On intergenerational dialogue
Updated: Mar 23, 2022
I'm an over-forty victim of fate/
arriving too late, arriving too late
-Jimmy Buffett, “A Pirate Looks at Forty”
A few months ago I was asked to speak to residents of a local retirement community about climate change and what we could do about it. It was a wonderful, engaged group with insightful questions and comments about the condition of our world. But one comment in particular stuck out to me: We want a chance to regularly discuss the climate crisis with younger generations.
As I reflected on that, I realized what a powerful opportunity this could be.
First, it is another path to normalizing discussions about climate change.
The majority of Americans, even in conservative strongholds like Indiana, are concerned about climate, and many support taking action to address it. However, despite their concerns, most Americans don't include the climate crisis as a normal part of their conversation with friends, family, and neighbors. Why? One reason is pluralistic ignorance, an inaccurate perception that others aren't concerned or wanting to take action. If I don't believe others are concerned, I'm more likely to remain silenced about the matter to avoid being stigmatized by the group. Any chance to encourage groups of people to discuss the climate crisis, then, is a good thing as it normalizes the conversation and reduces pluralistic ignorance.
Beyond normalizing climate change discussions, I think intergenerational conversations could be particularly potent for another reason: they transfer a sense of collective memory about how a normal climate behaves to the younger generations.
(By “normal climate” I am referring to the remarkably stable Holocene whereby human civilization flourished. I know this is fraught. After all, whose normal are we referring to? Who benefits from normal, and who decides?).
At the time I wrote this, humanity has experienced 416 consecutive warmer-than-average months in a row. In other words, anyone born before February, 1985, has never experienced a cooler-than-average month (let alone a "normal" month). I believe Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, and heck, even us Gen-Xers, the youngest of whom are now over 40, have a unique gift that can help younger generations on their quest: a memory of a climate functioning before global warming accelerated in the 1970s.
We remember consistently cold winters where snow was a given from December through February. We remember when summers weren't oppressively muggy. We remember.
Just as important is what we don't remember: sunny day flooding; a wildfire season that stretches into November; heavy downpours that regularly turn villages into islands; winter rain.
Some consider the Millennials and Gen Z to be the saviors of the climate crisis and there is some truth to that. They--and future generations--have the most at stake. But if if I had one wish* for the climate action movement, it would be that Gen Xers and Baby Boomers stop abdicating responsibility to lead on massive climate action. We push action off onto future generations (nothing like the added pressure of saving the world, hey kids?) and collectively ignore that in many cases we're still the adults in the room. Teens and young adults have power and agency, no doubt, but it is still the older generations who largely run the show in terms of access to power and capital.
I realize I’m engaging in a bit of wishful thinking: the Holocene climate isn’t coming back barring some technological carbon sequestration breakthrough and even then not for centuries. Still, I think that there is value in remembering what was lost. I worry that we are normalizing these freak storms, ecosystem collapses and the ensuing suffering. Of course, with time, these things sadly will be normal.
My hope is that by building, through inter generational dialogue, a collective memory of the climate that once was, we can maintain a vision of what a planet more in balance could be.
*Okay, this would actually be my second wish. My first wish would be for us to take a more playful path than in our approach to dealing with the climate crisis as opposed to the doom and gloom messaging that either scares or depresses us into inaction.