Is there a Baby Boomer so dim in this land of rackets and swindles who thinks that he or she will escape the wrath of the Millennials rising? The developing story is so obvious that only an academic economist could fail to notice. – James Howard Kunstler, Democratic Underground
This was not my intended topic today. But when Dr. John Izzo’s TED talk — a Baby Boomer rallying cry — was released recently on-line, and highlighted via 350 or Bust, it quickly became a priority. (Scroll down to watch below.)
The Boomer generation both fascinates and irritates me (OK, it’s more than irritation, but I’m trying to be more zen about these things). Izzo hits the nail on the head when he says he belongs to the luckiest generation ever — their propitious lives sandwiched perfectly between the war and poverty of their parents, and the environmental and economic chaos that will plague their children. Boomers built their wealth during the greatest economic growth period of all time, thanks to a one-time endowment of cheap fossil fuels, which are now rapidly depleting. This is a generation that, as Izzo points out, now holds 80% of the wealth in the world (and, I might add, has the nerve to continually neuroticize about whether it can “afford to retire”).
I can’t blame someone for being born at a better time than me. However, I can blame a group of people with an unprecedented level of wealth and political power for not giving a rat’s ass about future generations.
There are, of course, a lot of wonderful, engaged Boomers out there trying to make the world a better place. But for every one of those I meet, there are at least ten more who are preoccupied with optimizing their stock portfolio, perfecting their golf swing, or finding cheap flights to the south of France. That’s before we even talk about the ones who are running most corporations, and who are running the country as both politicians and voters. Take a snapshot of a typical Harper supporter and you’ll see a 65-year old male who earns over $80,000 per year.
Izzo implores this group — who has so much, who has taken so much from the world already — to take some responsibility for solving our emerging problems. His impassioned (albeit somewhat narcissistic) “grey-corps” call to action is long overdue. He proclaims,
How can the generation that is going to be the healthiest, longest-lived, most educated and wealthiest older generation in human history actually believe that “we’re not the ones”?
Don’t get me wrong — I appreciate it. I hope it works. I hope it inspires at least a few Boomers to get involved in the fight for climate justice, to write a letter to the editor, or to do something political beyond just voting.
I hope, but I am not optimistic. There are systemic factors hindering this generation’s will to change — Izzo’s senior citizen army can only move forward if there are enough older people in the right frame of mind. For starters, an almost-religious belief in free-market capitalism is underpinned by a need for this economic arrangement to succeed: nobody wants to cash out his investments during a period of decline. Furthermore, many company-loyal Boomers spent so long shackled to jobs they despised that their retirement expectations have become distorted; I suspect an over-inflated sense of entitlement is the driving force behind all that self-indulgent leisure activity and consumer spending. They might make good climate-capitalists if that’s your thing, but a major worldview shift seems unlikely.
Another psychological hurdle is the pervasive need to feel like an oh-so reasonable “moderate”. As a result, Boomer information sources are heavily weighted toward VSPs (like Peter Foster, Rex Murphy, Margaret Wente — you know who I mean). VSPs (Very Serious People) typically mollify; they can’t wrap their minds around the implications of worst-case climate scenarios, or the radical solutions we might need to prevent them. And why should they be alarmed? North American Boomers lived during the most peaceful, prosperous time in all of history (their longest-running, most grave concern — nuclear war — never did materialize). They were the first generation raised with television, with consumerism, with suburbia — that’ll mess you up. They labelled rich countries “developed” as if they’d reached some sort of logical end-point: the natural arrangement of things from now on. That’s a tough ideology to crack.
Even if they did suddenly become enlightened en masse, there is still the question of motivation. Izzo is relying on altruism and the desire to build a great generational legacy, but I’m not sure that will be enough.
Maybe a much better motivator would be, as Kunstler puts it, “the wrath of the Millennials rising.” Climate change is moving more quickly than originally anticipated — if we continue at this rate, the world will start looking rather dystopic before we even hit the mid-century mark.
Let’s think about what that might look like. If Millennials are struggling, on a parched planet, just to feed their own children, how much time and compassion will they have left for the ninety-year-olds who once fought the policy changes that could have prevented such misery? When Milllennials finally seize control of what scant resources remain, with whom will they be willing to share?
Do what you want, Boomers (you always have)…but if I were you, I’d seriously consider hedging my bets.