My Take On Progress, Part II

Teddy RooseveltIn Part I, I explored the question “Is there something we can learn from past leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, from “The Greatest Generation, (born 1901-1924), from prior environmental mistakes or from creative solutions to problems in the past? Could we look backwards in order to move forwards?

What do we have to learn from the Silent Generation (born 1925 – 1945)? the Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964)? the Gen Xers (born 1965-1982)? or the Millenials (born 1983 – early 2000’s)? What can we do cross-generationally to inspire positive environmental changes and jumpstart new initiatives? Who is leading the charge for our future?

The post-1945 era of Baby Boomers – 75 million strong – has been credited with initiating the environmental movement. Having been substantially influenced by events such as The Vietnam War, the oil embargo, and the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown (which led to dreams of alternative energy), they brought into legislative existence the Environmental Protection Act, The Clean Air Act, Earth Day, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

In spite of their legislative accomplishments, Baby Boomers have also been criticized for their thirst for “stuff” — bigger houses, bigger cars, exotic food and travel, and relatively selfish consumption. For a while, with a country deep in resources, we frolicked in the abundance of coal deposits, forests, and plentiful, clean water without much thought of conservation. Now a pullback is on for more thoughtful use of these resources.

Gen X-ers are described as the generation of change. In the preface to Generation X Goes Global: Mapping a Youth Culture in Motion, Professor Christine Henseler summarizes it as “a generation whose worldview is based on change, on the need to combat corruption, dictatorships, abuse, AIDS, a generation in search of human dignity and individual freedom, the need for stability, love, tolerance, and human rights for all.”

This digitized generation bore witness to the effects of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. They accumulated knowledge of global events via multimedia sources, like scientists discovering two holes in the ozone layer during the 80’s. In 1992, they watched the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro bring together 150 nations together to set global standards for protecting the Earth against global warming and other environmental threats, inspiring global efforts. This generation is aware of the problems, but has been criticized for being lackadaisical about them.

I recently read an article about the Millennials (Gen Y)—the tech-savvy 13 to 30 year olds—who seem to be in tune with nature and the environment and are dedicating themselves to cleaning up some the environmental messes we created in the 20th century. They recycle not because of guilt, but because they believe it will make a difference. They are not too proud to shop at resale shops or yard sales and take pride in giving their reusables to others who may need them – think upcycling, repurposing, sharing. They happily drive a used car, often with a “COEXIST” bumper sticker on it, or use a community car-sharing program. They enjoy being part of our diverse melting pot. Some describe them as Confident. Connected. Open to Change. They thrive in the global community of today. They often sign their emails with inspiring philosophical quotes like “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” and decorate their graduation caps with “Be the Change You Want to See in the World”. They give me hope.

David Weinberger, at the Roosevelt Institute’s Campus Network (RICN), wrote:

“Millennials view environmental protection more as a value to be incorporated into all policymaking than as its own, isolated discipline. We are concerned with economic growth, job creation, enhancing public health, bolstering educational achievement, and national security and diplomacy. Young people recognize that each of these concerns is inextricably tied to the environment.”

This group has seen the vivid images of China’s handmade environmental disasters, often as the result of increased economic growth – black rivers, densely polluted air, and scores of hectares deforested. Global issues are front and center.

This group has reaped the benefits of innovative educational programs focusing on sustainable communities, climate change, energy efficiency, resource use, and global issues. There are Green MBA’s, Sustainability Leadership Certificates, Green Charter Schools, rich online courses through SEI and USGBC, and campus offerings from The University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, named after the founder of Earth Day. Community colleges have morphed into consortiums with course offerings of solar hot water and electricity, wind energy, and biomass. The Millenials are poised with knowledge to take hold of problems and find solutions. Will they?

This generation grew up watching the first environmental cartoon – Captain Planet, my favorite! While watching him pool resources (water, earth, wind, fire, heart) to fight environmental toxin villains, maybe an inkling of the need to work (and fight) together for a cause took hold with this generation—but not just by marching with signs. Instead, Millenials are using their fluency with technology to LIKE things, and to SHARE messages that they believe in. These messages jump exponentially to friends, and friends of friends, as speed-of-light marketing. Although their primary form of activism seems on the outside to be mostly focused on efforts towards being conscious consumers—purchasing green products, buying organic, leaning towards hybrid cars or public transportation, and rejecting items containing toxic chemicals—they are silently getting their messages out via social media, leveraging the global inter-connectedness.

Good Works

Some octogenarians like Florence LaRiviere are still highly engaged in important environmental projects. Her efforts have protected over 40,000 acres of wetlands in California since 1968. Also in California, a Gen-Xer, Gene Rodrigues, Director of Customer Energy Efficiency & Solar for Southern California Edison, has substantially reduced emissions in his state; he is hurtling forward with programs for customer-owned solar incentives, implementing widespread educational programs, and forming robust partnerships at all levels of government.

Other heroes leading the charge include a fairly famous Baby Boomer, Bill McKibben, who leads and who wrote The End of Nature over 20 years ago. This was the first book to warn of climate change. He has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009 in a grassroots movement to push for policies to reduce current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere to under 350ppm.

Another important Baby Boomer, Amory Lovins, heads up the Rocky Mountain Institute. A W. Edwards Deming-like inspiration whose accolades erupt from all over the world in the name of resource efficiency, Lovins is striving to transform the transportation and building industries. Speaking of good works in Colorado, Marc Ross, environmental lawyer and music afficionado, heads up Rock the Earth (RtE), an effort that integrates the combined talents of musicians, environmental lawyers and experts, and a network of dedicated volunteers nationwide to help raise funds for important environmental projects involving water quality, mining, wilderness protection, and other issues. Rock on!

One of my favorite Gen-Xers, Alex Steffen, is known as an eco-crusader, author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, and also author of over 12,000 articles detailing innovations and new ideas to move the sustainability movement forward more rapidly. He continues to drive forward groundbreaking solutions to widespread problems through his writing and speaking engagements.

As for the wave of newly-graduated Millenials, time will tell. Dreams of social entrepreneurship run rampant with this generation, and we’ll see in time whether their innovative ideas and dreams of building the next NGO will be realized. Who will step up?

What does the future hold?

In The Empty Raincoat – Making Sense of the Future, Charles Handy describes a Sigmoid curve, shaped somewhat like a slanted “s,” that can be used to assess the current state of a nation, a business, an economy, or even a relationship. There is a point on the curve where things are going very well, resources are fully available, and creative energy is at a high point. It seems like you don’t need to do anything different; but in fact, this is exactly when you need to start changing for the future and creating a new S curve—at Point A.

(Reference: Charles Handy (1994). The Empty Raincoat – Making Sense of the Future, ch. 3. London: Random House)

Sigmoid curveWhere is our country on the environmental Sigmoid curve? Have we literally gone over the top and begun plummeting towards the abyss? Are we at Point B? Or can we begin a new curve, generating new ideas and energy before we slow down, and adding on each time to what we’ve learned from the past? Handy explained that “the challenge of the second curve is to find a way to start that curve while still building upon the success, learning and maturity gained from the first curve.” Can we creatively think of ways to generate new jobs, to design products to be in balance with nature, and to have a healthy environment with healthy people before we cut down all of our rain forests, poison all of our waters, and pollute our skies? Can we assimilate the ideas of past and present generations—combining all their talents—to come up with progressive and innovative ideas to start the next curve? We’ll see.



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