climate change and want to prevent it from happening but you still have to drive to get to work or use planes for travel and you begin to realise that although you want to be a part of the change, it’s too hard with the way society is structured. So you start to give yourselves reasons to stay the same. And you begin to bargain with yourself to make it more palatable, eg, “I might be flying, but at least I am recycling or composting!”
Denial: many people think this is to do with ignorance and sometimes it is. But often it’s to do with self defence. We simply wouldn’t be able to function in our day to day lives if we were walking around thinking about climate change constantly.
iDentity: we naturally tend to look for information that confirms our existing values. We want reassurance that how we think and how we live is actually okay. And so we will look to everyone around us. We say to ourselves, if everyone is driving a car to work then it must be okay for me too. If everyone is jetting off for vacations, why can’t I do that?

Stop hitting snooze!

Per Espen Stoknes also talks about the so-called ‘snooze button effect,’ meaning that the first time we hear about something truly alarming, we feel the urgency and the need to act upon it immediately. But each time we hear about it again and again, our natural instinct is to switch it off and so the alarm loses its effect and its potency on a psychological level.

Fight or Freeze?

The human brain is pretty simple, it associates ‘forward’ actions with reward. Put simply, when we see something that we want, we run towards it and our adrenaline starts pumping. But if it’s something that we don’t want, we don’t act. The brain triggers a GO! response to something that we want, something that can bring us joy or a reward and a STOP! Or a ‘NO-GO!’ response to things or actions that don’t, or that might lead to loss or sacrifice. 

If you think back to our ancestors, when faced with a dangerous predator such as a tiger, you had three options : Run, fight back or freeze and hope it doesn’t see you.

And that is why, when we are faced with overwhelming, shocking information, our first instinct might be to freeze. It’s also how we get paralysed with inaction.

How should we communicate climate change?

In general we see shock tactics, scary headlines about rising temperatures, disaster messaging. And although most of the information is true, it’s not doing a lot of good for our collective psychology because we get overwhelmed, paralysed and presented with the idea of loss or sacrifice. And so, although we know we should be doing more, it is extremely hard trigger the brain into action because we are pre-programmed to NOT act when something is scary and overwhelming.
Instead, we should be focusing on spreading a message about climate action and talk more about the things that we CAN do because we need to fix this problem. These can be small achievable steps such as driving less, eating more plants, eliminating food waste, stopping the use of fossil fuel, traveling more locally where possible, consuming less in general etc
But these all need to be reframed because what the brain is hearing is loss, cutting down, cutting back, losing out or, worse, that it’s already too late.

Shift the narrative to ‘What if..?’

Climate Optimists talk about coming together as a community and learning new skills that can make a positive impact. It’s a ‘What if?’ mentality. What if, by changing to a new energy source, we can feed more people and fuel more homes and businesses?
What if, by eating more plant based meals, we can enjoy better overall health and cut down on grocery bills while also helping to lower emissions? By playing with a ‘what if’ thought, we get excited, intrigued and want to get involved with problem solving and taking action. Instead of saying we have to do less, we focus on the idea of MORE.
For example, by solving these problems together, we could spend more quality time with the people that we love. Instead of saying ‘Eat Less Meat!’ we could simply say ‘Eat MORE plant based foods!’ Instead of focusing on our negative carbon footprint, we can talk about maximising our positive footprint. That means showing up to get involved.

And, if we focus on mindfulness and being happily present, we won’t even feel the need to consume as much to fill the void. Shifting the narrative is as much about what we tell ourselves as it is about what we tell each other. It also means replacing the notion of responsibility with the idea of incredible opportunity.

“It is time to change the narrative on climate change so that we can act from courage and excitement, not fear.”

Anne Therese Gennari

Have fun along the way!

I have one rule when it comes to trying to affect change and that is to have fun.
I have learned this by going from being an angry activist to becoming the Climate Optimist that I am today. In order to sustain ourselves and the work that we’re doing towards a better world we have to have fun along the way because if we don’t there is no way we are going to continue to find the courage, the hope and the excitement required to keep going.
So just keep this as a constant reminder: changing the world can be fun!

Why bother starting your ‘hero journey’?

Perhaps you feel ready to get stuck in. You’ve started bringing your own bags to the grocery store. You try to choose produce that isn’t in lots of plastic packaging, perhaps you biked to the shops instead of taking the car and you’re little by little becoming the hero you want to see in the world. But then you come home and your neighbour is arriving home at around the same time and he is completely oblivious to all the things you’ve just done. He has been grabbing items off the shelf, whatever was convenient. And you love your neighbour. In general he is a really cool guy but you can’t help but start to feel like “What’s the point? Why did I do all that? Does it really matter?’”  It is a normal response. You might even start to feel aggravated towards others.
And it brings up the question of….

Do individual actions really make a difference?

The answer is yes. Here’s why. Micro actions can alleviate anxiety by putting us back in control. An empowered action brings us into an ‘I can make a difference’ mentality instead of feeling helpless. Individual actions are character building. You will start to believe you are the change and spread that energy. You will shift culture by example, not by shaming or negativity.
Your behaviour will slowly become the new norm and you will be planting positive seeds that have a knock-on effect with others.

Let’s do this. Where can I start and how will it feel?

Actively look for optimistic change. Be aware of what is going on in the world around you and try to attach yourself to positivity. As we’ve discussed, that’s not always easy, but don’t forget that it can start with you. You can BE the change and create that optimism from within.You are not just an optimist, you are an Optimist-In-Action. This will release happiness hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins which will fuel you in order to be a good activist. You will be automatically more optimistic and believe in more solutions. It is a positive cycle and a beautiful way of living. 

Food waste and how to be a composting hero

When we put food in landfills it creates methane which is a very potent, heat-trapping greenhouse gas. When we throw away even something as innocent-seeming as an uneaten brown banana, it undergoes an anaerobic transformation and decomposition that turns into this gas. So not only are we wasting food, we are contributing to climate change.
There is one good thing about methane. It is fairly controllable. It doesn’t hover in the atmosphere and it goes away quickly.

If you allow food to naturally decompose and put it back into the soil and back into the circle of life you help the soil bounce back and become richer and more nutritious and you even make it healthier and sturdier, better enforcing it against floods or harsh weather. 

So to start with, when you go shopping, be more mindful and try to only buy things you will actually use this week. Also, learn to have fun with leftovers and get a bit more creative in the kitchen. Save food anytime you can. 

“Composting food is a great climate action to take and, for me, it’s the one thing all of us should be doing.”

If you don’t have a garden for composting, you can be what I call an apartment worm-pal.
You don’t have to do it with worms if you don’t like. There are many gadgets and machines now where you simply press a button and it will help you to create compost at home (scroll down to our useful links section at the bottom).

You could be a ‘freezer freerider’; someone who stores leftovers in the freezer then takes it to the local recycling spot.

Anne-Therese says it is possible to compost even without a garden.

How should brands help?

Authenticity is key. The modern consumer understands that no company is perfect and nobody will believe any claiming to be so. But if a company says, ‘This is how we are trying’ and is transparent about their successes as much as their failures, that is how they win people over. Consistency is important. If you make claims about being plastic free, make sure you really are from end-to-end. Less is better, keep packaging and branding simple. Use marketing and packaging to educate and inform. 

Meanwhile shoppers and brands should not ignore so-called ‘ugly fruits or ‘wonky’ fruits and vegetables. We shouldn’t be throwing away food just because it doesn’t look picture perfect.
We know from research that over 60% of consumers are looking to big brands to lead the way when it comes to reducing food waste and showing us all how to be more sustainable. And yet 48% of food is wasted while still in the supply chain, before it even reaches us. By the time it gets to our homes, we are wasting around 29% of what we buy for personal food shopping or from food services.
Food waste reached greater levels of awareness than ever during the COVID pandemic, when people had more time to focus on enjoying experimenting with food and cooking from scratch at home, recycling properly and using leftovers. Essentially we became more conscious during Covid which means brands can now carry on leading the way with a very interested audience.

Enabling employees to have more education and information is another very simple way to empower people and to create climate optimists who participate in change and are not merely by-standers.

Activism as a road trip

This is a journey that we are on together and we don’t really know how long it’s going to be. Anything can happen along the way. There might be a storm, we might run out of gas, we have to treat the road as a fun adventure. It’s the same with climate work. We have to stay open minded and be in good spirits and have enough energy to re-route ourselves if we take a wrong turn. It’s really important that we take steps and rest and fuel up and that we involve others along the way. Fellow travellers make for a more fun road trip and a better and easier journey. It’s okay to let someone else take over the wheel and drive that day, we are not in this alone.

Learn more about Climate Optimism and how YOU can make change happen. Join the road trip!

  • Anne Therese’s own site can lead you to her optimistic, practical and digestible newsletters and her podcast which is called Hey Change. Her book, The Climate Optimist Handbook, is coming out this autumn.
  • Future Earth, posts new climate news every Tuesday.
  • Zahra Nurbiambani is a powerfully upbeat climate optimist who sometimes expresses herself through dance.
  • For optimistic world news that is still rooted in facts, try Warp News.
  • You can also find out more about her modelling-agency-for-good, ‘Role Models.
    The IPCC report, as recommended by Giles Tisserand from Tetra Pak. Not necessarily optimistic, but a look at the cold hard facts of climate change to help you operate from a place of deeper knowledge.
  • How to compost even if you don’t have a garden. An article from wonky veg suppliers Oddbox.
  • A life-affirming and inspiring news feature about how young climate optimists are choosing to make change happen in small ways in local communities all around the world.
  • A list of the best books to learn more about the reality of climate change, including Per Espen Stoknes’s What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.
  • A newsletter about practical ways to save the planet, run by fellow climate optimist Lindsay Nunez.

    And finally, Reasons To Be Optimistic by Christopher Barile, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Nevada

This guide has been adapted and paraphrased from a Climate Optimism masterclass hosted by Anne Therese Gennari in association with Tetra Pak for Food Matters Live.

Read Tetra Pak’s latest Sustainability Report HERE.