The trans-generational climate crisis

This essay was published in Shado Issue 03: Climate Justice which I highly recommend you buy. It is filled with thoughful essays and is beautifully illustrated.

from my own issue of Shado Mag

There is something particularly unsettling about being an almost-30 year old in 2020. My teens and 20s have been defined by 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, the global financial crisis of 2008, the 2011 uprisings that have rocked the Middle East and North Africa and the brutal counter-revolutions that followed them, to name just a few. And more recently, uprisings from Hong Kong to the US, India to Chile, Iran to Thailand, Iraq to Belarus have signalled a latest wave of protests that are unlikely to calm down anytime soon – quite the opposite.

This reality and my relative positionality as a Millennial make me well-placed to empathise with GenZers who will spend their teens and 20s in the upcoming decade. By the time many GenZers reach my current age, it will be 2030, the year that the IPCC says that “global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010” which itself requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to limit global warming to 1.5°C [the Paris Agreement actually commits nations to keep it ‘well below 2°C’ and to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit to 1.5°C].

GenZers have been stepping up to the occasion, pandemic notwithstanding, to demand immediate action with the largest climate strikes and marches in history. They argue, and rightly so, that the previous generations cannot leave them with an uninhabitable planet and that, therefore, everything that can be done to prevent that from happening should be done. For them the importance of having a habitable planet is self-evident.

But for today’s regimes, and for those well situated within them, from the neoliberal capitalist ‘democracies’ to the authoritarian (and no less capitalistic) autocracies, our imaginaries are restricted. Simply put, it is impossible to imagine alternatives for the status quo other than, well, the status quo. This means that we have to partake in ‘debates’ not just about whether we’re doing enough to prevent catastrophes, but about whether there is a crisis in the first place. On one side of the ‘debate’ there are those yelling that we need to do something, and on the other are those yelling at those yelling. That latter tendency, which we can honestly describe as the ‘there is no alternative’ camp, is drenched in cynicism and misanthropy and has typically been dominated by middle aged, right wing commentators and politicians.

We are now seeing some of the ugliest manifestations of that camp, from the Trumpers in the US declaring their right both to be infected and infect others with COVID-19 to the Tories in the UK imposing ‘respectable’ eugenics as long as they continue to get access to high-quality health services. There is a line that can be drawn between that camp and authoritarians across the world. The language changes, but the underlying logic remains: that “there is no alternative” to capitalism (to quote Thatcher) – so stop bothering us with your pesky reality, you meddling kids.

But this isn’t a strictly young vs old story. After all, in addition to classism and racism, the ‘no alternative’ camp have shown themselves more than capable of being ageist too. Ageism is reinforced by the fact that our elders usually have greater needs and are therefore less ‘useful’ to capitalist societies.

We’ve seen a very dark manifestation of that with the support for ‘opening up’ countries, despite the risks posed by COVID-19. Whether admitted openly or not, the underlying argument is that, because the virus affects the elderly more than the youth, we can ‘afford’ to open up the economy – which itself suggests that the ‘we’ excludes those no longer deemed useful. It is a cyclical logic but one which undeniably leads to very dark conclusions.

A Different Framework

With such cynicism abounding, how are many GenZers still trying to change our world? How does Greta Thunberg, one of the most well-known GenZers, still believe that “humanity has not yet failed“? And how, with such a devastating fact as a warming planet, are we expected to deal with the mental and emotional burdens that come with realising the severity of the crisis facing us?

As mentioned, I strongly believe that Millennials are particularly well-placed to build bonds of sisterhoods and brotherhoods with GenZers that go significantly beyond the pace of history. It is no longer enough to just take from previous generations, try and improve the situation ever so slightly, and maintain the political and economic systems around us.. Although we are dealing with some of the same threats as previous generations (the nuclear threat is still here, and so is the possibility of another world war), we might be facing additional horrifying ones along with our kids and their kids and theirs.

In recent years, increased attention has been paid to the problem of shifting baseline syndrome, arguably the biggest psychological challenge to recognising the severity of climate change. Essentially, what we consider the baseline, the ‘normal’, is relative. The example given by Vox is as follows: “A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.”

The proposed framework can tackle that problem by encouraging inter-generational dialogue and cooperation beyond the traditional restrictions. Fishers would have to be conscious not just of the fish at current levels of abundance, but also be in dialogue with previous generations whose baseline was more abundant. Only then would a more accurate picture of the crisis be possible, and so would the solutions the crisis requires.

This framework can also open up networks of support that remain unused due to the perception that it is not worth it for, to use one example, people in their 40s to listen to people in their teens and early 20s. Were the latter group of people listened to more frequently, neither Brexit nor the Trump presidency would have been likely, given the significant differences in political priorities between the young and the old in the UK and the US.

Finally, what I am arguing for is the need to distance ourselves from traditional inter-generational dynamics. It means accepting that people younger than you can have more to say on certain things. It is to reject the notion that one simply gains more knowledge as one grows and that therefore those who are younger have fewer things to say. It is to re-centre individual and collective experiences so that, for example, a 15 year old girl who has experienced trauma through violence against her mind and/or body has something to say about the world that a 50 year old man who benefits from patriarchal structures may not understand.

Let us respond to the ‘no alternative’ camp with increasingly loud declarations to the contrary. Neither cynicism nor misanthropy are worldviews that we can afford to indulge in the context of our collective crisis. If it’s true that humanity has not yet failed as Greta suggests, it is time to do everything we can to avoid that scenario.


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