(Another old piece, slightly edited, brought to mind by a recent discussion…)
That which is unsustainable cannot go on. Unsustainable things that are propped up too long snap and collapse suddenly. Our way of life is unsustainable. The sooner we transform our economy into one that can generate sustainable prosperity, the better off we’ll be, and with every passing day, the risks of catastrophe grow larger and more certain. We need change now.
These shouldn’t be radical statements; they’re all demonstrably true. Yet they cleave right down the middle of what is fast becoming the largest generation gap in at least 40 years, a growing split between people under 30 and people over 60.
When confronted with generational conflict, we naturally tend to see the elders as seasoned and realistic, and the youth as passionate and ethical, and to seek a middle ground of tempered realism. Middle ground is going to become increasingly hard to find in this debate, though. That’s because realism now means very different, incompatible things to the two generations.
And this is what most older observers seem to refuse to understand: The world looks dramatically different if the year 2050 is one you’re likely to be alive to see. To younger people, Copenhagen isn’t some do-gooder meeting; it’s the first major battle in a war for the future. Their future. I’m a Gen-Xer, in between the two groups (we have our own takes on all this), yet even I can see that this war is about to get a lot more heated—far more heated than anything we’ve seen in half a century. To younger people, this isn’t just policy, it’s personal.
To be young and aware today is to see your elders burning your civilization down around you. To hear scientists tell us we’re in the final countdown, with the risk of runaway climate change (along with the ecosystem collapses and horrific human suffering it will bring) mounting with every day we run business as usual. To hear a chorus of respected voices—from doctors and scientists to retired generals and former bankers— warning that to lose this fight is to lose everything that makes our world livable and gives the future hope… and be ignored.
To be young and aware is to see old people—from the U.S. Senate to Wall Street, from newspaper editorial desks to corporate boardrooms—stalling action on every front, spouting platitudes about “balance,” committing themselves wholeheartedly to actions to be undertaken long after they’ve retired and died. To be told that the world’s scientists are participating in a giant hoax; to be chided for not understanding how the real world works; to be warned that doing the right thing will bankrupt us; to be told that not wanting to risk melting the ice caps and circling the equator in deserts within your lifetime makes you too radical to take seriously.
To be young and aware is to know you’re being lied to; to know that a bright green future is possible; to know that we can reimagine the world, rebuild our cities, redesign our lives, retool our factories, distribute innovation and creativity and all live in a world that is not only better than the alternative, but much better than the world we have now. And, yet, to be told not doing any of these things is “realistic” position.
To be young and aware is to suspect that, in the end, the debate about climate action isn’t about substance, but about rich old men trying to squeeze every last dollar, euro, and yen from their investments in outdated industries. It is to agree with the environmentalist Paul Hawken that we have an economy that steals the future, sells it in the present, and calls it GDP. It is to begin to see your elders as cannibals with golf clubs.
Myself, I worry: not that the young grow radical—hell, if I were 10 years younger, I’d be on the barricades myself—but that they grow despondent. Because what the world needs now, more than ever, is what the young have always given most: their optimism.
So if nothing else happens in Copenhagen, I pray that all of us who have years and a voice and a conscience will say at least this to the world’s youth: Your fight is ours, too. Don’t give up.
This piece was a part of
The GOOD Guide to COP-15
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