How Angelenos are channeling their climate change anxiety into sustainable living

Lily Polstein first got her taste of gardening when she was a little girl in her parents' garden. She remembers the feeling of soil in her hands and the excitement of watching plants grow from seeds into actual vegetables. She loved it so much that four years ago, she founded Sustainable Landscapes LA, a business dedicated to creating gardens and landscapes using native and drought-tolerant plants. It’s her way of protecting the Southern Californian environment that she knows and cherishes. 

“I grew up where LA was green and vibrant, and the hills were beautiful and lush. And now in the last 10 years or so, the colors have changed. It gets drier and it doesn’t have that lushness it once had,” she says. “The water issues that we're facing in Southern California and ... other issues like wildfires are huge and super scary. [They’re] one of my worst nightmares. And when I think about those things, I think ‘how can I channel that into my business?” 

Polstein is just one of many Angelenos working hard to fight their own anxiety prompted by climate change. 

“I'm just proud of Lily for recognizing that as a person on this planet, she's a steward of it and living every day to take care of it,” her mom Claire tells KCRW. 

Distress over climate change has been top of mind for many as headlines about warming temperatures and ever-worsening natural disasters continue to proliferate. 

“I'm just a ball of climate anxiety. I get very anxious over what I see on my news feeds on my social media. It's astounding to me. And I feel that I've seen, just in my lifetime, such drastic, drastic changes with everything from the oceans to species disappearing. It's [all] a little overwhelming,” Claire says. 

Claire Polstein says her daughter Lily Polstein is her climate hero and helps make sense of her anxiety over climate change. Photo courtesy of Lily Polstein. 

Lily shares that same climate anxiety, and says she uses it as motivation to work as hard as possible through Sustainable Landscapes.  

“I tend to think about the scarier parts of things. Sometimes I forget to focus on the positives, since I hear everything around me is always so negative when it comes to climate change,” Lily says. “Even though my business is small and making small impacts here and there in neighborhoods, I still feel like, ‘Okay, there is hope if I'm doing this, I know there's plenty of other people doing this.’”

Lily adds, “We all have to stick together and get going and kind of move past the anxiety, and just start small and work your way up and make it different.”

“Society is kind of stuck in that freeze and that's just going to give climate change the foothold it needs to go past this kind of irreversible moment where we won't be able to kind of fix it,” says Anthony Brower, director of sustainable design with architecture firm Gensler. 

Anthony Brower channels his anxiety over climate change into his work as a director of sustainable design with architecture firm Gensler. 

“There's a lot of holistic ways to look at sustainability. I think the biggest one that we tackle is how do we make buildings more energy efficient? How do we consume resources, and how do we consume resources more effectively? The big resource we always talk about is energy. But there's also materials. … How do we use materials a lot more effectively?”

Brower helps design buildings that utilize net-zero and high performance technologies. “When we talk about building spaces, [we can be more] efficient with our use of space. It’s [being] more efficient with our consumption of resources,” he explains.

He adds, “A lot of people don't realize that there are efficiency moves you can make at that very early stage of conceptual design that have a bigger impact than just using a newer technology. Sometimes the best technology when you talk about sustainability is low technology.” 

Brower recognizes that big conversations about climate change can make people feel powerless, prompting a fight, flight, or freeze scenario in their brains. He says it’s through small actionable steps that folks can start to feel more empowered when trying to institute a sustainable lifestyle.

“Society is kind of stuck in that freeze. And that's just going to give climate change the foothold it needs to go past this kind of irreversible moment where we won't be able to kind of fix it,” he says. “It just comes down to being responsible, and just understanding the impact of our choices. And it could be understanding the impact of big choices. It could be understanding the impact of little choices: ‘Am I going to rent? Am I going to buy? Where am I going to live? … Do I need to get back in my car to go shopping? Or can I walk to a corner store?’”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story during the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.