Alaina Wood (’17) spent her childhood in the lush outdoors of northeastern Tennessee swimming in lakes, hiking in the mountains, and playing in the woods behind her house. So it’s no surprise that she’s devoted her time and career to preserving the environment and spreading the word that it’s never too late to make a difference for our climate.
“Growing up in the outdoors certainly helped inspire my interest in science and the environment, but my biggest inspiration was my dad,” says Wood, whose father is a civil engineer specializing in stormwater. “From an early age I was acutely aware of the environment because of his teachings.”
Wood originally intended to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a civil engineer, but by the time she got to UT for orientation she had decided to switch her major to sustainability. She liked the field because it focused on finding solutions for the environmental challenges that people like her father were working to manage.
While at UT, Wood picked up a second major, in geography, and took courses that she says set her up for success by providing her with hands-on experience.
She was part of a sustainable communities course that for 20 years has gone into Tennessee’s Appalachian towns to complete community projects. The semester Wood was in the class they created maps and used virtual reality technology to improve access to Doe Mountain Recreation Area in Mountain City, Tennessee—near where she grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee.
“I was able to help people and communities all while learning how the real world works in terms of environmental projects,” Wood says of her classes. UT is also where Wood got the nickname by which she’s now known around the world: the Garbage Queen.
“I had the opportunity to work for UT Recycling as a student, and my time there inspired my love of waste—so much so that I pursued a career in waste management after graduation and chose @thegarbagequeen as my username online.”
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wood was looking for a way to pass her time in lockdown and downloaded the social media app TikTok. She started out making videos about aspects of her life like her older home and socially distanced hikes that showed off the beauty of the region. Then her feed began filling up with environmental videos.
“They were mainly made by young people who were passionate about the planet,” Wood says. “But they often were filled with misinformation.”
After a few months of seeing this content, Wood began to live up to her username and post TikToks of her own about environmental issues. She started with one dispelling the myth that to be a true environmentalist you must live by the “zero waste” mantra—that is, taking steps to produce little to no waste. Her video went viral, and she began building a community of like-minded people who were on a mission to educate the public about sustainability.
“Climate change is unequivocally real, and scientific research has supported that for decades,” Wood says. “It used to be commonplace to deny the existence of climate change, but now it isn’t, because every corner of the globe is experiencing the impacts of it.”
Those impacts have led many people to believe it’s too late to do anything about climate change. This “climate doomism” is unfortunately causing many people to give up on helping the environment.
But Wood says it’s never too late.
“There will always be things we can do to make our environment better. I use my platform to dispel these climate doomism myths by discussing progress, solutions, and how people can help.”
On TikTok and Instagram, she makes educational content for her combined 400,000 followers with tips on how to be more sustainable and ways to protect our environment. Wood also makes a point to spread good news about the climate to help others combat the anxiety they may feel about the climate situation.
Since her first video went viral, Wood has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, and on a variety of television news outlets like the Today show and BBC News. She hosted an Earth Day event in 2021 with science icon Bill Nye, whose kind words she says inspired her to make climate communication her full-time job.
This has allowed Wood to continue researching science and policy, produce video content, consult with organizations about their sustainability goals, and help other researchers effectively communicate their findings.
Wood travels from her home in Johnson City around the world to events like the United National Climate Action Summit. She has discussed her environmental advocacy work with the likes of former Vice President Al Gore and actors Emma Watson, Rainn Wilson, and Matt Damon.
Last fall she was among a group of social media influencers invited to the White House for a briefing about the Inflation Reduction Act, which will speed up the country’s transition to clean energy. There she met President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who both expressed support for her work.
But no matter where she travels, Wood says there’s no place like home.
“I’ve considered leaving Appalachia at numerous points in my life because of both the negative stereotypes associated with the region and the lack of opportunities available here in my field,” she says. “But I ultimately decided to stay in this region I call home because the people and environment here deserve to be protected.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the world for my work, and every time I do there is something in these mountains that pulls me right back in. At the end of the day Appalachia is my home, and I want to do all I can to make it better.”
How to Battle Climate Anxiety
Are you worried about climate change and its effects? You’re not alone. “Over half of young people have experienced climate anxiety to some extent, and even I myself have it,” says Alaina Wood. Here are some tips from Wood to help ease your worries.
1. Talk about It.
Talk to someone you trust about your feelings. It could be a friend, family member, mental health professional, or even someone on social media also experiencing climate anxiety.
2. Go Outside.
Spend time outside without looking at your phone while taking deep breaths. It doesn’t have to be out in nature; going outside your home or on a walk around your community works just as well.
3. Follow Solutions-Oriented Media Outlets.
Read and watch media outlets that cover climate solutions instead of solely issues. Learning about progress being made serves as a reminder that things aren’t hopeless.
4. Take Action.
Take action against climate change in your community in whatever way is accessible to you. A good place to start is taking steps to reduce your personal environmental impact and reaching out to your elected officials about their stance on climate.