As a young teen in the early 1960s I felt extreme anxiety as the Cold War raged between the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition to nightmares about the world being blown apart by nuclear war, I feared Vancouver’s copious rains, knowing from newspaper reports that they were radioactive due to nuclear testing by both sides. But I was lucky. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev defied the military hawks in their respective countries and substantially eased international tensions. In 1963 they signed a treaty that banned atmospheric nuclear tests. The nightmares stopped, and the last years of my high school career were relatively free from existential angst.
Fast-forward 50 years. In the summer of 2013 my wife and I invited a young environmentalist to our home to learn about the youth perspective on the ecological crisis. After listening to the above story, he revealed that he too had nightmares – but about tornadoes and wildfires. Unfortunately for him, these nightmares are much less likely to dissipate than mine. In today’s world there are no environmental statesmen equivalent to Kennedy and Khrushchev, and despite much froth and noise, no meaningful attempt has been made to halt ecological destruction. The brutal truth is that the young have been forsaken. The old have left them to suffer from the coming degradation and chaos, to raise their children in an unfolding apocalypse, and quite possibly to die an early and agonizing death.
This post is the first in a series of three that will examine this abandonment and how the young can respond. Here I address the plight of the young and their relationship to the old, thereby setting the stage for what follows. In my next post I will warn the concerned – both young and old – that they are being diverted from a solution to the crisis by the environmental and progressive movements. My specific target will be David Suzuki and the Vancouver-based Foundation that bears his name. In my third post I will propose a youth revolt to trigger the economic and political changes required to salvage the biosphere. As usual, my comments apply predominantly to the rich countries, where transformative change is most urgently required.
ASSAULTS ON THE YOUNG
To understand the situation faced by today’s young, it is necessary to understand the reasons for the ecological crisis and its potential solution. Despite persistent efforts to confuse matters, both are straightforward. The crisis was caused by the rapid expansion and low efficiencies of humankind’s economic activities, particularly during the lengthy boom period after World War II. These factors triggered the violation of numerous environmental impact limits, leading to such calamities as global warming, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, soil degradation, and chemical toxification. The only possible solution is to drastically curtail these activities by reducing per-capita consumption and population as quickly as socially feasible, and to increase efficiencies as quickly as technically feasible. I refer to the crisis as ecological overshoot (or simply overshoot), and to the indicated response as rapid impact reduction.
My core claim is this: Any environmental statement or action that is not based on ecological overshoot as the problem and rapid impact reduction as the response is a denial of physical reality and an indirect assault on the young.
A recent article in the Guardian newspaper illustrates how such assaults are carried out. The headline stated that, “Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions fall to record low”. The article admitted that the decrease is grossly insufficient to limit global warming to 2ºC, but it nevertheless quoted the European Union’s climate commissioner as follows: “We have shown consistently that climate protection and economic growth go hand-in-hand. This is a strong signal ahead of the Paris climate conference.”
These are the words of Miguel Arias Cañete, a 65-year-old Spanish aristocrat. He is, first of all, lying grotesquely about climate protection, as the article itself demonstrates. Second, he is restricting the crisis to climate change, thereby ignoring the far broader and deeper overshoot problem. And third, he is encouraging economic growth when only the fastest possible contraction can conceivably lead to a sustainable future. The Guardian treats Cañete with respect, but he deserves none – he is a heedless growth fanatic whose statement should have propelled the young into the streets in outraged protest.
To fully appreciate the ethical obscenity of Cañete’s posture, consider the life quality for someone his age, and compare this to the life quality that, given current trends, can be expected for a 25-year-old woman and the daughter she will bear at 30. The graphs below illustrate the differences.
Figure 1 depicts the average quality of life in the rich countries for the years 1950 to 2080. Life quality, which is on the graph’s vertical axis, refers to the key factors in human life that are affected by environmental conditions. These include the level of consumption, the prevalence of storms, floods, heat waves and droughts, social stability, and the accompanying levels of stress and financial hardship. The zero point on this axis represents the level at which life becomes intolerable – that is, a joyless struggle for existence. If life quality dips much below this, human survival itself is at risk, and longevity may thus be compromised.
The graph shows that life quality increased through the latter half of the 20th century. This was due primarily to vastly expanded production and relatively favorable environmental conditions. Because these conditions are now becoming highly unfavorable, the factors mentioned above will all turn against us: suffering from environmental events will increase, the availability of necessities such as food and clean water will decrease, etc. The curve therefore moves downward, reaches the zero point around 2050, and then becomes negative. This date and the shape of the curve are obviously subject to debate, but I believe they are reasonable projections based on the rapid onset of environmental disasters and the looming proximity of dangerous tipping points.
Figure 2 represents the total life quality for a 65-year-old such as Cañete. He fully participated in the post-war boom and has therefore experienced a high quality of life for much of his time on the planet. Even without his privileged birth, he would have had the opportunity to accumulate considerable wealth during his decades of high-quality life, thereby insulating him to some degree from adverse environmental events. As well, he has had the opportunity to maintain a high level of health, something that may be extremely difficult for subsequent generations to achieve.
The most significant fact, however, is that he will likely be dead before life quality in the rich world plummets. For example, if he dies in 2030 at age 80 he will escape the worst of the chaos and despair that will accompany the biosphere’s unraveling. Having enjoyed the highest material standard of living in history, and having participated in the rampant depletion of resources and the wanton destruction of ecosystems, he will peacefully depart this world and leave the suffering to those who follow.
In figure 3 we see the profile for a woman who is 25 years old today. Because she was born long after the post-war boom began, she will experience only a few decades of high-quality life. By the time she is 40 or 50, her life-quality will drop below the level that prevailed at the start of the boom. By the time she is 70 her life-quality will become negative, indicating that her life has become intolerable. However, because this trying period will come in her later years, I assume she will endure for her entire 80-year lifespan.
The last figure depicts the dreadful prospect for the daughter who will be born to the woman when she is 30. This child will enter a rapidly degrading world. She will never experience the improving life-quality that her predecessors knew, and she will begin to encounter intolerable conditions by the time she reaches her mother’s age. As a participant in ecological collapse, she will likely perish before she is 80. In other words, her entire life will be spent coping with a low and declining quality of life while facing the prospect of premature death. Given these harrowing conditions, it seems pointless to consider the prospects for the daughter’s own children and grandchildren.
THE GREAT REFUSAL
The old are betraying the young not just through duplicitous politicians, but also because those who could contribute to overshoot reversal are simply refusing to do so. Specifically, the powerful could transform the economy, but they do not; the influential could persuade the powerful to act decisively, but they do not; the educated could develop the theories and strategies required for rapid impact reduction, but they do not; and in the broadest category, the concerned could grasp the nature of the crisis and its solution, but they do not. This is the Great Refusal. This is the self-interested passivity that the young must shatter if they and their offspring are to have any chance at a decent life. Let me briefly address each of these refusals in turn.
The powerful are the ruling capitalists and their close associates. Although most members of this class remain dedicated to economic expansion, some are starting to realize that this is the path to ecological perdition, and that business can flourish in a contractionary economy. However, these rational capitalists remain silent and unorganized, thus permitting their irrational counterparts to dominate society. An internal power struggle is hopefully on the agenda.
The influential include important members of the capitalist class and senior members of the state and government. They could be using their proximity to power as leverage for rapid impact reduction. The initiatives of this group will likely be critical in determining if a power struggle takes place, and who will emerge victorious if it does.
The educated are academics and other intellectuals. They are indispensable because the shift from an expansionary to a contractionary economy is complex and thus requires extensive intellectual support. Most significantly, a new economic theory must be developed to guide future economies. I have started this development, but much remains to be done, and not one of these bright lights has offered their assistance.
The concerned are the numerous people who are deeply troubled by ecological decline. They fully understand the gravity of the situation, but fail to confront the hard economic and political facts that might lead to a workable solution. They therefore confine themselves to incremental improvements that assuage the conscience but do nothing to avert the coming horrors. As noted above, this is due largely to the diversionary impact of the environmental and progressive movements.
The Great Refusal is a denial of physical realities and an evasion of moral responsibilities among the old. However, it would be simplistic to blame the individuals concerned without considering the historical context. One important factor is that global overshoot is unprecedented in humankind’s experience, which means there are no tested solutions to which we can turn. Another is that the Cold War severely skewed the perceptions of those in power, preventing them from dealing effectively with the ecological crisis after the Soviet Union collapsed. As well, a small but avaricious group of Western capitalists concluded in the mid-1970s that their privileges had eroded to an unacceptable degree. They therefore ushered in the era of Reagan, Thatcher, neoconservative imperialism, and unbounded greed. This led to the corruption of science and the strict suppression of non-conforming social thought. The powerful, in other words, have seriously impeded the intellectual spadework required for a sustainable world.
CHALLENGE FOR YOUNG AND OLD
The challenge for both young and old today is to break free from this dark period of recent history in order to tackle the existential crisis that is now facing our species. Given the prospect of severely diminished life quality, the young should be strongly motivated to push for rapid impact reduction and the associated systemic changes. My third post in this series will address some of the means available to them to apply this pressure. The old have profound responsibilities that they must finally meet. If they hold power, they have a moral obligation to initiate the required changes. If they do not, they have a moral obligation to exert whatever influence they have on the powerful to act quickly and decisively. This includes the theoretical developments mentioned above.
My central message to the young is this: Don’t acquiesce in your suffering. Don’t tolerate the Great Refusal. Spur the old into action and fight for your future, your children’s future, and the integrity of the living world.
The Young have been FORSAKEN
 The relationship between Kennedy and Khrushchev during this terrifying period is closely examined in James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).
 I say “potential” solution because rapid impact reduction can only reverse overshoot – it can’t heal a damaged biosphere. If critical thresholds have been reached before rapid impact reduction is fully implemented, the crisis will continue despite humankind’s best efforts.
 For a disturbing account of this corruption, see David L. Lewis, Science for Sale (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014). The book’s lengthy subtitle tells the story: How the US government uses powerful corporations and leading universities to support government policies, silence top scientists, jeopardize our health, and protect corporate profits. Lewis was a research microbiologist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 32 years before becoming a whistleblower due to the organization’s increasing politicization. He is currently Director of the Research Misconduct Project (www.researchmisconduct.org). I should add that Lewis makes the standard error of conflating government and state. This issue is discussed in my Political Primer.