For the past seventy-five years since World War II, fossil fuels have created a period of global economic and population growth that few imagined possible. Throughout those seven decades, virtually all governments and industries have worked hand in hand with the fossil fuels industry to deliver an unprecedented period of prosperity. That is the good news.
The bad news is that all these institutions showed little interest in listening to, much less responding to, the voices of scientists like James Hansen—director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies from 1981-2013 —who told Congress in 1988 that continued CO2 emissions generated by all this fossil fuel driven exponential growth would lead to global warming and climate changes with disastrous consequences.
Most citizens around the world also showed little interest in such bad news. They did not demand action to stop fossil fuel emissions, nor did they change their fossil fuel enhanced lifestyles.
And still today, despite increasing evidence that disaster is fast approaching, our entrenched institutions are only making incremental changes at the very best, and pushing back against those sounding the alarm at the worst.
• Enter the Children’s Trust lawsuit in 2015 against the U.S. Government brought by 21 youths between the ages of 10 and 21. They accuse the government of depriving their generation of the right to life and liberty by not addressing global warming. Their suit continues to move forward in the courts despite numerous attempts to stop it.
• Enter 16 year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who in 2018, started skipping school every Friday to protest for a sound climate policy in front of the Riksdag, Sweden's national legislature. Her small act of defiance has since resulted in more than 2,000 protests in 125 countries. (https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/)
Here are two of Greta’s more poignant statements. The first is from her remarks at COP24, the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference.
“We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. […] We have come to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes. [...] We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. […] If solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then, […] we should change the system itself.”
• Enter the Extinction Rebellion movement of young activists in Europe. When I was in London recently, thousands of young adults were blocking all sorts of economic activities and finally getting the attention of government and business leaders.
• Enter the youth-led Sunrise Movement in the United States which is focused on political activism. Their objective is to stop climate change and create millions of green jobs in the process. They are gaining momentum week by week.
All these young activists would seem to have little power. Many do not even have the right to vote yet. But they know that they have everything to lose. By their actions, they are waking up the entrenched government and business elites.
There are two actions those of the older generations can take to support these young activists. The first is to support them in every non-violent way possible - with our own activism, with our money and with our connections.
The second action is to work beside the younger generations in their efforts to find real solutions to the climate crisis.
In an effort to see how collaboration between the generations might best work to solve the climate crisis, in early April, I organized a two-hour workshop in San Francisco during which 25 students from the Presidio Graduate School of Sustainability and 20 retired professionals explored the three questions noted below. At the Climate and Consciousness conference in Findhorn Scotland in late April, a young colleague from Our Children’s Trust and I explored these same questions with ten young activists and ten “elders.” Lastly, three weeks ago, I explored the same questions again with 30 sophomores at a local high school in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Here are the three questions and some of the comments from the young and old at these events:
What can we do together that we cannot do alone?
• Unpredictable solutions can come out of collaboration between the generations that cannot be achieved if the generations remain in their silos.
What do the youth think they have to offer?
• We may have unique ideas that the older generation has not thought of.
• We have energy and vitality.
• We feel empowered, in part because of the crisis we are facing.
• We have social media knowledge.
What may the elders have that the youth feel they could benefit from?
• Financial capacity, legal knowledge, connections, campaign development experience.
• Platforms for youth voices to be heard.
• A more global perspective.
• Wisdom and mentoring capacities.
• Life experience, such as guidance when others might try to manipulate us.
• Stability, such as dealing with emotional trauma.
2. What are some of the barriers preventing the generations from working together?
From the perspective of both generations
• Lack of opportunities to naturally connect, such as spaces like churches where the generations in the past have interacted.
• Categorization of youth and elders by each other. (We/They).
• Emotional barriers, such as guilt and not knowing how to process.
• Educational disparities.
• Age differences are challenging enough, but doubly so if interracial.
From the perspective of the youth
• How can we trust elders who have let us down and saddled us with the problem?
• Elders have had a lot of time and made it worse, so why would we want to approach them?
• Real or perceived resistance to going to a meeting with elders where they might be lectured to rather than listened to.
• We feel that many elders lack motivation and don’t care.
• Older people’s rigidity.
• Transport and food scarcity. (One possible solution: provide food and drinks).
• “We aren’t raised with a third person perspective.” Meaning, we aren’t taught to think of others as much as we should in order to deal with big issues such as global warming and climate change.
• We are discouraged. Our elders tell us that they have been through things before, and know the outcome. So we give up and don’t even try to make a difference.
• Young people don’t speak out since there are standards, and it would be “weird.”
From the perspective of the elders
• Fear of going to some places where youth might be comfortable meeting but their elders might not be comfortable.
3. What are some solutions?
• For the elders to acknowledge that they were slow to recognize the problem and sincerely say they want to work “along side” the younger generations to effectively address the crisis.
• Elders need to recognize that when youth speak their truth, that that is an act that should be respected.
• Older people need to prove themselves by being activists themselves, and thus demonstrate that they really do care.
• The young need to get beyond their anger and disappointment and recognize that both parties have much to offer each other if we are going to more rapidly and effectively solve the climate crisis.
My goal is to help get a movement going with all organizations that are working on climate change adding an intergenerational dimension to their initiatives. Our small planet and its 7.5 billion people need all the help we can muster during this tipping point in human evolution.
You can engage directly in the building of this movement by emailing Wilford@wilfordwelch.com and asking to be invited to join a Google Doc where everyone’s voice can be heard on this issue. And, if organizations choose to start intergenerational programs to help solve the climate crisis, I hope they will consider using the illustration that Damon Guthrie created for this blog. If everyone chose to use this illustration, like the “Rosie the Riveter” poster during World War II, it would help build the intergenerational movement we all would like to see take off.