Sustainability Rant, Part II: The Renegade Generation

Click here for the first article in this series, Sustainability Rant Part I: Canaries in Camouflage.

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Go to reuters.com, nytimes.com, npr.org, wsj.com or the website of just about any other major news outlet. On each of those sites, check out their major topics. Then drill down into those one or two levels and check out the subtopics. Notice what you haven’t found in a single one of them? The topics of sustainability and the environment.

The lack of primacy and general visibility afforded to sustainability is a glaring indicator of our general attitude toward the subject: It’s someone else’s problem. To be sure, you can find environmental writings on any of these websites if you search for them… but you do have to search for them, which means you have to already have an interest in the topic.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to search for the latest nonsense Kim Kardashian was involved in, the launch of the next Apple product, the latest unfortunate thing said or done by some politician, or what the stock market did today. These things wind up front and center under the main media topics of Style, Fashion, Politics, and Business, shoved into our faces whether we want to know about them or not.

What we see, and don’t see, on these websites reflects a striking public dissonance on the environment. Most people seem to believe that climate change and environmental degradation a.) are occurring, and b.) pose existential threats to humanity, yet these problems are afforded a measure of practical seriousness so small that critical environmental problems literally starving millions of people require a search feature, while the score of an NFL game involving two teams that aren’t even in playoff contention (I’m looking at you, NFC East) finds itself on the front page above the fold. How can we explain this? I pose the following:

  1. People in developed nations are, by and large, not yet directly and materially affected by environmental issues. As explained in part I, environmental problems are the kind that will hurt our great-grandchildren, not us. The problems are important but not urgent, and therefore are not afforded gravity in a culture obsessed with short-term-everything.
  2. People in developed nations believe that technology and financial wealth will either curtail environmental degradation or, failing that, insulate them and future generations from the consequences.

There isn’t much that can be done about the first item. Self-destructive short-term thinking is the inevitable long-term result of a society whose culture promotes material wealth as its highest calling, and over the past few centuries has systematically exterminated cultures offering appealing alternatives.

Regarding the second item, a good friend of mine once told me, “I tell my kids to go to school to get good jobs and make as much money as they can. If you have money, you don’t have to worry about how stuff works.” He wasn’t being completely serious, but there’s a kernel of truth to the statement that underlies our rationale for not taking environmental issues seriously: we regard money as the Great Insulator. Whether it’s conscious or not, an awful lot of us believe that a healthy bank account will somehow protect us when the air is too poisonous to breathe, the water too filthy to drink, and food impossible to grow.

We don’t ignore the environment entirely, of course. We toss our soda cans into special recycling bins, drive Volts and Priuses and Leafs, become vegetarians, and shut off the lights when we leave a room. These little things constitute “doing our part,” but ultimately we’re hoping for some magic bullet(s) to do the heavy lifting and spare us any substantial changes in lifestyle. So we look to innovations in technology (e.g. offshore wind farms, hydroelectric cars), policy (e.g. cap and trade, farm bills), or some combination of the two (e.g. municipal composting), only to watch in horror as even these limited solutions are ripped to shreds by interests possessing no concerns beyond the next quarterly earnings call. It’s at that point, I suppose, that we tell our children to accumulate lots of money so they can eat it once there’s no more food, potable water, or clean air for that money to buy. Or maybe we think the money will secure a berth on Elysium.

Interestingly, however, it seems that a lot of kids aren’t buying what the parents are selling. Millennials will be the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents, and the first generation to be denied the American Dream since its inception. As dreadful as that may sound, I believe this is where the best hope for a sustainable future lies. Millennials and the generations that come after them are going to redefine the American Dream, because they’ll have no other choice. And the characteristics of this generation that will define a new social, cultural, and economic order are looking rather promising.

Unlike the previous few generations, most Millennials won’t scoff at the notion of homesteading, being organic farmers, working in skilled trades, or creating technology to be offered to the world for free. They prioritize relationships over careers and wealth, probably because the latter feel hopelessly out of reach. They love modern technology, but not to the exclusion of the value of ancestral knowledge. It’s a generation that wants to travel, meet people, share ideas, and volunteer for reasons not related to their resumes. It’s the first generation in recent history searching for meaning beyond the context-free pursuit of profit, accumulation of wealth, and advancement of technology.

In adopting these values, Millennials are balking at the prospect of adopting a socio-economic model, created by Gen X and the Boomers, that doesn’t include a mechanism to thrive beyond its creators. They’re the Renegade Generation that just might save us all by turning their backs on the traditional notion of the American Dream, and the traditional tools for achieving it.

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Part III of this series will be released on December 16, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

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