Fighting Climate Doom with Garbage Queen, Alaina Wood

Screenshots of Alaina Wood's Garbage Queen TikTok posts highlighting climate good news

Alaina Wood — or as she’s better known on Instagram and TikTok, the Garbage Queen — is a climate communicator and sustainability scientist out to make the world a better and greener place.

Her social media videos and her newsletter, Pathfinder: Uplifting Climate Stories, help direct folks to the solutions to the climate crisis and empower them to take action to keep up the momentum.

I sat down with Alaina to chat about how climate optimism leads to action, and how we all have the ability to save the world.

Alaina Wood headshot

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q&A Interview with Alaina Wood

Kamrin Baker, Good Good Good: For the folks at home who aren’t familiar with your work, could you share a brief overview of your life as the Garbage Queen?

Alaina Wood: I am a climate communicator, which essentially means I talk about climate change online, but I’m not just any particular person talking about climate change online. I’m a sustainability scientist with a background in waste and water. So, I use that expertise to help explain climate concepts and science and policy and news, anything related to climate.

Like many people, I downloaded TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic. I was bored out of my mind in lockdown and had no intention of making any videos, let alone ones about climate. And then one day decided to make a video about why I don’t consider myself to be “zero waste” because it wasn’t accessible to me and it just honestly freaked me out and made me feel so guilty. 

I quickly realized there was a whole community already talking about climate and the environment on TikTok. There was just a whole community on social media in general and was like, ‘Hey, I don’t have to bother my friends and family as much.’

I just started making videos more and more, enjoyed it, and started developing a network of friends. I was working for the government during this whole period, and they unfortunately cut my funding. 

I tried out the new position they put me in and did not like it. So, I said, ‘hey, let’s give this TikTok thing a shot.’ And I’ve been a full-time climate communicator since the summer of 2021. 

Kamrin: I think one of the discrepancies in information about environmental justice is the fact that people don’t necessarily know that there are jobs like this. Could you speak a little bit to why it’s important for this kind of role to exist and why it’s helpful for people to get an accurate picture of what’s going on?

Alaina: Good activism can only be good if you have proper information. When it comes to the climate crisis, it is such a ginormous issue. It’s very intersectional. It ties in with science, and policy, and health, and social justice, and all these things. So it’s important that when people want to fight the fight, which obviously I encourage everyone to do, to have the correct information. 

To know who the good people are to learn from, the good media outlets, the good scientists, you name it. Information is knowledge and power. 

Kamrin: A lot of your work touches on the effort to reduce climate doom and anxiety. We obviously share a very similar mission at Good Good Good, but I would love to hear what inspired you to start directing people towards hope and how that helps them take action.

Alaina: The whole reason I moved towards being more of a climate optimist — both in real life and in the content I make — was what I call the Summer of Climate Doom on TikTok. Bo Burnham had just released his Netflix special, and there was one song in particular that was like, ‘the oceans are rising, like, it’s too late.’

And people were just using that as a trending audio and overlay footage of, like, climate disasters or disasters that had nothing to do with the climate or just very doom-and-gloom messaging. I started seeing more of those videos and reading the comments and realizing people were giving up. They thought, ‘oh it’s too late.’

And, well, the oceans did catch on fire on two separate occasions that summer from oil rigs, but it’s still not too late! 

The whole reason I made the switch to climate optimism was because I had a comment that was like: “Tell me why I never hear about progress. No one ever talks about solutions. All you seem to talk about is issues.” And I was like, ‘that’s true.’

Kamrin: You’re like “I mean, there are a lot of issues.”

Alaina: [Laughs] Yeah, but there are also a lot of solutions. So that reply to that comment was my first Good Climate News video. I was just starting to do some more research, like, ‘Okay, that’s a policy we passed,’ or ‘here’s some success in this.’ And that went mega-viral. I decided, ‘hey, why not make this a regular series?’

I also did a deep dive into what climate anxiety is, because I don’t really think I knew, until I got into this work in particular, that I’ve been experiencing climate anxiety my whole life. It’s not just my regular anxiety.

 

Kamrin: Oh yeah, there’s another layer to it.

Alaina: Exactly. But it was all because of Bo Burnham that I am the climate communicator I am today.

 

Kamrin: I know you say regularly that the systems and institutions that contribute most to climate change thrive when we all lose hope. I think that’s such an integral part of this conversation. I’d love it if you could speak to that concept a bit.

Alaina: Back in the day, the companies and institutions that put us into this mess realized: ‘Our stuff is causing climate change, but we don’t want to change. So let’s go on a denial campaign.’ 

There’s obviously lots of documentation on how that’s gone on for decades and decades, but you can no longer deny climate change exists. You’re seeing it almost every single day somewhere in the world, maybe in your backyard. So these same institutions realize, ‘well, hey, if we try to either delay change or just not have change happen at all by saying either the solutions won’t work or it’s too late, we get to continue to not change.’

So, climate doom is the new climate denial.

Kamrin: Whoa. That’s so real. The immediate way you fall into inaction is by denying that there’s anything you can even do.

 

Alaina: And that’s another part of the climate doom and the climate anxiety piece that ties into these institutions that are very happy about it. Like, you as one individual, may not be able to make enough change, but if a bunch of individuals make that same change, it can and has throughout history, made a positive impact. I think these institutions don’t want people to realize that there is power in collectivism. 

 

Kamrin: What would you say are some small ways people can get started in their fight for environmental justice? 

Alaina: The number one thing is just to educate yourself. Be educated, continue to learn. Once you kind of have a grasp of it, start to talk to your neighbors about it, talk to your friends or family. The more people talking about it, the more people who are learning, the better the chances we’re going to fix things. 

Then, just take some steps in your life to live more sustainably. You don’t have to, again, you don’t have to go totally zero waste. You don’t have to give up your car, or necessarily be fully vegan, things like that. You can, if that’s accessible and affordable, but just make whatever changes you can in your life.

And then, demand that change with your government. It can seem a little overwhelming when you look at Congress. At least, my elected officials know me by name and face because I worked in government, and they just do not listen to me anymore. They’re like, ‘not her again.’

But trying to demand change at your local and state government is a lot more accessible for people and it’s a lot more realistic. When I worked in my local and state government, if a member of the public would come up and ask something, we would do it. We’re like, ‘yes, please engage, please interact with us.’ 

So, it’s: Educate yourself, talk to your community about it, make lifestyle changes, and then demand that change with your government.

Kamrin: What are some ways, besides reading the Goodnewspaper and following along with you, that people can move past that climate anxiety — or at least kind of manage it a little bit?

Alaina: My number one tip is to stop doom-scrolling. Which can be hard. Like, I get in those loops all the time. But what really helps me is that I straight up block accounts that freak me out. That’s okay to do. You can curate your algorithm in whatever way you want to.

And engage with accounts that share the positive news, but don’t go so far as to never hear about issues. You still need to be informed.

And then there’s learning how to manage your climate anxiety symptoms from a clinical perspective. So there are guides online from psychiatrists on how you can do that. One way, obviously, is to talk to people; someone you trust in your life. It can be a counselor, your friend, whatever. It can be your cat, I guess, too.

What’s helped me, in particular, and now there are a bunch of studies backing this up, is just going out in nature. Even if it’s a five minute walk or laying in the grass. Getting out and reconnecting with nature can help just anxiety in general. Studies have shown that having that connection makes you a better climate activist, too, because you’re like, ‘Oh, sweet, nature! Let’s protect that.’

Kamrin: Yes, it completely reframes it back to why this is important. I know you’ve talked before about how we need to center people who don’t get to be in nature a lot, or who have been historically excluded from nature. 

Alaina: Oh absolutely. I had always felt a little uncomfortable in some spaces because I was like a young woman, but then I got to be a part of a board for a few months, looking at making our outdoor spaces in Tennessee more accessible and inclusive for people. 

I heard all of these people’s stories of people who are being like, ‘I’m not going to tell you where that trail is because you don’t look like you’re a hiker,’ or the signage wasn’t in Spanish, so people couldn’t read or understand, or there were no paper maps or digital maps or anything like that. 

That completely changed my mindset. And again, that ties back to climate activism because, one, we are part of nature and everyone deserves access to it. And, two, the more you’re in it, the more likely you are to fight for it.

Kamrin: Okay, I have a fun question for you. So, you are the Garbage Queen. If you had a crown, what garbage would it be made out of?

Alaina: Oh, now that is a fantastic question. I’m trying to think of what my least favorite thing to find in landfills was when I was working in food waste. I’ve also had to help put out landfill fires caused by laptop batteries.

It’s got to be all the things that could be diverted from landfills that people throw into landfills. So, it’s going to be a stinky crown.

Kamrin: Yeah, that’s okay. That doesn’t matter right now.

Alaina: So, some aluminum and steel cans. Probably some banana peels. That could be fun. And then some cardboard and paper. That’s going to be the structural integrity. I used to see loads of perfectly good cardboard in landfills.

Kamrin: Good, so now you’ve got on your crown, and I can ask you my last question. What is giving you hope these days?

Alaina: Quite a few things, actually! Climate jobs, like the sheer number of people applying for climate jobs right now, are huge. I think that’s probably the number one question I get asked, like: ‘How did you get into this? How do I get into this? Even if I’m not a scientist, I want to help. How do I make my job a climate job?’

Another thing is all of the solutions that are getting scaled up. There are things, like recycling technology, or regenerative agriculture, or an energy storage project, that I researched before I was a climate communicator, and now I’m watching them, in real time, get scaled up and find funding.

We’re seeing the change right now. 

And, it’s fascinating, since I got started in this, watching organizations I’ve been following for years make that transition to optimism and solutions journalism and things like that. 

We’re making changes, structurally and systematically, but also how we communicate about it. 

When I started doing climate optimism stuff just a couple of years ago, it was so difficult to find information. And now, it’s everywhere. 

I just hope we continue this trend.

A version of this article was originally published in The 2023 Environment Edition of the Goodnewspaper.

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