Is There a Generational Failure on Climate Change? Not Yet.

earth-daysBy Eban Goodstein, Director of The Bard Center for Environmental Policy

I have attended a lot of college climate change talks lately by 50+ year old white guy experts. They all feature a curious line directed at the students: “Our generation screwed up; we are sorry to leave you this mess, but it’s going to be your job to fix it”.

There’s a problem with that logic. In fact, it’s our 50+ generation that currently has all the power, and we don’t look to be letting it go for the next couple of decades. The only way to transform the planet will be a generational partnership, with folks our age laying a solid foundation for the revolution in technology and consciousness that will indeed be the life work of today’s college and graduate students.

A tragic generational failure – and lots of success too—is illustrated in a beautiful new film by Robert Stone, called Earth Days. The movie follows the lives of a handful of 70+ environmental warriors, primarily Stewart Udall, Stewart Brand, and Denis Hayes. Stone documents the creation of the environmental movement in the 1960s’, sparked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb; the movement’s symphonic arrival on Earth Day 1970, orchestrated by an intense and charismatic Hayes; and the phenomenal legislative success early in the decade, in which the we see the sunny (but still creepy) side of Nixon—with Tricky Dick signing the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts, NEPA, and creating the EPA, all in the space of a dizzying two years.

The film ends with the movements’ transformative vision of a nation powered by renewable energy, a vision that emerged with real teeth in the last year of the Carter administration. Hayes oversaw a well-funded federal energy initiative that—had it been carried through—would have seen a US with 20 percent renewable power by 2000. Stone plays quickly through the actual and heartbreaking ending: the collapse of the renewable vision in the face of Reagan’s “government is the problem conservatism,” epitomized by the removal of Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof.

Sustainability expert Hunter Lovins provides the movie with the “youthful” voice of my generation. And she (and Stone) suggest that the movement’s leaders contributed to its own ultimate failure by adopting a moralistic, us-versus-them ideology, that emphasized sacrifice, limits and restraint, instead of an expansive, hopeful and inclusive vision of the future.

After viewing the film, it is hard to avoid comparisons with recent initiatives like The National Teach-In on Global Warming (that I run) or Bill McKibben’s “” International Day of Action. These projects have been big, single-day events—involving in our case, thousands of schools, and for, more than 5,000 citizen groups across the globe. McKibben’s team of internet savvy 20-somethings, operating in a much more crowded media world, achieved a remarkable “branding effort,” driving the idea of 350 into public conversation globally. But our recent initiatives pale next to Earth Day’s mobilization of 20 million Americans. We clearly have lessons to learn.

The stories of Udall, Hayes and Brand are refreshing and inspiring; our world is much safer, cleaner, diverse, hopeful and beautiful thanks to their work. They also laid the foundation for today’s unfinished business: rewiring the entire world with clean energy. The Carter-era energy initiative that Hayes led did manage to deliver to us, thirty years on, one very important lever: a global, commercial wind-power industry. The wind turbine is now the ubiquitous icon of what a new movement could make possible.

The Earth Day generation has earned the right to talk about their failure. But my generation, with hands on the reins for two more decades, has no business throwing in the towel. The work ahead will be a joint project of today’s students– and their parents. Together, learning from our elders, we need to finish the revolution: to do now for solar, geothermal, sustainable agriculture and sustainable biofuels, battery technology, efficiency, urban design, and transit, what they did for wind power.

A wonderful vehicle to teach young people about environmental history, Stone’s Earth Days is also a call to recapture the vision, for those of us who were 10 or 15 years old at the time. The film will air on PBS next spring, or, rent it to show in a theater near you.

An environmental economist and long time environmental organizer, Eban Goodstein directs the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. and also heads the National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions. Bard CEP, at Bard College in New York, offers a Masters in Environmental Policy, and in Fall 2010, will be offering a new degree: an MS in Climate Science and Policy.

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2 responses

  1. I like the films’ connection to old-school environmentalism and the generation ahead of me. One thing I don’t like about films like “Age of Stupid” and even “Inconvenient Truth” is the doom factor and the lack of calls to action. Would you say this film laid out some real, practical, human scale actions that people could actually take? Either as individuals or business people?

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