What does it mean to be young now? I have been thinking about this quite a lot of late, in the context of our species seeming to have thrown even its short-term survival in the “too hard” basket. In the backwash of the failed Copenhagen conference in 2009, the media has decided it is bored of polar bears and ice-caps and extinctions. Doesn’t sell eyeballs to advertisers, does it, really? And the environmental NGOs have no success narrative to s/tell either. So we drift onwards, knowingly, to the waterfall’s edge…
What does it mean to be young as this unfolds? Knowing that your lords and masters aren’t just playing nuclear brinkmanship games, as they did in the early 1980s(1), but actively ignoring the impending ecological debacle?
What does it mean not to have a sense that human ingenuity can ultimately fix the problems, but that human ingenuity is both part of the problem and not-enough to solve the problems? Here’s someone’s recollection of that 70s optimism
Sometimes I feel intense nostalgia for the cultural mythology of my youth, a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Superbowl was important, in which the world’s greatest democracy was bringing democracy to the world, in which science was going to make life better and better. Life made sense. If you worked hard you could get good grades, get into a good college, go to grad school or follow some other professional path, and you would be happy. With a few unfortunate exceptions, you would be successful if you obeyed the rules of our society: if you followed the latest medical advice, kept informed by reading the New York Times, and stayed away from Bad Things like drugs. Sure there were problems, but the scientists and experts were working hard to fix them. Soon a new medical advance, a new law, a new educational technique, would propel the onward improvement of life. My childhood perceptions were part of this Story of the People, in which humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology, to conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society.
I have never been particularly “ambitious” or materialistic (I don’t say that in search of praise – it’s just one of those facts for which I have little or no responsibility – like my height). I never saw the point of doing the years of study followed by the decades of greasy pole climbing to get the fancy car or the corner office or the trinkets the west offers to its self-exploiters. Other people of my cohort, obviously, were wired that way.
But what does it mean to be wired that way now, for those who have a modicum of ecological literacy? Do they get the fact that, if they were born in say the year 1995, or 2000 (and by twelve you can be very very switched on), then by the time they are supposed to be hitting “peak status” it will be 2040 or so, and the shit will really be hitting the fan. What is the point of it all for them? I will be 70 then, and basically done. But for the young uns?
UPDATE 1/1/2103: Laurie Penny interviewing Terry Pratchett: “Though they are marketed to teenage readers, the stories have grown increasingly bleak, with resource wars, human cruelty and rivers of shit floating with corpses.
“What do you tell kids?” Pratchett asks, while we are still in the café. “ ‘Prepare for a short life,’ ” he says, before taking a sip of his tea. “We are going to end up fighting each other for resources. And waste most of those resources fighting with one another….”
Further reading on this
Everything we tell ourselves about America and the World is Wrong by Charles Eisenstein
2012: the year we did our best to abandon the natural world by George Monbiot
Activism and … Desperation in Peace News December 2012 – “With climate change, it is almost certainly going to kill huge numbers of people, and devastate large parts of the planet, but it is a slow-motion disaster. They say, ‘We have only so many months to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’, and it is desperate, but it doesn’t feel like imminent death in the same way.
“It is weird because at the same time there is a growing fatalism in the general public, even Hollywood is putting films out that involve the end of the world, where the hero doesn’t save the world, the world dies and a tiny number of people survive. It’s as if the popular culture is gradually preparing itself for the destruction of the human race and we believe that we deserve it, that the human race has had its chance and we’ve messed it up, we’ve been stupid and greedy and immoral and we don’t deserve to survive.
“When you look at it through a telescope, as if you were on another planet, that can kind of make sense, but when you look at it from ground level, that means the baby in the pram in the street, the woman behind the counter at the baker’s, the people in the dole office, the Palestinian olive farmer, the woman protesting in Tahrir Square.”
(1) I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that the Cold War was really a North-North spat, and that it largely enabled the respective elites to control their domestic populations.