Extinction Rebellion Protest
Climate and Generation
(Listen to this section as an audio podcast)
The climate crisis as a generational issue (Climate and Generation, Intro). Watch video.
Across the planet, the youth are rebelling!
This probably comes as little surprise, as you may well have heard of Greta Thunberg, the Sunrise Movement, and are likely aware that their generation is more than a little concerned about the state of our planet and its climate.
The fact that they are now rebelling should come as little surprise either. For decades, we kept telling yourselves that we needed to change the reckless way that we were inhabiting our planet – not for ourselves, but, as we kept saying, for our children.
Well, we didn’t. And those children, who weren’t necessarily even been born at the time, are now here – and coming of age. And they’re upset that we didn’t adequately address this issue decades ago. Let’s be honest, they’re pissed, really pissed – and rightfully so. We are handing them a planet that is well on its way to becoming uninhabitable, certainly unwelcoming, for our species.
If you look at the circumstances surrounding the climate crisis (which, as we shall see, are more than a little unusual), the emergence of a youth rebellion at this moment in history, from this particular generation, was almost inevitable.
In the next five segments of Climate Crisis 101 we will be considering the generational aspect of the climate crisis and why people of my generation failed to act – and are still, even now, not adequately acting.
Which means that the responsibility for sweeping action now falls to new generation coming on the scene, that of my students. Consequently, as far as I am concerned, the youth movement is a very good thing indeed. We should all, for the sake of our planet, welcome and do what we can to support it.
How the climate crisis was brought about in a single lifetime (Climate and Generation, 1). Watch video.
It’s true. The climate crisis was principally brought about in a single lifetime. Contrary to what you may have heard or thought, for the most part the climate crisis was not slowly caused over centuries by many generations of human beings, but rather in a single lifetime. Which means, of course, that the people who largely caused this problem are still alive – and still making it worse.
I want to talk about how this happened. Not the mechanics of how greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere, but how this was allowed to happen, why no one stopped it – and why, even today, we are not doing nearly enough.
Let me be clear at the onset that I am confident that it is not too late to act – there is still time – though, as we shall see, the solution to the climate crisis that I am going to propose may seem…well…radical.
The circumstances that made the climate crisis possible (perhaps even inevitable) are striking – and more than a little unusual. Even though we have been bringing about this crisis for quite a few decades now, to many people along the way it really did seem that there were few consequences to these actions.
This was largely because of an unusual time delay that challenges and confuses our ordinary temporal perception of cause and effect. It is important to understand this issue, as it can help explain our decades of inaction – as well as suggest how we can finally, adequately, and quickly mobilize. Allow me to explain.
If you pour a quart of oil down a storm drain, the consequences will soon be obvious, as it can quickly contaminate as many as a million gallons of water – it’s true. Release a billion times that amount of CO2 into the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis), and there will be little impact, anywhere on earth. Hence, it may seem that there is little need to worry about the wholesale dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. For decades, we kept telling ourselves that there wasn’t much to worry about.
But, there was. If you keep releasing enough CO2 into the atmosphere (which we did), the impact will be felt everywhere on the planet, but there will – and this is important – there will be a significant time delay before the consequences are felt.
I would argue that this time delay played a major role in bringing about the climate crisis – without it, I doubt the situation would have gotten anywhere near this far. The delayed impact also set the stage for an extraordinary generational split on the climate crisis that is now revealing itself across the planet.
In order to understand how all this works, imagine that you could indulge in some sort of self-destructive behavior, say cigarette smoking, but without any consequences, whatsoever.
You could smoke three, four, even five packs a day without significantly harming your health – every day for your entire adult life – no strings attached.
Ok, imagine one string: while you would suffer none of the consequences of your actions, your children would suffer them all.
Cancer, heart disease, emphysema, stroke – you get the idea. They wouldn’t have to wait for the symptoms to show up later in life, they would experience them from birth onward.
And, not only your children, but your grandchildren – and, moreover, every subsequent generation of your descendants for hundreds of years.
Here’s another twist, if enough people did it, then not only the descendants of the smokers, but every child born on the planet for the next few hundred years would suffer the consequences.
We are by no means talking about a majority of human beings here. Not half, not even a quarter. If just one in eight people on the planet did it, this would be enough to make every child born for hundreds of years suffer for their entire lives.
One last twist: not only would subsequent generations of human beings suffer for hundreds of years, but all life on the planet will be profoundly impacted, from the heights of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. Thousands upon thousands of species would suffer, many would go extinct.
Unfortunately, this is not a thought experiment. This is how anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change works. The abused substance in question is not tobacco but fossil fuels.
During one lifetime people enjoy, dozens of subsequent generations suffer.
I know: I keep saying just one lifetime? Isn’t it true that our fossil fuel addiction goes back hundreds of years?
Yes, that’s right. In fact, I have written about the first true fossil fuel economy to emerge on earth, which was 400 years ago in Shakespeare’s London.
But let’s look at CO2 in the atmosphere. Although there are a number of other important greenhouse gases (some that you may have heard of, like methane, others that you likely haven’t, such as HFCs – both of which we will be taking up in future segments), CO2 is the most significant greenhouse gas and hence an important benchmark.
For the whole of human history, indeed even before there were modern humans, before there were Neanderthals, CO2 in the atmosphere has held at about 280 ppm.
Then, something happened, something big. A few hundred years ago people started digging up large quantities of fossil fuels. When burned, they released CO2 into the atmosphere.
By 1959 (I’ll explain in a moment why I picked this particular year), CO2 in the atmosphere had risen to 315 ppm, a rise of about 35 points.
If it had stopped there in 1959, it is likely that the consequences for the human race would have been, relatively speaking, minor. But it didn’t stop there.
In fact, it continued to rise – dramatically. During the year that I am recording this (2019), CO2 in the atmosphere reached 415 ppm. So, in the past 60 years CO2 has risen by 100 points. That’s three times more than it rose in the preceding centuries. (It would in fact be much more, except that our planet’s oceans have absorbed a quarter of the CO2 that we have emitted – with grave consequences, which we will be taking up in future segments.)
1959 has particular significance for me: this was the year that I was born.
Let’s just pause for a moment to reflect on this: three quarters of all the CO2 – the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis – three quarters of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by human beings was put there in a single lifetime – mine. Three quarters of it.
Because CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds, even thousands of years, dozens of subsequent generations are going to be impacted by what we have done. Generations of people, animals, fish, insects, plants – every living thing on earth.
Recall the little twist that I added with my example of smoking. I stipulated that not everyone would need to do it for everyone on the planet to suffer. This is how the climate crisis has unfolded on earth.
A quarter of all the CO2 in the atmosphere was put there by one country, my country, the United States, even though Americans constitute just 4% of the world’s population. If you add in the countries of Europe, as well as Russia, in the past 60 years these countries, which during this time formed the bulk of what we called the “developed world,” have been responsible for nearly two thirds of all the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, even though collectively these countries are home to just one eighth of the world’s population.
In contrast, the poorest 3 billion people (“Billion” with a “B” – and that’s approaching nearly half of the world’s population), the poorest 3 billion people on the planet contributed just 5% of the CO2 in the atmosphere, a pretty insignificant amount.
Pause on that: the extraordinary role that one out of eight people on the planet played in the climate crisis, in a single lifetime. For the most part, these people are still alive. For the most part, each day they are still doing exactly what they did to bring about this crisis.
That last point is particularly worrisome, as my lifetime is not yet over. Life expectancy being what it is, I will live another twenty years or so. If we continue on like this, CO2 could rise another forty points, to 455ppm, in what would have been my lifetime. In other words, in the next 20 years human beings (principally those in the developed world) could put more CO2 into the atmosphere than the human race did for the whole of our history up until the time that I was born.
In contrast, nearly half the planet’s people had virtually nothing to do with causing the climate crisis, yet generations of their children will also suffer. And let’s be honest, suffer more than children in the developed world, as all the wealth that our fossil-fuel economy has given us will, at least initially, likely help insulate the developed world from the climate crisis.
Pause on the injustice of that: the wealth and power that the developed world has amassed, which has principally come from our fossil-fuel economy, will help protect us from the worst of what we have done, while the rest of the world will suffer all the more for it. In future segments, we will be taking up this subject, climate justice, in detail.
Never in the whole of human history has one group impacted the planet and its life to anywhere near this degree. It’s not just unprecedented, it is altogether mind-boggling.
In the following segments, I want to propose a solution to at least help mitigate this crisis. The course of action that I am going to suggest is radical. But I see no other course, as little else will likely work.
For now, I want to end with an apology, from my generation to the newest generation emerging into maturity, that of my students. There are, no doubt, better people than I to deliver it. The power brokers in the fossil fuel industry come to mind, as do the politicians that still support them, even now. However, we may be waiting quite a while for their apology.
My generation should be – and I am – ashamed of what we have done. We have left you with a planet on its way to becoming largely uninhabitable, certainly unwelcoming, for our species. What’s worse, rather than correcting our mistakes, we have raised you and the generation before you to keep making the same ones. Instead of teaching you how to live sustainably on this planet, we have done just the opposite. Sadly, as you may have inherited our fossil fuel addiction, many of you may now, like us, be in the habit of casually abusing our planet, our home, Indeed, you may even have trouble imagining a sustainable way of life.
I wonder, I wonder how history will remember my generation…
All that I can say is that I am sorry and that some of us in my generation are with you in this fight – and will be as long as we have breath in us.
Why the generation that caused the climate crisis is not acting (Climate and Generation, 2). Watch video.
In the previous segment, I noted that climate crisis was principally brought about in a single lifetime, mine. Today, I would like to address the question of why we’re not acting. As it turns out, this is arguably a generational issue.
First, allow me to quickly recap what I noted during the last segment:
Three quarters of all the CO2 (that’s carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis) was put into our planet’s atmosphere in the 60 years of my lifetime. Most of it was put there by the developed world. In contrast, the poorest half of humanity had virtually nothing to do with bringing the climate crisis about – though they will suffer the most.
An unusual time delay is partly responsible here. For decades, massive amounts of greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere, seemingly without significantly impacting the global climate. Many people, ignoring the warnings of scientists, simply didn’t believe that doing this was a problem, as the consequences of our actions had not yet caught up with us. Now that they are quickly arriving, coming to grips with what we have done is…well…difficult. It really is mind-boggling.
Mind-boggling for everyone, but, in a certain way, especially for my generation in the developed world: those most responsible for this crisis. How can we even begin to come to grips with what we have done?
Is it surprising that many of us are in a state of denial? Deep, deep denial.
We hear a lot about denial of the climate crisis nowadays. Usually this refers to theories that are advanced, often by or for fossil fuel interests, that in some way deny that the climate crisis is happening, or deny its severity, or that it is human-caused, or something of the sort.
To many people, these attempts at denial sound pretty outlandish, as they fly in the face of reason and the facts. However, to some individuals, those who are themselves in a state of denial, often deep denial, they provide a way out: a way to not face up to what we have done, as what we have done borders on the unthinkable.
Is it at all surprising that those in denial would question the truth?
Of course, since before I was born, scientists have been alerting both the public and policy makers to the problem. Perhaps not surprisingly, those in denial often lash out at these messengers. You may have heard some of them. They can sound something like this:
“After all, I have lived all my life without seeing any significant consequences from the burning of fossil fuels. Sure, there have been some pretty bad storms and crazy weather lately, but there have always been bad storms and wild weather. Who’s to say that they were caused by human action? Scientists? Who’s to say they’re right? Maybe their instruments are wrong. Maybe their theories are wrong. Maybe their computer models are wrong. Maybe this hasn’t been caused by human beings at all. Maybe it’s just the natural cycles of climate. Maybe it’s sunspot active. Maybe, maybe the scientists are corrupt. Maybe they’re part of some insidious global plot to undermine democracy.”
I know, this can sound pretty silly. However, all of these theories denying the climate crisis have not only been advanced, they have all gotten significant traction with certain segments of the public: often, those in denial. Incidentally, and perhaps not surprisingly, denial of the climate crisis is most common in the developed world – which, perhaps not surprisingly, largely brought about the crisis.
Even if individuals in my generation move past denial, there is the real danger of delay, climate delay. In other words, if we come to grips with the fact that the climate crisis is upon us and that we have caused it – and hey, that’s a lot to come to grips with – then how should we proceed? Slowly, with caution? Or decisively, as time is of the utmost essence?
Simple answer? My lifetime was the time to have acted. The six decades that I have lived was the time to have acted. The time for successful climate intervention is now receding quickly; we simply cannot delay any longer. As we shall see throughout this series, we need to fundamentally rethink and change the way that our species relates to this planet – and we need to do it now.
Although different in a variety of ways, climate denial and climate delay can result in the same thing: Nothing. Inaction.
There are three groups that should be particularly and profoundly upset about all this.
First, the half of the world’s population that had a minimal impact on CO2 rise, yet will suffer its consequences the most.
Second, let’s not forget all non-human life on earth, who hold no responsibility for CO2 rise. They will never know why this is all happening, yet are suffering and dying en masse already.
The third group is the children of the people who did this. In speaking to my students, I am for the most part speaking to this group (although, as they hail from all over the world, some of my students come from places that did little to bring about this crisis). While many of this group may have benefited from the fossil fuel economy, they largely had no choice in the matter. After all, parents do not generally decide whether or not they are going to buy a McMansion or gas-guzzling SUV based on the input of their children.
This last group is also in many ways currently leading the worldwide revolt against the climate crisis.
Because my generation has not acted, I am speaking to this younger generation. Not only in the classroom, but here, as I imagine you as the principal audience for this prerecorded talk.
The problem is that my generation is still largely in power across the planet.
Consider the U.S. federal government. The average age of Congress is around my age, 60. The Supreme Court is nearly ten years older, pushing 70. And, of course, Donald Trump was the first person ever elected President of the United States in his seventies. We could continue with state and local governments (the average age of a Governor is early sixties), but the story is much the same, as it is in the corporate world. The average age of a CEO of a major corporation is 56.
Of course, it does not necessarily follow from this that my generation cares little about the climate crisis. Unfortunately, polls reveal that this is in fact often the case.
A recent poll by Yale and George Mason Universities asked voters what will be the most important issues for them in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Among my generation, so-called “baby boomers,” global warming ranked number 18 out of 29 as an area of concern. Instead, the leading issues were the economy, healthcare, and Social Security. Other concerns ranked ahead of global warming included terrorism, immigration reform, and border security. The generation after mine (so-called Gen X – basically people who are now in their forties through mid-fifties) did not rank global warming much higher as an issue of concern: for them it is 15 out of 29. Finally, the generation before mine, people the age of Donald Trump and older, ranked it lowest of all: 23 out of 29 .
It’s not that these folks necessarily deny that anthropogenic climate change is taking place. According to this poll, 70% of registered voters in the U.S. now believe that the climate is changing because of human action, which is up from what it has been in recent years. While this might seem heartening, the problem is that the climate crisis, although now increasingly acknowledged as real, is just not much of a priority for many people. Sadly, as this poll reveals, this is a generational issue: the older you are, the less urgent you will likely find the climate crisis. People forty and above just don’t see this as very important, at all.
In many respects, this is hardly surprising, as these older generations lived their lives largely without seeing the consequences of their actions because of that strange time delay – which lasted for decades – that we took up in the previous segment.
But perhaps polls aren’t all that revealing, perhaps the generation in power has been acting, has been lowering CO2 emissions. After all, isn’t that what the Paris Accord signed at COP21 is all about? Didn’t the nations of the world agree to limit global temperature rise to a reasonable 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit)? In fact, they did agree to this.
The problem is that global temperatures have already risen by two-thirds this amount, by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. When did all this happen? You guessed it: principally during the six decades of my lifetime.
Not only are CO2 emissions on the rise, but they are – astonishingly – rising far more quickly now than when the Paris Accord was signed. At that time (2015), CO2 emissions were rising at less than half a percent per year. Last year (2018), global CO2 emissions rose by a staggering 2.7%. That’s five times as much as when the Paris Accord was signed. In case you’re wondering, even though there had been a lowering trend in the U.S., 2018 was well above the world average with a 3.4% increase.
Simply put, during my lifetime we (and by “we” I principally mean the developed world) have been dumping vast amounts of CO2 other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each and every year – and every year we have on average been dumping significantly more than the year before. As last year proved, we have by no means been slowing down since the Paris Accord was signed.
How far off are we from the target of the Paris Accord? The goal is to reduce emissions to between 80-95% of the levels that we had thirty years ago, back in 1990, back when I was thirty.
So, no, the people in power are not sufficiently addressing this issue – not by a long shot.
What, then, do we need to do to keep this crisis from becoming even worse? In the next segment, I will be taking up this question – and offering a radical answer.
What a new generation can do to mitigate the climate crisis (Climate and Generation, 3). Watch video.
In the previous two segments, I noted that even though the climate crisis was overwhelmingly brought about in a single lifetime, mine, my generation sees the problem as a low priority and, consequently, is doing little to mitigate it.
In this and the next segment, I want to suggest an admittedly radical solution whereby the next generation can avert the worst of this crisis
Just to recap, allow me to repeat what I said in the last segment: “Three quarters of all the CO2 (that’s carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas causing the climate crisis), was put into our planet’s atmosphere in the 60 years of my lifetime.” Ironically, for the most part the people who currently wield power on the planet are from my generation. And for the most part, they are not sufficiently addressing on this problem – not by a long shot.
I think of myself as a scholar-activist. In the previous segments I have been talking to you principally as a scholar (and teacher), laying out the facts, explaining the situation. When I’ve done this in person, students often ask me what they should do, what action they should take. I am going to respond to that question now as an activist, by suggesting an action.
Here it is, my radical suggestion. It, and what follows from this point onward, is spoken for my students (and your generation):
You need to take control of this planet – or at least set your sights on that goal – and you need to start now, today.
You cannot wait for the normal course of events, which would bring you to power when you’re my age, or nearly so. As we shall see throughout this series, this situation is simply too urgent for that. You do not have decades. You do not even have years to act. You need to act now, in the upcoming months to have as much impact as is possible. The future – and by that I mean sustaining a reasonably habitable earth for human beings – depends on it.
Sadly, you cannot wait for my generation to act, as we have had decades to act, but haven’t. In fact, as I noted in the last segment, during our watch we continued to make this situation worse and worse every year. And even now we see this as an alarmingly low priority.
In suggesting that you need to take control of this planet, I do not mean to suggest that human beings should take control of even more of the earth. Our species already controls over 80% of our planet’s landmass. I am simply suggesting that that control needs to be transferred to a generation that grasps the enormity of this crisis – and will thus hopefully be better stewards of this planet.
Also, let me be very clear, when I suggest that you take control of this planet, I am not in any way implying that you resort to violence to do so. Seriously, violence never solves anything. And, fortunately, throughout the developed world that principally caused this problem, democracy is for the most part still working reasonably well – though, as we shall see in future episodes, fossil fuel interests and others are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subvert it.
The 2018 U.S. midterm elections can be seen as a proof-of-concept of what can be done. A month after the youngest woman was ever voted into Congress, she co-introduced the most sweeping U.S. legislation ever to address the climate crisis: the Green New Deal. The fact that she did this in her twenties is not, I think, coincidental.
Throughout this series, I am going to suggest a number of things that you can do to help take control of this planet. These will range from activism to engineering sweeping cultural change through decisions that you make on where you live, how you get around, what you eat, what you wear, the stuff you buy, etc.
However, political change is of central importance, even on the local level. You may trade your car for an e-bike (a great thing to do), but if your local politicians are committed to car infrastructure rather than bicycle paths, you may have real trouble getting around on that bike and even be unsafe sharing overcrowded roads with cars.
In short, one of the simplest, quickest, and most effective things that you can do to work toward taking control of this planet is to vote – and to urge five of your friends to do the same.
There is a particular urgency in doing so that is worth noting, as my generation is leveraging democracy to its advantage and interests, which is away from the climate crisis and toward things like Social Security and healthcare. How is this happening?
In the aforementioned 2018 midterm election, voter turnout in the U.S. was generally up. In the case of 18 to 29-year-olds, it was way up, having increased more than any other age group, as over a third voted. This is great, undeniably. However, the problem is that two out of three people over the age of 65 voted. As a group, their voting power is thus twice as great as the youngest generation of voters, simply because they are voting twice as much. My generation is not only effectively in control of this planet, we are significantly leveraging that control – two-to-one in the case of political power, which is all important – and which is, of course, exercised through voting.
It is not my intent is to cause generational discord. Moreover, I am not echoing the 1960s adage that you should trust no one over 30. I am, after all, delivering this message at twice that age. And there are plenty of people in my generation and even older, including politicians, that are deeply committed to addressing our climate crisis. Al Gore and Bernie Sanders, both in their seventies, come to mind.
Nonetheless, the bald fact is that we will be dead and buried when you will be dealing with the worst of this. We haven’t and simply won’t significantly suffer in our lifetimes. However, you will. Though we brought about the greatest catastrophe ever caused by human beings on the planet, the climate crisis wasn’t really much of an issue for my generation, as paradoxical as that may sound. This is arguably largely because of the time delay that I elaborated on in the previous talks. Even today, as polls reveal, it is still not much of an issue for my generation. It will, nonetheless, likely be THE defining issue for you, and for many generations after you.
Is it even possible for your generation to take even partial control of this planet? Frankly, I am not sure. However, I am decidedly of the “aim high” camp when it comes to tackling problems. Even you do not succeed at this incredibly ambitious goal, you may still have a profound impact.
Consider the last great youth rebellions in the U.S., which occurred in the 1960s and ’70s. True, political power was not transferred from one generation to another at this time. However, these youth movements, which in many respects had their center in colleges and universities, were able to exert tremendous political pressure that ultimately resulted in significant cultural and political change.
This not only included the ending of the Vietnam Conflict through the withdrawal of American troops, but also a range of additional cultural changes, such as for civil rights. Especially for people of color, for women, for the LGBTQIA community, we live in a better world because of the youth rebellions of the 1960s – though, of course, still hardly a perfect world.
The simple fact is that, as a result of these rebellions, America was in many ways fundamentally, profoundly changed – for the better.
Even if you do not succeed in taking even partial control this planet, you can have a profound influence on the older generations. Interestingly, you are uniquely positioned to do so.
A recent study found that, when its comes to promoting “collective action” on the climate crisis, one of the most effective approaches is “child-to-parent intergenerational learning—that is, the transfer of knowledge, attitudes or behaviours from children to parents.” (source) Simply put, you need to teach your parents by communicating to them the horrific severity of this problem. You need to explain to them how important this is for your future, the future of their (as yet unborn) grandchildren – indeed the future of all your family’s descendants. By taking this direct, personal approach, your generation can have enormous influence on the generations in control of this planet.
Throughout this series, we will be looking at a range of approaches, such as child-to-parent intergenerational learning, that can allow you to have greater control of the destiny of the earth, our species, and the life with which we share this planet.
I know that I have left quite a few questions unanswered here, such as just how much my generation knew about what we were doing. I will take this question up in a future segment, but the short answer is that we knew more than enough to have been prompted to action. After all, the modern environmental movement emerged at the moment, shortly after the time of my birth, when we could have largely averted the worst all this.
The most pressing question, however, is what you as a generation can do to undo what my generation has done. I will be directly addressing this question in the next segment, as well as throughout this series. In fact, this series centers on this question.
Simple answer is that, in order to help moderate the climate crisis, we need to fundamentally reinvent Western culture, especially consumer culture and the belief that happiness is to be found in things (it obviously isn’t), a culture that we have now sold to the entire world, much to the detriment of our planet. This is not a big job, it’s an almost unimaginably huge undertaking. But it must be done. Because my generation didn’t do it, this job now falls to you.
Thinking back to the 1960s in the U.S., I am reminded of a speech by Robert F. Kennedy where he noted that “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
This is probably not actually a real Chinese curse, but what Kennedy noted was correct. While he lived in a time of “danger and uncertainty,” it was also an extremely exciting, creative time. Out of his era, with all its strife, came a better world, precisely because it was not just more of the same, but a bold charting of a new future.
And yet, by comparison, it was arguably not nearly as exciting, with as much room for creativity, as the time in which we now live. Echoing Kennedy, I would argue that ours is “the most creative of any time in the history” of humanity. The challenge, at once both frightening and exhilarating, is to create a new world.
I open my most recent book, which is on the challenge of writing a new environmental era and moving forward to nature (in other words, moving forward to a better relationship with the earth), with a quote from Tennyson’s wonderful little poem “Ulysses.” Allow me to repeat it here, to you:
“Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
In the next segment, we will take up the question of how to begin.
Can one generation do what previous generations failed to do? (Climate and Generation, 4). Watch video.
What can I do to help?
This is one of the most common questions that people ask me regarding the climate crisis.
In response, I often launch into a discussion of voting, activism, and things of that sort. However, many people are asking something different with this question. They want to know what they can do right now, today. Since human actions brought about the climate crisis, they want to know what sort of actions, personal actions, can help grind it to a halt.
In other words, they are asking how best to live their lives in order to avert climate catastrophe.
Although this is certainly a big question, I have a number of suggestions that can help make a start. Usually, I give five or so. Amazingly, these five things can cut your climate footprint in half or even more.
How is this a generational issue? I have noticed that people of my generation tend to respond very differently to these ideas then do my students and their generation.
This generational difference is more than a little important, as it it reveals one of the truly daunting challenges that we face, which is the subject of this segment.
First, let me quickly articulate five things that can Americans can do to dramatically reduce our personal climate footprints. Then we can move to the two very different generational responses to them. (Incidentally, you might find these interesting in their own right. In future segments, I will be taking each of them up individually in detail, along with a range of similar suggestions.)
1) Transportation. For the average American, owning and driving an automobile accounts for around a quarter of our individual climate footprints. Hence, if you trade your car for mass transit, a bike, or walking shoes, or some combination of these, you will have done the earth (and humanity and the rest of the life on the planet) a huge favor.
2) Housing can account for another quarter of your climate footprint, especially if you live in a large suburban or rural home. Move to a micro-apartment or certain co-housing communities, and you can greatly reduce another big chunk of your climate footprint.
Incidentally, the good news for both transportation and housing is that there is a simple way to approach both: move to a city. City living can mean dramatically less car use (in Manhattan, only one in five people commute to work by car) and generally smaller, more efficient housing. Many cities have made major commitments to mass transportation and bicycle use, Portland and Vancouver are excellent examples, as well as micro-apartments, such as New York’s adAPT NYC program.
3) Waste less food and eat a largely plant-based diet. Food production is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases on the planet. Yet, we waste between 1/3 and 1/2 of the food that we produce. For Americans, much of this happens at the consumer level. Meat is another problem. Producing a pound of beef emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as producing 30 pounds of lentils, which are also a significant source of protein.
4) Have no more than one child per person. In other words, a couple should have either two, one, or zero children. When I was born (1959), there were just under 3 billion people on the planet. There are now 7.7 billion. By mid century, it will be near 10 billion. The planet simply cannot sustain this many human beings. We need to reduce our global population.
5) Re-think your relationship to stuff. For example, the average American purchases over 60 items of clothing each year (not including socks, underwear, and other incidentals). Nearly everything we buy has a climate footprint. The solution: for a start, buy less, keep what you have longer, and consider preowned options from places like thrift stores.
(By the way, these last three suggestions – regarding food, population, and our appetite for stuff – are related. While it might seem that a swelling human population is the principal threat to our planet, we need to always keep in mind the relationship of population to consumption. As it is home to just 4% of the world’s population, the United States would seem to be pretty insignificant environmentally. However, as I noted in a previous segment, 25% of all greenhouse gases that human beings have put in the atmosphere were done by this tiny population, in part because we have a voracious appetite for meat and all sorts of stuff. So, we can’t just think in terms of population: we must also consider the emissions of each person. In the future segments, we will be taking up this issue in detail.)
In any event, if you do these five simple things, you may well cut your climate footprint in half, perhaps even to a quarter or less of its present size.
Now, for the generational responses.
Over the years I have heard a range of different responses to these suggestions from my students and people of their generation. There are two in particular that I hear more than all others. They sound something like this:
1) “Is that it? Just doing these five simple things can make that big of a difference?” (It can!)
The second response often goes hand-in-hand with the first:
2) “Not only doesn’t this sound very bad, in many ways it actually sounds pretty exciting, even desirable.”
It’s true, moving to a place like Portland or Vancouver (or a less expensive urban option) and living without a car can sound pretty appealing. Perhaps far more appealing than life in a cookie-cutter suburb, shuttling around in a minivan or SUV. Since many of my students have at least toyed with the idea of becoming largely vegetarian or vegan, switching to a mostly plant-based diet may be enticing for a range of additional factors, such as the ethical treatment of animals. And very few of my students are thinking about having large families. Regarding stuff, many of them are frustrated with our consumer culture and perhaps already visit thrift shops or have been intrigued by movements like minimalism.
So, all this doesn’t sound so bad and, in fact, can seem pretty desirable.
Although we are often told that adapting to the climate crisis will mean that we will need to make do with less and live drab lives of deprivation, this is not generally the perspective of my students – not by a long shot.
However, when I list these five things to people of my own generation, the response is often quite different. As it turns out, I primarily hear two answers from them as well. They often sound something like this:
1) “That sounds positively horrible! I love my car, and the freedom that it gives me. I’ve worked hard all of life for my house, it is incredibly important to me. And I enjoy the fruits of my labor; all the things that I now deserve as a result of all that work. Instead, you want me to live in a tiny, cramped apartment or with a bunch of other people in co-housing, to get around by bus or on a bicycle, to eats lentils for dinner, and wear somebody’s used clothing? Could you possibly be serious?
The second response is also pretty common:
2) “This is a direct assault on the American way of life. We should be able to live where we want to live, drive what we want to drive, eat what we want to eat, wear what we want to wear, buy what we want to buy, and, of course, have as many children as we please. What you are suggesting sounds like communism, totalitarianism, or something of the sort!”
To these folks, the changes that I outline not only suggest a decidedly unpleasant and drab existence, it comes at the cost of what are actually posited as freedoms.
Throughout this series you’ll hear me cite statistics and quote papers, but let me be clear, what I am relating here is my personal experience. And it is admittedly skewed. My students are a select group. The majority of them are from California, a very progressive state, or are progressive thinking international students, they will soon to be college educated, and they are likely more than a little drawn to environmental issues, otherwise they wouldn’t be taking my classes. In contrast, every now and again I run into members of their generation who hold very different views than I am relating here. I once had a student tell me that he “wanted everything that my parents had – and a whole lot more. I want it all!”
Nonetheless, experience has taught me that the generational divide that I am outlining here is real. And, as far as I am concerned, more than a little worrisome, as it suggests that the generation currently controlling our planet has been crafting and settling into a way of life for decades now that is, quite simply, an environmental nightmare. What’s more, my generation likes it – and often recoil from change almost instinctively. As my generation has shaped our modern world more than any other, many in this generation are actually proud of what was accomplished – and seemingly comfortable with it.
While it may seem that my generation simply inherited its behavior and practices from previous generations (and in some sense we did), we significantly innovated and often outrageously supersized them in a way that was disastrous for the planet. Take housing, for example.
In 1950, shortly before I was born, the average size of an American house was just under 1000 square feet. Today, the average size is over 2500 square feet – more than two and a half times larger, even though American families are now considerably smaller. And of course, as with so many things American, bigger is often perceived as better. Hence, if you can afford it, the ideal home is often much larger. One in five new houses in the U.S. is now, in fact, over 3000 square feet in size. One in ten is a McMansion, at over 4000 square feet. In contrast, a traditional Japanese home, which housed families of four or more, was one tenth that size at 400 square feet.
Housing is just one example of how American lifestyle has grown more and more environmentally disastrous during my lifetime.
The light at the end of the tunnel is, as far as I am concerned, the generations that will supplant us.
Had my generation prepared the way, you would be faced with a far less daunting challenge. For example, if we had already written cars, big houses, meat, and the love of all sorts of stupid stuff out of your lives, mitigating this crisis would be far easier. And not just with respect to these particular issues, as this would have made clear that we can indeed change our lives and lifestyles. In a general way, it would have underscored to this new generation coming on the scene that the way of life that we are handed at birth can be changed at any time.
In short, our example would have made clear to you that is possible to effectively make sweeping and profound cultural changes. That would have been a lesson of inestimable value. Sadly, it is one that my generation never learned. Hence, we could not, did not, teach it to you.
What’s to be done now? If you hope to effectively mitigate our climate crisis, you need to embrace sweeping change. Throughout this series, we will consider specific ways of doing just that.
In the next segment, I want to address the question of what my generation knew about the climate crisis and when we knew it. Although interesting in its own right, this is an important issue to take up, as understanding why my generation failed to act on what we clearly knew was an impending environmental catastrophe on a global scale can hopefully help keep your generation from making the same horrific mistake.
What the Boomer generation knew about the climate crisis – and when we knew it (Climate and Generation, 5). Watch video.
In previous segments, I drew attention to the fact that the climate crisis was principally brought about in a single lifetime, mine. I also noted that an unusual time delay is in part responsible here, as the consequences of our actions were not felt at the time but are only now catching up with us now, decades later.
This raises a crucial question: did we see this coming or not? In other words, did we know that our actions would likely bring about a catastrophe on a global scale that would threaten the very future of our species?
Short answer? Yes, for over fifty years, we clearly feared that this was going to happen. And by “we,” I mean not just scientists, scholars, activists, and policymakers, but the average person on the street in the U.S. knew and was very worried.
In order got understand what we knew and how, let’s focus on the two principal greenhouse gases, CO2 (carbon dioxide, which is released during the burning of fossil fuels) and methane (which for the most part is emitted by the beef industry and while fracking for fossil fuels).
With respect to CO2, if, 50 years ago (in the early 1970s), you asked the average American if we needed to end our reliance on fossil fuels by the close of the 20th century, the answer would very likely have been a decided “Yes.” Moreover, most people feared that failure to do so might well result in an existential catastrophe for the human race. In simple terms, in the early 1970s most Americans feared that if we did not quickly ween ourselves off of fossil fuels we would risk the collapse of our civilization, possibly as early as the beginning of the 21st-century.
With respect to methane, many people in the the U.S. and the developed world by the early 1970s, as we shall see, knew that meat consumption was an environmental disaster.
In short, most Americans in the early 1970s knew that if we didn’t ween ourselves off of fossil fuel’s and meat then we were flirting with a global disaster of unprecedented scope, likely beginning early in the 21st-century. The interesting thing is that this concern was not directly related to climate change.
I will explain this unusual state of affairs directly, but first I want to specifically address what we knew about how CO2 would impact the global climate – and when we knew it.
As a colleague of mine at UC Santa Barbara, John Perlin, has recently argued, Eunice Foote, notably a woman scientist, was the first person to suggest that increased levels of atmospheric CO2 would result in global temperature rise. This was, astonishingly, in 1854.
Flash forward a century, in 1956, shortly before I was born, physicist Gilbert Plass published an article entitled “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change,” which noted that we could expect global temperature to rise significantly in the 20th century as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. Using computer models, which were just coming on the scene at the time, Plass predicted a global temperature rise by the year 2000 that has proven to be pretty accurate, all things considered.
In less than a decade, in 1965, the President’s Science Advisory Committee, which is housed in the White House, produced an important report entitled “Restoring The Quality of Our Environment.” After being presented with it, President Lyndon Johnson made reference to it and the problem of rising CO2 levels in a speech to Congress.
Here are just a few lines from that report:
“Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years.”
“By the year 2000 the increase in CO2 will be close to 25%. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate.”
“The climate changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”
So, yes, we knew about this problem from nearly the beginning, in the sense that scientists and policymakers (including the President) were alerted to the issue at the point when it was emerging as a significant global problem – right around the time that I was born.
During the past 60 years, the problem has, on and off, emerged as a significant political issue. Nathaniel Rich has, for example, outlined how, starting in the 1970s, a decade-long effort almost resulted (according to Rich) in binding treaties that would have reeled in global CO2 rise. (source) It is also now clear that fossil fuel companies like Exxon have known about the problem in great detail for decades, starting in the 1970s. (source)
However, it can be argued – to be honest, I have heard it argued quite a bit – that the public (i.e. the average person on the street) really did not know about the impending climate crisis. To people of my generation, this can be a comforting stance, as in many ways it lets us off the hook. In other words, yes we did something that has proven to be environmentally disastrous, but we had no idea that it would be a problem.
This is an important issue to address. My goal is not to cast blame on my generation, but rather to see our story as a cautionary tale.
The simple fact is that we absolutely did know that what we were doing would be disastrous. Although not with respect to climate change, we nonetheless knew that we were setting the stage for a worldwide catastrophe by the early 21st-century. And yes, if you would have stopped and asked any random American on the street at that time, they would have almost certainly have told you that they knew – and were worried, perhaps very worried.
Allow me to explain.
In 1956, the same year that Gilbert Plass published his article on “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change,” M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for the Shell oil company, introduced his theory of “peak oil.” Hubbert noted that every year we were pumping more oil out of the ground than the previous year. Eventually, he theorized, this trend would end as we began running out of oil. He predicted that this year of “peak oil” would be right around 1970. After that, the trend would reverse, as we would then be pumping less and less oil out of the earth each year as worldwide reverse were depleted.
Almost like clockwork, in the U.S. oil production started to decline in 1970. Consequently, we began relying more and more on imported oil, especially from the Middle East. In 1973, Middle Eastern oil producers put an embargo on the export of their oil to the U.S. for political reasons. This sent shock waves through America, as we were suddenly found ourselves running out of oil to heat our homes and gasoline to power our cars. As you might imagine, the cost of heating oil and gasoline soared.
This was the first “energy crisis” of the 1970s. Another would follow in 1979. The average American was profoundly, personally impacted by all this, as there were, for example, long (in some cases very long) lines to buy gasoline because of the shortage. And then there was the price: the average cost of a gallon of gasoline in the United States in 1970 was $.36 per gallon. By 1980, it had tripled in cost to $1.19 per gallon (source).
Consequently, most Americans not only knew about peak oil in the early 1970s, we knew that, as a consequence, we needed to quickly weaned ourselves off of fossil fuels. This resulted in the first mad dash in the U.S. away from fossil fuels and toward the development of renewable energy sources. By the end of the 1970s, the President, Jimmy Carter, was putting solar panels on the White House.
So, even though many Americans had not heard of global warming 50 years ago, nearly everyone knew that we needed to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy – and knew that we needed to do so quickly.
With respect to methane released during meat (principally beef) production, thanks in part to an internationally best-selling book in 1971, Diet for a Small Planet, the concept of “environmental vegetarianism” became widely known at the time. This is refusing to eat meat because of the harm that it does to the environment, as opposed to not doing so for other reasons, such as the ethical treatment of animals. Consequently, even though meat production had not been linked to climate change by the early 1970s, most Americans knew that eating meat was deeply problematic environmentally.
In short, fifty years ago, in the early 1970s, the average American on the street may not have known about climate change, but they definitely did know that we needed to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and meat, and that we needed to do it quickly. If we didn’t to this, all indications were that we would bring about global catastrophe by the early 21st-century.
We knew what we had to do, yet we didn’t act on this knowledge.
We often talk about how important knowledge is, but, as this example proves, it is not as powerful as we might think.
“Knowledge is power” is an often repeated, popular phase. In spite of its simplistic appeal, the problem with this statement is that it is just plain wrong. Knowledge is not power – not by a long shot.
Let’s say that millions of people are in possession of a profound and important piece of knowledge. For example, that our earth could sustainably feed billions of human beings, if we all would only eat a largely plant-based diet – something that the bestselling book Diet for a Small Planet made clear in 1971. Just having read it in a book, and thus being in possession of this knowledge, is not enough. In this sense, “knowledge is knowledge” – and little more. It’s hardly power.
For it to become power, we must act on knowledge.
Hence, a more accurate formulation would be “if acted upon, knowledge is power.” And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a cautionary addendum: “if not acted upon, knowledge is power squandered.”
The knowledge that I have been addressing in this talk was largely squandered.
Coming when it did, fifty years ago – when global greenhouse gas emissions were just beginning to skyrocket – this knowledge regarding fossil fuels and meat had the power to change the world, to save the world. Instead, it was mostly ignored. This crucial, extraordinary knowledge never became power.
In the case of the few people who acted upon, for example, the knowledge that a largely plant-based diet could be enormously powerful – environmentally, politically, ethically and in a host of additional ways – they were often marginalized, even laughed at.
For the sake of our species, our planet, and all the life that we share it with, we cannot afford to let this happen again.
We need to act, and to act now, in response to what we know. At the risk of repeating myself, knowledge is power only when acted upon. Otherwise, knowledge is power squandered. Let my generation be a cautionary tale.
The activating of the power latent in knowledge has a name that derives from the word “action”: “activism.” Even if the extraordinary action takes place in a particularly mundane way – such as at the dinner table, or by taking the bus rather than a car – it can nonetheless be powerful climate activism.