World leaders are meeting in Spain to decide whether or not to bother with preventing the destruction of the earth, like people in a vehicle speeding toward a cliff deciding whether to brake or swerve or just chat about other things. Powerful senior citizens in the United States – Trump, Biden – are trading playground insults, and the middle-aged people who make most of the decisions about how to handle this emergency seem incapable of thinking beyond the absurdly short-sighted perspective of more economic growth and financial profit.

Our species was for most of its history a child: it had limited capacity to harm and thus limited responsibility to do no harm. We could kill each other, but we did it without napalm and nuclear weapons that kill a lot of people and a lot of other things. We could think small because we acted small, mostly; we were altering the earth with hunting, grazing, farming, foraging, building, but most of our traces would vanish and most of our impact left no lasting damage.

With the industrial revolution and its continuing consumption of ungodly amounts of fossil fuels and with technologies capable of changing the earth on an immensely more profound scale, childhood harmlessness faded into the past. Humans ceased to be human-scale, but our imaginations and ethics lagged behind our impact. We have, for two centuries, been in a sort of wild adolescence, too reckless and impatient to pay attention to consequences or to listen to the Rachel Carsons and Vandana Shivas when they point out that there are consequences. Environmentalism has been to no small degree about shouting “don’t break that” and “clean up your room” at corporations and governments.

We are on the brink, and that brink is the necessary end of that adolescence. As a species we must act with restraint in the face of consequences to our children and grandchildren, to those of our own not yet born, and those currently facing ultimate climate vulnerability around the world from floods, fire, sea level rise, crop failure, drought, superstorms and more.

We must expand our imaginations and act on that bigger understanding of our place in the world and our impact on the future. That means making radical changes, like our homes and transportation being powered by renewable energies, our government not plotting more extractivism. It means weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. It means winding down unfetterred economic development, unfetterred consumerism and consumption. We need to remind ourselves why these changes are necessary: that the earth is finite, that actions have consequences, that they go beyond the horizon of what we can see and hear, in time and space, that those who come after us, our children and grandchildren, have rights we can’t just annihilate. We must make sweeping changes starting now, and we must stick to them afterward by remembering why they matter.

What is striking at this moment is that such maturity is largely the property of the young. Many of the significant grownups in the room of climate crisis are 16 or 20 or 23 – Greta and the thousands of youths like her who are less visible but no less committed, the teens from Nigeria to Alaska doing their utmost for the climate. But because they are truly young, they control no shares, have no votes, sit on no boards: they need us as we need them. They are the leadership in this moment, the people who are thinking about 2100, the people who are ready to change everything, the people who understand the gravity and scale of the impending apocalypse.

They are the people who have never experienced a below-average climate on Earth, who have the capacity to recognise that we are in an emergency. There is wisdom in youth, in its lack of attachment to the status quo that is not their status quo, and in its ability to imagine profound change.

There have been farsighted altruistic people in every generation, but there are signs of a wider evolution of imagination that is taking place among the young. We see that profound change in new ways of dealing with conflict, with rejecting competition and capitalism, new understandings of what is possible and ethical. The children are mature and too many sclerotic old people are juvenile (though bless Jane Fonda at 81 for her Friday protests). Youth and maturity are no longer categories attached to how long you’ve been on Earth, but how far you see and how much you care.

  • Peter Chow




    • Medicine isn’t a popularity contest. Some of the best doctors have the worst patient satisfaction scores.
      You get good at being what people need you to be. But you can slowly transform into something unforeseen—what patients want you to be—pleasing everyone hoping that your patient satisfaction survey will be favorable, no matter the cost.
      In fact, the most satisfied patients are 12 percent more likely to be hospitalized and 26 percent more likely to die, according to researchers at UC Davis. “We can over-treat and over-prescribe. The patients will be happy, give us good ratings, yet be worse off.
      ”Thanks to patient satisfaction scoring, unnecessary antibiotic and opiate prescriptions have risen, creating the deadly menace of drug-resistant bacteria. Half of physicians surveyed said they’ve had to “improperly [prescribe] antibiotics and narcotic pain medication in direct response to patient satisfaction surveys,” as reported in Forbes.

  1. I went to the University of Toronto 1965-1971 at the height of the Vietnam War. During that period I witnessed huge antiwar demonstrations at the US embassy in Toronto. One motto back then, was “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. You are a poster person for resurrecting that motto. Youth proved to be right in 1967. Climate change conscious people of all ages, young and old, will prove to be right again. People like you are on the wrong side of science and will end up dying on the wrong side of history – again.

    Given the consistency of human nature over time, and given that laziness and shortsightedness have dominated our behavior in the past, it is difficult to see why they won’t dominate our behavior in the future as well. I don’t enjoy sounding so pessimistic about human beings – some of my best friends are people. But we have our flaws and trying to deal with climate change exposes the worst of them.

    Given the failure of human beings throughout history to ease up on consumption before everything collapses, engineering our way out of this existential crisis, while trying at the same time to change societal consumption and behavior, seems like the only pragmatic option. It means developing as yet unknown technologies to remove gaseous carbon dioxide and transforming it to solid carbon, on a planetary scale. It means possibly filling the stratosphere with chemicals to block sunlight from reaching Earth. And while this will probably cost a lot – hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars per year – it actually seems cheap weighed against the prospect of extinguishing our entire species.

    Another thing. Using a computer or any of the technologies available today does not and should not disqualify one from striving to make the world a better place.

    • Meh.

      A hairless monkey learned to climb the counter to the top shelf and get the cookie jar, putting his hand in the jar grabbed a fistful of cookies, with a fistful of cookies the monkey can’t pull his hand out, so he starts screaming at the cookies to let go of his hand.

      The story of humanity

  2. “Bless Jane Fonda”? Seems your youth has made your vision very narrow and short reaching. You may be too young to remember Jane Fonda and her treasonous act years ago of assisting the North Vietnamese in cerating propaganda while sitting on one of their weapons used to kill Americans, her home country. Pretty poor example.
    Did you type your treatise using a computer? You know, one of those things that used heavy metals to build. Where certain materials are needed and harvested by decimating sections of the earth through mining. The plastics hazardous to the environment.
    The youth are only able to voice their opinions because they were taught by the very generation that the same youth are speaking out and claiming are doing nothing.
    You point your fingers and scold the 1% of the population that are doing nothing – getting rich of the climate change industry, taxing us where we’re already taxed to death.
    The youth are free to do as they please because they are not yet chained down working hard to provide the youth with your luxuries and time so you can stand up there on your soapboxes.
    The same people with unparalleled maturity you claim are at the same time acting like fools on social media, binge watching netflix. Writing electronic treatises, posting things on instagram, etc do little to nothing – especially when you’re provided the luxury of protection by those older people of whom your disparage and admonish.
    Such hypocrisy.
    Want to do something? Give up the conveniences and devices your addictions force you to cling to.
    Step out of your protected safe spaces and into real life and contribute to society WHILE you protest, etc.
    When I look at the protests, etc I see ALL ages. Not just youth.
    This nonsense about how it’s all about the youth and your saviour complex is both ridiculous and overdone.

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