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NOTE: This is the introductory article to the Gen-R concept, first published as a newspaper column on December 26, 2021. Posts expanding on the Gen-R concept concept can be found on Firebird’s main menu under: Gen-R & the Climate Crisis → Gen-R: Challenges and Opportunities.

It’s settled history. The “Greatest Generation” grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and defeated global fascism in WWII. They bucked up under some of the worst economic deprivations in history and made the necessary sacrifices on the battle front and the home front to crush the most powerful war machine ever assembled and preserve democracy. Journalist Tom Brokaw wrote of them, “it is, I believe, the greatest generation ever produced.”

Putting aside my predilection for the accomplishments of my own “boomer generation,” which were largely cultural, I still take issue with Brokaw’s assessment. I believe “the greatest generation ever produced” will be the upcoming generation, which I’m dubbing “Gen-R” because it is tasked with R-eviving and R-estoring the entire planet and the human race it sustains.

As daunting as the challenges of Brokaw’s candidate for the “Greatest” title were, they pale in comparison to those confronting the environmental cataclysm that will determine whether civilization, as we have developed it for four millennia, will survive.

If this seems melodramatic, consider those challenges. First, if global heating is allowed to progress unabated for another two or three decades — that is, well into the adulthood of today’s adolescents and children — it will almost certainly cause runaway climate change. Russia and North America’s vast permafrost regions are already warming and beginning to release their huge stores of CO2 and the potent greenhouse gas methane —a process which will accelerate as temperatures rise and create a positive feedback loop that will further accelerate heating. Also, remaining safeguards against unbridled warming — the capacity of oceans and ice masses to store excess heat and global-scale carbon sinks such as the Amazon rain forest — are in rapid, close-to-terminal decline. Once their fail-safe thresholds are passed, the air will quickly become too hot to breathe and, despite the inundation in some regions of excess rain, causing massive flooding, much of the land mass land will become barren.

But although it’s key to all other environmental problems, global heating is not alone. A wide variety of pollutants are devastating environments, as is the excess harvesting of living resources. These factors, working synergistically with climate change, are propelling the planet’s sixth extinction, which is a threat to the survival of all species, including ours.  

Addressing these challenges will require a fundamental shift in the way humans interact with each other and the planet. Our current political and economic systems are simply not up to the task, nor can they be subtly tweaked to do what is required at scale and in time. They must be remade.

This can happen in one of two ways: either global civilization and the biosphere collapse, leaving, perhaps, vestiges of former ecosystems and human habitations in local pockets; or, there is a “Green Transformation” on a global scale that radically revises our approaches to each other and the earth. 

At a minimum, such a transformation must address the consumerism that fuels much of the global economy, and it must curb population growth through the empowerment of women. New standards of actual needs and material status will have to be agreed upon, and critical decisions about the appropriation of resources must be made on a holistic, scientific basis. Additionally, immense restoration programs such as reforestation and soil remediation must be undertaken.

It is virtually impossible for today’s adults, the people currently in power, to implement these changes: they are too invested, materially and psychologically, in the current socioeconomic systems to make more than modest revisions. Their continuing failure, over a period of several decades, to take meaningful measures to meet the challenges of global warming confirms this assertion. The onus of the soft revolution sits directly on the shoulders of today’s youth.

So, I have dubbed them Gen-R (as opposed to Gen-X, -Y, and so on) the biosphere’s R-vivers and R-estorers. As they come into power — young people form the largest global population demographic (33% and growing), and youth climate leader Greta Thunberg is now old enough to vote in Sweden — Gen-Rs will become the planet’s dominant cultural “influencers” and will choose the next generation of politicians and administrators.

Will they choose wisely? Will Gen-R become the “Greatest Generation?”

They must, or they could be the last generation at our ecological house.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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