“Experienced Americans” are the fastest growing part of the population: 10,000 [American] people a day pass the sixty-year mark. — Bill McKibben.
Wars have aftermaths. These can be negative, as when the vengeful Treaty of Versailles placed such onerous fiscal penalties on Germany after WWI that they led to the inevitable collapse of that country’s economy and the consequential rise of Nazism and WWII. Or, they can be positive, such as the formation of the United Nations and the implementation of the Marshall Plan after WWII.
Similarly, the fallout from the current war in Ukraine — assuming that fallout is not radioactive, denoting the end of civilization — can be largely negative, resulting in deep global recession, widespread famine, political instability and the failure to address the climate crisis. Or, the war’s consequences can be largely positive, leading to a healthier international order that ensures meaningful cooperation on climate change.
Which direction will things take? That’s up to us.
By “us,” I mean humanity as a whole, of course, but I also mean specific segments of society, namely its youth and its growing ranks of retirees.
I’ve written before about what I call Gen-R — today’s youth, ages five to 25, who will be tasked with the R-estoration the planet when they take over the reins of power in the 2040s and 50s. My assumption, based on the current rates of climate-mitigation efforts and global population/consumption trends, was that far too little would be done to address the global environmental crisis in the next couple of decades, and Gen-R would be stuck with trying to restore a largely degraded, or at least rapidly degrading biosphere. A global temperature rise of at least 1.5 degrees would be locked in; unstoppable climate feedback mechanisms such as the melting Arctic permafrost would be triggered; deforestation would simultaneously eliminate natural carbon sinks and exacerbate, if not lock in, the sixth major global extinction of virtually all species. Any hope of addressing these problems before the collapse of critical global systems would rest on drastic cuts in carbon emissions, population and consumption enacted by a global Gen-R community.
Two recent developments, however, have possibly ameliorated these gloomy conclusions. One was the initiation by climate activist Bill McKibben and social-change organizer Akaya Winwood of a project called “Third Act.” The other, counterintuitively, was the war in Ukraine. Combined, these events could represent a tipping point in the global struggle to save the planet that would bring about the needed changes sooner rather than later — that is, in time to preserve most the biosphere and civilization, rather than just salvage what’s left, as Gen-R would be tasked to do a couple of decades from now.
Third Act aims to involve people of the “boomer” generation in the climate movement in the same way that young people in 19-year-old Greta’s Thunberg’s generation are — as activists. Although today’s youngsters often disparage the boomers as sold-out consumers who are more concerned with their creature comforts than the fate of the planet — and therefore a big part of the problem — the 1960s generation was in fact involved in, or at least witness to the civil rights and anti-war movements, which had a profound effect on society at a time.
That experience was, in McKibben and Winwood’s parlance, the Boomer’s “first act.” Then, their generation went on to become the wealthiest and most influential in the country’s history — their “second act.” Even today, Boomers run much of the country — witness the leadership of Congress and the majority of today’s influential billionaires.
The fact that the Boomers are still in power and, it seems, in large measure indifferent to the environmental crisis, disgruntles the youthful climate activist — witness the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office.
But it’s also quite possible to leverage the Boomers’ relative independence from the workaday world and enlist them as climate activists. They are, in fact, well positioned to work on the environmental problem: To pressure politicians, exert financial leverage, gather, analyze and spread reliable information about the issues, brainstorm creative solutions and even organize or join protest marches and spend a night in jail without the risk of losing their job that younger people might have.
Where does the Ukrainian war come into the picture? Russia’s action, thanks in large measure to Thunberg’s Friday’s for the Future youth movement which, immediately after the war started launched massive anti-war protests connecting fossil-fuels to war, has clearly and definitively exposed the relationship between fossil-fuels dominated or dependent economies and war. Any push for a new, better international order must rest on a footing of the rejection of fossil fuels both for their climate and their political affects — the fact that this centralized energy source tends to centralize power in the hands of a few oligarchs and autocrats who destroy democracy and often resort to foreign wars to keep themselves in power. As Mckibben himself pointed out in a recent essay, who would bother to talk to the Saudi “Royal Family” if the brutal regime didn’t have oil?
A good sign is that Western Europe, which for decades has been complacently “sucking on the tit” of Russian fossil fuels — and taking its sweet time to divest itself of them — is now scrambling to rebuild its economy based on renewable, carbon free energy. This is a process that will take a few years, of course, but the fact that it is now Europe’s most urgent project — other than directly helping Ukraine win the war — means that it is finally given the priority that all fossil economy divestments should be given.
If the youth movement and the Boomers can combine their efforts and produce not only protests but solutions to the climate crisis, they will become a powerful political force indeed. Perhaps, as their third act, the Boomers can pass along a song from their youth — The times they are a’changin’.
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.