'Climate-Anxious' College Students Troubled by Pesticides Need Science Lesson

By Cameron English — Jul 25, 2022
Suffering from "climate anxiety," some of America's entitled college students are working to get low-risk pesticides banned from their campuses, in a bid to slow global warming. They all need therapy and a basic science lesson.
Image by xusenru via Pixabay

Like most people, I harbor a set of pretty standard concerns: paying bills, balancing work and family life, and protecting my son from crazy people who “identify” as frogs.

Many of America's college students don't have such pedestrian troubles, though. They're not worried about gas prices or the well being of the next generation. Instead, they're overwhelmed by the prospect of catastrophic climate change, and they fight this “climate anxiety” by protesting the use of synthetic pesticides on university campuses. [1] As US News & World Report noted last week:

A movement to eliminate toxic herbicides from school grounds offers lessons for students and campuses looking to combat climate change and protect human health.

The story highlighted the experience of one Brandeis University student named Charlene, who “experiences climate anxiety – a chronic fear of environmental doom – and was, at the time, looking for an outlet.” Establishing an herbicide-free campus campaign with other college revolutionaries was the exhaust port she needed:

It has been so good for my mental health to get outdoors and weed alongside like-minded students and the grounds team,” Charlene says. “Spending time outside with my hands in the dirt helps take my mind off of immediate pressing concerns like classes, homework and midterms (or) finals, while also allowing an outlet for existential issues like climate change.”

If pulling weeds alleviates Charlene's stress, God bless her. But her campus activism will do nothing to slow climate change. In fact, she is a small part of the larger effort to restrict technologies we need to farm sustainably in the coming years. Pesticides are not a threat to the climate; they are a vital tool without which we couldn't feed ourselves. Let's look at some specifics.

... [T]he use of chemicals to get rid of insects or unwanted plant life can increase scope 3 emissions (indirect emissions), as they can include petroleum-based ingredients. Pesticide use also reduces the microbial life in soil, hampering the ability of soils to sequester carbon or retain water …

The claim that all these chemicals can increase indirect emissions is nebulous. It's like warning that food contributes to obesity; technically, that's correct, but it's useless information. The term “pesticide” describes many products used to solve a variety of problems. To say anything definitive about any one of them we need more information.

For instance, use of the “synthetic” weed killer glyphosate improves soil health and slashes carbon emissions by reducing tillage and fuel use on farms. Banning this particular pesticide would be unwise given the trade-offs involved, especially since there is no "natural" alternative to glyphosate.

Some of the campuses with active student campaigns already have made the leap to organic land care, ditching synthetic pesticides. In 2018, UC Berkeley began going organic, and now synthetic pesticides are only used in urgent situations.

When this trend expands beyond colleges that cater to wealthy sociology majors, urgent situations become more common. That's because pesticides play a vital role in food production today. They kill the weeds, insects, and microorganisms that destroy crops. Take these chemicals away and more people go hungry. It's as simple as that.

[T]hese conventionally managed, heavily manicured campuses can come at a cost: increased cancer risk, contaminated waterways, poisoned wildlife and lifeless soil.

Certain pesticides may carry these risks when misused. Applied by a groundskeeper in accordance with EPA regulations? Unlikely, to say the least.

The UC Berkeley campaign also worked successfully to get the entire UC system to restrict the use of glyphosate, a popular herbicide and a probable carcinogen as determined by the World Health Organization.

Glyphosate is not a carcinogen. Study after study for the last 40 years has failed to turn up evidence to the contrary. The assessment issued by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has been almost universally panned by experts. The World Health Organization, not its IARC sub-agency, has thrice determined that the weed killer isn't linked to cancer.

Charlene added that “This work reminds me to be in the present moment as I play my role in reducing toxin use and keeping my campus safe and healthy.” I hope our troubled college student never has to pull weeds in order to survive, because that's the reality for many poor children around the globe. They don't go to school, they spend hours bent over under the hot sun pulling weeds so they can eat.

If Charlene thought climate change was bad for her anxiety, imagine the terror she'll experience in the pesticide-free world she foolishly longs for.


[1] “Synthetic” is a useless term in this context, since it says nothing about the toxicity of a given chemical. “Natural” pesticides are often harmful  to wildlife.

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