Boomer to Doomer: Earth Defenders Don’t Despair!
For the first Earth Day in 1970, my eighth grade Earth science teacher asked the class what worried us about the environment. I said the proposed Alaska pipeline could leak; others spoke of dirty air and water. Our concerns were genuine and serious, but no one felt despair. Compared to the turmoil that the Vietnam War had brought to my older brother and sister and their friends, the nascent environmental movement seemed hopeful. Indeed the Environmental Protection Agency was founded and the Clean Air Act was passed that same year, with the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act soon to follow. I didn’t understand the full meaning of The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but I could sing the uplifting pop song by the Fifth Dimension.
But we Boomers and the Gen-Xers who followed us blew it. As we aged, too many of us became self-absorbed and excessively materialistic. We naively fell for the corporate narrative embodied by the infamous crying Indian commercial, implying with his tearful gaze that the polluted mess before him was only the responsibility of consumers and their demands. Never mind that the companies enticing us to consume more and more of their products, which they designed to be used once and then tossed away, were driving that demand and the resulting environmental impact to ever higher heights. We Boomers also acquiesced, for the most part, to the claim by oil companies that the 1990s science of climate change was not yet settled, despite a strong consensus among scientists in a series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the evidence that human-induced climate change was real and already upon us. We allowed the debate about protecting endangered species, like the spotted owl of the Pacific Northwest, to be cast as either-or: protect either the owls or the logger’s jobs. Little wonder, then, that by the 2020s, climate change has accelerated even faster than the scientists predicted, that more and more plant and animal species are endangered, and that the mass of plastic garbage floating in the oceans is on track to exceed the mass of all the fish.
Today, Boomers find hope in the young people who strike from school, not because they don’t like school or think that they shouldn’t be in school, but because they are “mad as hell” about the mess we are leaving their world and they’re “not going to take this anymore.” Boomers saw that movie when we were young but didn’t follow through. Maybe Gen-Z will. But alas, we read that many of those Gen-Zers, along with Millennials, are suffering from eco-anxiety and downright despair. I can hardly blame them. The latest report of the IPCC emphasizes that we have only a few years left to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid very harmful climate change. Deforestation of the Amazon, Congo, and Southeast Asian forests is accelerating. And the despair is not limited to environmental issues. The disparity of wealth has increased drastically since the first Earth Day, leaving more people struggling to make ends meet economically. The 1991 video of the brutal beating of Rodney King was topped by a 2020 video of the murder of George Floyd. The 1970 carpet bombing of Cambodia has been replaced by indiscriminant bombing of Ukraine. The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. And yet, there is also strong reason for hope rather than doom on all of these fronts.
We Boomers didn’t follow through on the idealism of the 1970 Earth Day, but we set in motion a generational change. We invested in science, and that investment has paid off with unequivocal knowledge of the human cause of climate change and how to solve it. Science enabled rapid production of a COVID-19 vaccine from the basic understanding how mRNA works within cells. Social science is demonstrating how diversity-equity-and-inclusion can become as systemic as the racism and sexism that it is combatting. And a new generation of data-driven economists are debunking old theories of supply side economics, rejecting the 20th century either-or framing of jobs or the environment, and showing how environmental sustainability and social justice lead to long-term economic prosperity. I see a convergence of natural science, social science, and economics in aspirational frameworks, like the Green New Deal and the European New Deal, recognizing that environmental, economic, and social justice issues are so intertwined that solutions for one require solutions for all and are mutually reinforcing. We have planted these seeds and they are growing, but it is an intergenerational process to nurture them to fruition. Thanks to generations before and after us, we have so much more know-how and capacity to solve these problems. Sure, there are still formidable headwinds, but I see determination in defenders of the Earth and of social justice, not unlike the bravery of the Ukrainian defenders of their homeland.
Let’s not sugarcoat the situation. Deep worry is warranted, despair and anxiety are understandable, but we also have the know-how to do what is needed, and giving up is not an option. Defending our homeland, the Earth, will required that every day is Earth Day for all generations.