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