Fifty years ago this week the world was gripped by the Cuban Missile Crisis, then unfolding. It was the low point, perhaps, of the cold war, a several-decade period in which hundreds of millions of people got used to the idea that absolute, global catastrophe could be just 20 minutes away.
Or at least we tried to get used to it. I recall being very confused, as a first-grader in the early 1960’s, about why sometimes when the alarm bell rang we quickly went outside, and other times we hunkered down next to the thick brick walls deep inside the school, and waited.
Fortunately, that catastrophe hasn’t happened. However, the mindset that most American baby-boomers grew up with – the entire world could change very drastically and permanently, during our lifetime if not during the afternoon – is still embedded in our psyches. It gave many of us nightmares when we were young.
We need to tap that well of concern, now. The world is changing dramatically. It’s happening more slowly than ICBMs delivering nuclear warheads over the North Pole, but it is speeding up. Everybody who goes outside knows that. Unlike the destruction-in-a-flash that many of us grew up imagining, it’s now change-within-a-decade, or change-by-next-growing-season. And we’re not only imagining. We’re seeing it.
So what’s an American Boomer to do? Wake up. Accept responsibility. Our resource-gobbling lifestyle has caused this mess. Suburbanization has wasted US resources for two generations. Change it, now. And use your still-massive influence to change regressive policies. It’s outrageous that both major candidates for President fully endorse dramatic expansion of drilling for fossil fuels. Don’t stand for that. Demand that we change course, and lead the world in doing so. If we don’t, large parts of our planet will become as inhospitable as we feared in our nuclear nightmares as children. Only then it will be a reality for our grandchildren and their children.
Then, set the table for the next generation, and get out of the way. The “Millenials” are intuitively heading in the right direction. Whether they are reacting to the ecological mess we are leaving them or the economic constraints they feel matters little: they’ve got the right ideas. They are investing their time and money locally. They want smaller living spaces. They own fewer cars and use transit more. They are much more inclined toward sharing – cars, space, resources, goods, politics – than exclusive ownership. They are fond of repurposed goods.
And this is not just urban hipsters. All sorts of 20-somethings are living with their parents, shopping on Craigslist and launching businesses through crowd-sourced investment platforms like Kickstarter. They are revitalizing places across New England that Boomers and their parents left behind: from cities like Boston, Providence and Portland, to towns like Portsmouth, NH, Winooski, VT and Pittsfield, MA. They are eating food grown closeby by people they know. And all of this will create – in the decades to come – a way of living in New England that is healthier for all, lower-carbon, and more resilient to our changing climate than the way we have lived in this country since 1945.
It’s time. As the cold war has fizzled we’ve not been sure what would follow. Globalization, the rise of Petro-states, the incredible growth of China as an economic power, increasing inequality of wealth, climate change – these are centuries of chickens coming home to roost. There’s a lot going on. But at least it’s happening more or less in front of us, in the public eye, and in a way that offers opportunities to actually do something about it.
In that way, it’s a different kind of crisis than global nuclear annihilation. We all felt powerless to avert that. Perhaps that’s part of why it was so scary.The forces imperiling the planet now may be even more powerful, as they emanate from many different places and have quite a head of steam.
But they are not impenetrable. Smart, inspired and hopeful people all over are finding ways to bend those forces toward a better future. It is our responsibility, fellow Boomers, to help them.
I am reminded of the story of the so-called Big A dam on the Penobscot River in Maine – a project that, after much debate, was never built.
Twenty five years ago CLF and others opposed this ill-advised project, advancing the then-novel argument that energy efficiency could satisfy the power needs of the time better than a dam that would have turned two outstanding reaches of river into a slackwater impoundment. A nice summary of the controversy and its context is here. The author, David Platt, a long-time journalist who covered the story, notes that it “became a fascinating discussion about energy, engineering, corporate power, the rising influence of non-corporate interests, the need to protect the environment, and the changing nature of the paper industry and the economy in Maine.”
A generation later, and amplified 1,000 times, that is our story – the story of our challenges and our opportunities at the beginning of the 21st century. At the end of this century we will and should be remembered as much for what we started as for what we stopped, as much for what we were for as for what we where against. At this time in history, while several generations – and people from many perspectives, not only the environmental movement – share the stage, it is imperative that we come together and get it right.