Rage Gap

March 7, 2018

Every day, I spend many hours thinking about the end of the world. In fact, most of my waking thought dwells on human extinction and the collapse of civilization. This is because I study and write about climate change and energy politics. A mind constantly fixated on these tragedies soon turns to grief, despair, and resentment. The way I deal with these feelings is to talk about climate change with everyone in my life. Talking to people about apocalyptic climate disruption is difficult. It brings up inner content people might otherwise hide, or reveals a deep disengagement. The responses I get range from apathy to sympathy to questions about how to help.

Some patterns in the responses vary by age. People I speak with born in the Baby Boom often show real concern. Sometimes they’ll respond with something like, “We sure left you kids quite a mess to clean up!” and a dramatic pause or sullen headshake. This often comes from people who really mean well; genuine sympathizing and acknowledging their generation’s culpability is appreciated, heartfelt. Sure, sometimes it carries the faint note of the glad-I’m-not-you glee that one may try in vain to suppress when they get out of doing some difficult chore. But more importantly, it happens to be inaccurate. Rarely discussed in conversations on climate change is this simple fact: younger generations will not be able to mitigate climate change alone.

The myth that climate change is a problem for my generation (and younger) to solve stems from the belief that climate change is a problem whose solution lies in the future. It’s not. True, humans are on track to reach degrees of warming that will make us extinct, along with most other species on earth, by the end of the century, or “within a lifetime.” But many of the greenhouse gas emissions needed to trigger the feedback loops – like ocean anoxia and permafrost melt – hurtling us toward that fate already float in the sky. We’re dangerously close to these feedback loops. Once runaway feedback loops get underway, we won’t be able to stop them and, hyperbole aside, they will kill us all. An article in The Guardian quotes “the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure,” put out by the International Energy Agency, predicting we have five years from the date of publication to shift energy infrastructure and prevent catastrophic climate change. It was published in 2011.

Hopeless Millennials

The fact is, Millennials do not have the capital or political power sufficient to undertake the massive infrastructural transition necessary for mitigating climate change in the narrow window of time we have—that is, between zero and a few years. This is because a small group of people has hoarded most of the nation’s capital and power. They are actively impeding the natural transfers of wealth and power that characterized generational transitions of the past.

American Boomers, as a generation, are the richest in the country’s history and will remain so until at least 2030. Boomers (and older generations) command sixty-three percent of the country’s financial assets. Boomers make up about a quarter of the population. Three Americans own wealth equal to half the country. They’re Boomers, as are most of the members of the billionaire club. But compared with debt-laden, precarious Millennials, even non-billionaire Boomers generally still enjoy a good deal of personal wealth; they are projected to “continue to wield immense influence over every aspect of American society for at least another two decades,” according to accounting and consulting giant Deloitte. My generation is much poorer today than Boomers were at our age. Although Millennials are the largest generation in US history, we are projected to control less than twenty percent of national household wealth by 2030.

Millennials’ access to political power looks just as meager. Putting aside the fact that capital directly grants political influence, the culture that rules politics is geriatric. The average age of the House of Representatives is fifty-seven—in the Senate it’s sixty-one. Millennials’ favorite national politicians – that is, the only ones speaking to our interests, like Senators Sanders and Warren – are or will be septuagenarians in the next presidential election. The DNC’s mistreatment of Sanders during the primary offered a glaring display of the political class’s disdain for Millennial opinion and a reflection of our weak formal political power. Aside from bribery, the main ways in which any generation has ever been able to wield political power in a representative government is through activism and running for office. Both activities require time, money, and security, three things most Millennials lack.

We are overworked and reside in a state of precarity our zoetic elder generations never experienced growing up. Malcolm Harris writes in Kids These Days, “Not only is the forty-hour workweek a thing of the past for most employees, more is required of workers during their hours.” Millennial workers are constantly on the job, both at the office or warehouse and outside it. About twenty percent are on more than one job, while twelve percent are on no job at all. Gabriel Winant writes in n+1, “Millennials aren’t fragile—they’re overstretched. This is the most human capital-intensive generation in history, productive far beyond the wages it garners.” Our elders like to grumble about kids on their phones, but, for many in my generation, cultivating our online presence or keeping up with emails is just necessary for staying employed or generating opportunities. Trust us, we don’t want to be spending that much time in front of screens to survive; we have to. Competition is higher, wages are lower, and everyone is disposable.

In addition to time, money, and security, hope in progress – a belief that civic action can yield desired results – is an important factor motivating political participation. Our recent experience has undermined hope among my generation. Millennials’ first political idol, Obama, neglected to deliver the Hope and Change™ he campaigned on, and his hopeful messaging now appears to have been more super bowl advertisement than genuine political aspiration. Our second political idol, Sanders, was in many of our opinions cheated out of power by our supposed allies and the elders we trusted. Our experience with national politics so far has consisted of witnessing a nihilistic, Orwellian administration under Bush deliberately lie to the country to enrich his personal network, killing around half a million innocent Iraqis and wasting $5 trillion in the process, now enjoying a sixty-one percent approval rating in his retirement, a Machiavellian neoliberal administration under Obama, the election of a reality TV host to the White House, a cruel joke of a man – essentially a Huttian Nazi – and a Congress that seems not merely unrepresentative of its constituents, but openly hostile to their interests.

We saw a million people march against the Iraq War ineffectually. We have watched the people hoarding all of our wealth buy election after election, watched social movement after social movement co-opted, rebranded, and sold off by multinationals, the profits from which they conceal overseas. We saw Occupy Wall Street violently and unceremoniously destroyed. A widespread and bewildering rejection of facts on all sides, particularly facts related to our apocalyptic near-future, threatens our tenuous hope. It’s unsurprising that many Millennials struggle to see any point in participating. Our low voting turnout reflects this sense of futility. When neither party represents our values and interests, to whom can we turn? One might say we ought turn to each other, build our own institutions, organize, collectivize, take back the parties and the country.

But even there we’re foiled. Add on top of the lack of money, time, security, and hope the fact that we have been trained from childhood to compete – set pitilessly against one another for scarce admissions placements, scholarships, and jobs – and building solidarity movements to solve climate change – or anything – starts to look absurdly utopian.

By the time Millennials are able to wrest sufficient money and power from older, richer Americans – if we ever do, which is not certain – it will be far too late to mitigate climate change. We’ll only be able to endure it, and only up to the time when temperatures reach a point at which the earth becomes uninhabitable for humans. Under worst-case climate trajectories (the ones we’re on), most of our children, the Boomers’ grandchildren, will not survive to old age. This extinction will not be quick and painless: to get there, the international community will suffer endless conflicts sparked by climate refugees and dwindling resources insufficient for a growing population, as billions of people move to chase water and food, and as thirty percent of the earth’s land dries into desert. Climate conflicts are already raging, mainly in Africa (see: Kenya/Ethiopia) and the Middle East (see: Syria), and, as deserts and extreme weather expand, this strife will rapidly flood the rest of the world. Maybe us Millennials will be drafted to fight in these wars—maybe our children will be.

Short of launching an immediate armed insurrection to take command of the government and national wealth – which, facing the utter permanence of human extinction, may not be that extreme – Millennials are not simply positioned politically or economically to prevent catastrophic climate change, only to suffer and die by it.

Given the fact that mitigating climate change will require massive amounts of capital and power – trillions and trillions of dollars and tight control of vast administrative state powers – there is one group of people most capable of leading the charge: Baby Boomers. While younger generations may not wield the power and capital to undertake this challenge, we do have other assets. Solving this problem will require our technical knowledge of it. We grew up learning about climate change; we have internalized the peril in a way older generations have not. Solving it will require our energy, ingenuity, openness to alternative political and economic paradigms, and our online media savvy (ugh). Millennials overwhelmingly care about climate change and prioritize it as an issue. We’re on board to solve it and would welcome partnering with older generations to do so, marrying our passion and expertise to their power and wealth.

But Baby Boomers, collectively as a generation, will have to decide whether to work with us to avert collapse. Older generations could decide to destroy the possibility of future then, before the full consequences hit, weasel comfortably into padded coffins; or they could take charge and preserve the future for their children and grandchildren. In their last moments in power, at the twilight of their generation, our elders have the capacity to be remembered as the supreme villains of their story, or the heroes. Climate change is the greatest challenge humans have ever faced, by far. History – if history survives into the future – will cast a critical eye and will mark those with the capacity to confront it today the most irresponsible people to have ever lived, or among the greatest. And that will depend entirely on how they face this one challenge.

From our current vantage point, the likelihood of older generations joining us in this endeavor looks slim.

Generations Atomized

Many books and articles have discussed the atomization of Millennials, illuminating our upbringing in sheltered suburbs or immiserated slums, isolated and antagonistic toward one another. And yet, these analyses often neglect to give due credit to the pioneers of neoliberal alienation.

In their youth, Baby Boomers helped fuel progressive social movements that made the United States a better country. They fought and sacrificed together for life-saving environmental protections, civil rights laws, and consumer safety regulations, and they banded together to help end a murderous war in Vietnam. But then, in adulthood, many found themselves inducted into the cult of a brutal, corporatized culture engineered by their own elders, Hayek, Friedman, and von Mises, and myriad lesser known neoliberal clerics. As initiation, they isolated themselves into nuclear families, wealthy suburbs, rural homesteads, gated communities, and elite power structures; they wielded their new wealth and power to drive policies of deregulation, marketization, privatization, and atomization. Collectively, they alienated each other; paradoxically, this generation born into a relatively socialist political atmosphere and weaned on common good ideals came together remarkably cohesively to fetishize elite individualism. In doing so, older generations have largely rejected the idea of a common good and public well-being. The myths they wrote and reared us on in our youth reflect this fixation on a desirable alienation from community. Gen X, often overlooked in these generational analyses, also seemed to mostly embrace the fetishization of the market and individual, but at least they were sulky about it.

Boomer filmmakers’ and storytellers’ myriad fictional hero tales glorify a toxic tension between the dumb masses against a powerful individual. Whether Neo, Luke Skywalker, Disney protagonists, any Arnold Schwarzenegger or Harrison Ford character, Bourne or Bond, their heroes seem to be almost universally jaded male loners, elites by birth or talent, or Chosen Ones. Embedded in the intense isolating of their families and their children, in the stranger-danger paranoia of their media, the alienation of their cities and workplaces, in their pitting students and employees against each other, rests this inherent value placed on the myth of the heroic, superior individual triumphant over inferior masses. Their intense, doting parenting has hid a dark side: an attempt to mold their children into that superior protagonist who can crush his competitors.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a notable exception to these elitist myths; created by a mix of Gen X and Baby Boomer writers, the story is markedly deprived of a single prime protagonist. Instead, a lot of unnamed characters sacrifice themselves for the greater good; a popular heroism is depicted to the exclusion of a single, individual hero. In fact, the strong individuals are all antagonists. The White Cape Guy, Bad-CGI Tarkin, and Pun-Slinging Darth Vader are the three Lone Individuals competing for personal glory. This contrasts with traditional Boomer hero films in which most people are bumbling background extras: unheroic, nameless drones to be killed as collateral damage, a collective of vile henchmen sacrificing for the greater ill, or weak, dumb, helpless muggles to be saved or protected.

Why the Boomers turned away from the benevolent collective action of their youth to a self-interested collective atomizing is a question with no single or simple answer. Surely the shared struggle of the Second World War helped cohere their parents’ generation, building social trust and cementing value in the common good, bolstering their desire for social welfare policies. By no fault of their own, the Boomers lacked this kind of universally shared, virtuous struggle. The country did not band together to invade Vietnam; the rich and poor did not bear equal burdens of that debacle. Poorer Boomers, if anything, were ruthlessly exploited by their country. As mentioned, Boomers were cursed with duplicitous mentors who succeeded in passing off a conspiracy of ruling class restoration, prosaic oligarchic dogma, and the re-feudalization of society as novel economic theory. Again, by no fault of young Boomers. They were collectively scammed while impressionable.

But perhaps part of it is that many Boomers watched, as they matured, what they perceived as sloth, greed, decadence, and selfishness represented in some more hedonistic corners of their generation – the hippies, the bankers – and, in a mass social feedback loop, recoiled collectively into self-righteous antisocialism. To immerse oneself in collective action, to sacrifice for those around us, to feel comfortable giving one’s hard-earned pay to fund social welfare for unrelated people, we need to see the good and the worth in those around us. The value of others must surpass their disposability. If we see them as selfish and slothful, it’s harder to want to sacrifice for them. Of course they wanted to cut social welfare; everyone else is lazy.

Other peoples’ universal capacity for competence, compassion, conscientiousness, and generosity must stand out brighter than their capacity for selfishness, greed, violence, and cruelty. We have to trust each other to spend each others’ public money wisely and steward our communities responsibly, otherwise solidarity is impossible. If we can’t trust and value our neighbors, why sacrifice to stop climate change? Why bother paying more for renewable energy when our lazy neighbors aren’t? Were the films and myths they created, replete with the helpless, servile, despicable masses to be saved disdainfully by an indifferent Randian superman a reflection of their elitist posture toward the many, or a central contributor to it?

Self-Interest vs. the Future

This disdain for the public has fueled Boomers’ apathy toward climate change, the ultimate collective action problem. Self-interest and individual action has animated the elite Boomer response to climate change so far. Most of their mainstream exhortations to action are not solutions at all. Instead, they propose small, meaningless individual tasks that people can do alone at the store, like buying compact fluorescent light bulbs or an electric vehicle. Or they suggest absurdly grandiose self-abnegation that they must know will go ignored, like not having children (too late for our elders to do that one). Elite Boomers emphasize “market-based” profit-protecting policies like emissions trading programs that, when implemented, generally don’t work. They propose deadlines for energy transition that are ridiculously, futilely far away, like 2050, and far too late for mitigation.

Propagating totally useless actions to address global sustainability issues has been a project of multinationals for decades. It has been a wildly successful feint to undermine political change by co-opting its goals. The Che-t-shirtization of revolution, say. Corporate climate advocacy of the last thirty years – well-intentioned as some of it has been – has done literally nothing to reduce emissions. (Nor has corporate-funded nonprofit advocacy for that matter.) Most reasonable people can see the immensity of climate change weighed against the pettiness of the actions proposed – riding a bike, for instance – and balk at the absurd incongruity. Will we stave off the apocalypse with reusable napkins, then? And yet, these actions are mostly the only ones that get airtime in Boomer-run media and promoted in Boomer-run institutions.

The reality is that, to solve climate change, self-interest and petulant individualism will not help. Only solidarity will suffice, only collective action will work, only caring about each other can solve this problem. Intergenerational alienation has been as integral to neoliberalism’s atomization project as interpersonal alienation. In addition to the war of attrition affluent, neoliberal Boomers have fought against Millennials by charging exorbitant rents, burdening us with usurious six-figure debt, paying us meager wages incommensurate with our productivity, creating conditions that fuel an epidemic of depression and anxiety, and committing our future to literal extinction, they have waged a much pettier psychological war in the media with snide, scornful articles about lazy and entitled Millennials. I’ve personally heard many well-off Boomers lament how narcissistic and entitled their Millennial employees or family members are.

But this intergenerational antagonism need not proceed unto our permanent destruction. The younger and the older could work together, join our expertise and sense of urgency to their time, money, security, and power. There are myriad collective actions we could take together. We want to. As a member of this generation, I personally implore everyone who can to work with us on this. We cannot solve this problem alone.

Instead, we could work together to organize more community renewable groups (CRG). These are essentially private groups that organize collective ownership of renewable energy production at a small-scale. Any neighborhood, municipality, village, hamlet, apartment building, block, whatever, can organize these kinds of groups. Some CRG invest collectively in existing renewable infrastructure. Others invest in building new renewable production – solar panels, wind farms – that they collectively own and manage.

There are projects like this popping up throughout the US and world, from Harlem to Kentucky, Detroit to California. In Scotland, I have spoken with retirees in small towns, villages, and island communities about these projects they’re dedicating their retirement to. Some communities have launched social services from the grants they’ve received from wind farms; others have founded nonprofits that build and own new wind farms that their community buys into, receiving regular profit shares. In their retirement, more Boomers could fund and organize these kinds of projects; their Millennial children could help run them and gain a more secure source of revenue.

Boomers and Millennials could work together to lobby city governments to invest heavily in renewables. Traverse City, Michigan, probably the first city in the country to invest in utility scale renewables to power city buildings, now has a goal of using exclusively renewable energy, driven by the work of Jim Carruthers, the city’s Boomer mayor. This kind of action could be readily replicated in every city in the country. Boomers and Millennials could work together to organize long-term, sustained pressure on local, state, and federal officials and electricity commissions, urging them to invest in energy transition. Favorable policy atmospheres, more than any other factors, have been essential in the spread of solar and wind. The White House is currently trying to undermine incentives for new technology. Putting multi-generational pressure on local and state governments to maintain incentives is vital.

Boomers have built political capital in their communities, financial capital in their bank accounts, and the wisdom and experience to navigate getting other Boomers to vote for them. Many more could run for office and employ Millennials to run their campaigns and guide their energy policy. Perhaps more importantly is getting young people into office: Boomers with the time and money could volunteer and fund Millennial campaigns. Vast resources will need to be deployed to extract greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere if our future is to be saved. That will require mobilizing huge amounts of administrative clout and financial resources that only the government will be able to muster. The sooner elected seats are filled with people driven by a sense of urgency to solve climate change, the greater our chances of surviving it. For those lacking time and money sufficient to run for office, volunteer, or invest – and there are many Boomers who have been exploited and left in privation by their fellow Boomers – these individuals could commiserate with their closest Millennials to help educate others about this issue, talk about it with friends and relatives, and help provide the social trust and cohesion necessary to build interpersonal and generational solidarity.

Boomers and Millennials could forget their mutual conflict and unite around this common, collective goal—it’s probably the only project that will realistically allow us all to work together on progressive change. Given the great shadow that looming climate dystopia casts over all relations today, we cannot ignore our resentment from being bequeathed a bankrupted future. This may be the best and only way of rebuilding solidarity in our country, starting with bonding the young and the old around this task. Showing us that Boomers care about this is necessary for any unification. Our elders could reinvest in the collective action they fostered in their youth, teach us kids how solidarity is done, return to nurturing faith in other people, and lead us all on climate mitigation. These two giant generations could together do the heroic work of halting the greatest tragedy to ever befall the human species. Sounds like the perfect plot for a new Star Wars movie.


Teaser photo credit: By Ed Yourdon from New York City, USA – We stand so close together, but we are so far apart, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29016761

Samuel Miller McDonald

Prior to beginning his DPhil research, Sam obtained a Master of Environmental Management at Yale University studying energy politics and grassroots innovations in the US. He also holds a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. In addition to his academic work, Sam serves as Managing Editor at ActivistLab.org, an online publication dedicated to cultivating research and conversation on social change innovation.
Sam's research examines the relationship between distributed electricity generation and political-economic egalitarianism in the United States. Focusing on community renewable energy groups in the US, Sam is investigating ways in which distributed, democratic control of energy resources impacts discourses and attitudes around economic inequality and political empowerment.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change activism, environmental effects of climate change, Millenials