The danger of climate activism becoming discriminatory

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Zuza Filipiuk
Books Columnist

Zuza Filipiuk discusses the pitfalls of blaming the climate crisis on the older generation

“Young people are being let down by older generations and those in power”, says Greta Thunberg, who together with other young climate activists recently attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. Admired by some and criticised by others, Thunberg has become an icon of the global environmental awakening of the young generation. A year and a half after her first solitary “Skolstrejk För Klimatet” outside of the Swedish parliament, she is now the face of Global Climate Strikes, an international movement which mobilised approximately 6 million people in September 2019 alone. Her actions galvanised young people to voice their fears about the climate emergency and stand up for their future, calling for world leaders to become accountable for their actions. But as the young become more and more empowered in taking control of their future, there seems to be a corresponding escalation of ageist narratives which polarises climate activism as we know it today. As young people keep blaming the old generations for their mistakes, a question arises whether contemporary climate activism labels the wrong crowd as the environmental enemy. Is the climate activism of today discriminating against older generations? And why are we prone to the assumption that older people are the sole reason that climate change is happening at all?

The climate emergency is no doubt a burning issue, and the scepticism it encounters is not a newsflash. Despite such scientific evidence for its existence, such as rising temperatures, the Amazonian and Australian fires, as well as species extinction, there are still some people who refuse to admit the effects are real and won’t take appropriate actions to minimise their own harmful impact on the environment. Who are these people? You may (not) be surprised, but many surveys suggest that there is a big age gap in the way people approach global heating. 

Significant bodies of research provide evidence that young people are much more likely to be concerned with the climate crisis than the older generations. In America, for example, over 70% of people aged 18-30 worry about global heating, as contrasted with 62% of those aged 35-54, and 56% aged 55+. The fact that young climate activists are being attacked by older people who patronisingly tell them to go back to school and let the adults worry about the adult business is not helping to visualise older generations as engaged in the fight against global heating.

Why is it that climate crisis attitudes vary so much? Well, there is no one singular explanation, and it’s certainly not because climate activism is a new thing. It might be that having experienced through their own eyes the lack of satisfying results of climate activism, older generations are more sceptical of the effects it might bring and have thus lost the idealistic spirit which rules the young minds. But our generation experiences the climate emergency differently. We were born into this narrative, it raised us, it has always been omnipresent. There is no place for doubt, no place for resignation. Ranging from daily news about natural disasters, through to school textbooks explaining the intricacies of recycling, to social media bombing us with ecological tragedies happening all the way on the other side of the globe – we can no longer think about our own lives as isolated and protected from the effects of global heating. With the progression of globalisation, the climate emergency has also become globalised.

As we stand on the verge of an environmental crisis, we should be standing united no matter what age we are. 

Statistics don’t lie. Yes, climate change has been accelerated as a result of the actions of the people who came before us. Yes, it is the future and the health and prosperity of the young generations that is now endangered the most. Yes, many of the world political and business leaders who have the actual power to reform the global attitude towards the climate emergency are older. But to accuse the entirety of older generations based on the 56% who reportedly do not consider climate change an emergency is to ignore the efforts of the 44% who care about the planet. To praise the efforts of the 70% of the young generations is to ignore the misdoing of the remaining 30%.

Our world population is growing old. Never has there been an opportunity more perfect to reframe the societal narrative which has pitted the young and the old against each other for generations, often in matters far less important than that of the climate emergency. Instead of antagonism which permeates this narrative, and which seems to be ruling climate activism of today, we should start thinking of the older generations as a natural resource. In fact, they are the only natural resource which keeps on growing in our times. The older generation embodies the era of reusing and fixing items, rather than replacing them with new ones. They have skills necessary for limiting our own carbon footprint by limiting our consumerist lifestyle. Because as cliché as it sounds, capitalism and consumerism are the main factors at fault here. We have to remember who the real enemy is. Not the older people, but the system.

It is difficult to get rid of that stigma, considering that the climate crisis is happening as a result of actions of people from decades before, as well as today. Old politicians and businessmen who keep on denying the existence of global heating, who patronisingly tell young climate activists to get back in line certainly do not help to amend this stigma. Neither do statistics. Such social narrative seems to be putting young and old people in irreconcilable binary opposites. But what we, the young, must remember is that we are not perfect either and many older people are still doing their part to help save the planet. We also have to remember that climate activism is not the sole property of the younger generations. We are all in this together, because the climate crisis doesn’t discriminate.


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