Millennials and post-Millennials continue to have it out with the ever defensive Baby Boomers over the environment. Jai Breitnauer asks where are Gen X and what can they offer?
It’s 1987: my parents have just traded their old fridge for a CFC-free version. Roll on deodorant is now a thing. The phrase ‘global warming’ is everywhere. I’ve written a song about the environment that won a prize at school.
It’s 1991: Anita Roddick and Linda McCartney are my heroes. My mum has started collecting reusable hessian bags. I’ve been vegetarian for 18 months and my favourite T-shirt says ‘make friends with your environment’.
It’s 1995: I listen to the flood warning sirens being tested at our local river. We’ve put a brick in our toilet cistern to save water, and there’s talk of a wind farm being built in the North Sea, near our UK home. The council has just introduced a recycling scheme for paper, glass and cans.
If you are part of Generation X (those born from the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s), then your childhood and teenage years were no doubt dominated by similar climate change messages. Along with AIDs, global warming was a constant, present worry from 1980 onward – just part of the terrifying spectre of life that had all us Xers cowering miserably in pub corners as soon as we were old enough to pretend we were old enough to cower in pub corners.
Often characterised by our gloomy disposition and cynicism, (if anyone bothers to characterise us at all), the disaffected youth of Gen X were the first to receive consistent, evidence-based omens of impending climate change doom in their formative years. And yet, as I listen to Greta Thunberg speak, and watch the Extinction Rebellion movement unfold, I realise Gen X’s voice on this topic has been surprisingly small.
Research from the University of Michigan showed that in 2011, just 16% of Gen X Americans were moderately or very concerned about climate change. Incredibly, 66% of the 4,000 Gen Xers surveyed said they weren’t sure climate change was happening at all. Despite being more educated, more socially aware and more active in the community than our parents, Americans born between 1961 and 1981 were shown to be largely disengaged from the topic across all political spectrums. Meanwhile, closer to home in Australia, inter-generational study Life Patterns showed Gen Xers were concerned about the effect of climate change on their own children while Millennials were worried about all future generations to come.
Unfortunately, for me and my peers, we no longer have the luxury of concern for our Gen Z offspring – climate change is here. In fact, in 1988, the hottest year on record at the time, climate scientist James Hansen made a speech to the US Senate declaring that global warming was “happening now”. That was 30 years ago – the older Gen Xers were already in adulthood, graduating from university and accepting jobs where a difference could be made. We were gaining ground on the ineffective boomers, we finally had our chance to have our say, to make a difference, but we seem to have spent three decades faffing around.
A major part of the problem of Gen X inaction is that we bought wholeheartedly into an economic system created by the generations before us – a system that perpetuates the problems at the root of climate change. If I look at my own adult life, yes, I’ve recycled, used public transport and cut meat and dairy from my diet. But my goals have still been well within the ballpark of what capitalism has told me I should seek to achieve: a good job, property ownership, a retirement that facilitates adventure and travel.
These goals are no longer realistic, environmentally speaking. To continue to live the way we do is nothing short of irresponsible. Greta Thunberg told the UK parliament that her generation were lied to every time they were told ‘the sky is the limit’, but Gen X has been lied to as well. As Jason Wilson mused recently in the Guardian: “We may be the last to grow old in anything resembling a stable form of modern civilisation”. Or perhaps we will be the first to retire into chaos. Whatever happens, choices we make collectively in our late summer and early autumn years could still have a significant effect on climate change, in either direction – the time to act is now.
I realise it ‘s hard to be told that a lifetime of wealth accumulation has been pointless, but check your carbon footprint if you feel unsure of the truth. When I discovered that despite all my efforts, my carbon footprint was 243% above what it should be, I realised that definitive change in our economic and social systems was the only route to success.
All my vegan eating, home growing, extra jumper wearing and recycling ways were pushed out the window by one international flight last year which generated three times as much CO2 per person than the individual annual carbon budget for global warming reduction allows. Just over 74% of my personal carbon footprint is travel: for work to earn money and for leisure to spend money in the way I’ve been told I should. But money doesn’t matter anymore – carbon needs to become our new currency, and Gen X should be modelling a new framework for success, one that puts less pressure on our environment.
Let’s demand the government create a comprehensive transport network that prioritises public, overland travel and infrastructure for electric vehicles. Let’s accept the meat and dairy industry as antiquated and embrace more sustainable types of agriculture. Let’s make it clear that nothing short of 100% renewable energy on the grid within the next ten years is tolerable. Our salaries should be partly carbon credits – we can save those as well as money to go on holiday. Our employers should be given tax breaks when we work from home, and business travel should be mostly redundant. These are the things we should have prioritised decades ago. Life altering climate change is inevitable now, but life destroying? Well, there’s still a chance to avoid that.
I don’t know when is the right time to apologise to our children. They’re still so young but already we’ve told them so many lies. Those two passports they have won’t open the world up to possibilities after all. Instead, they’ll have to make heartbreaking decisions about which of their worlds to shut out. We said they’d live to be 100, but future wars and starvation could halve that.
During the holiday, my family and I took a walk on the beach and explored the caves. “One day, I can bring my kids here too,” my older son smiled. I sighed and gently explained it was unlikely. We talked about sea level rises and measured them out on the rocks. “You might be able to row a boat out here and point to where we used to walk,” I smiled sadly. But if we don’t change the trajectory we’re on, even that possibility will be nothing but a faded dream.
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