Greta’s Brave New World
The next generation will save our planet, in spite of us. Here’s why.
“How dare you.”
By now, Greta Thunberg is the face of a movement, and her exhortation to the world’s leaders at the United Nations General Assembly is legendary. Her utterance is naïve for voicing an unvarnished truth that adults don’t dare speak, and disarming precisely because it took a child, the kind we chuckle about because of their naïveté, to call us out for the crimes against humanity for which we are utterly complicit. She rubbed our noses in our own feces. It’s embarrassing as f*ck.
And 100% true.
Her three-word reprimand will — in my view — likely be remembered, generations from now, as the start of a new era. As-yet unnamed, her era will be the one that cleans the 13,000-year old mess the adults have made on our planetary carpet, from the time we stopped living with Nature, as a part of it. It was 13,000 years ago that we started defacing the Earth — and the human community — to build wealth that fed short-term greed, while carrying long-term consequences for all of us. The era officially ended on September 23, 2019, with three words from a sixteen-year-old who spoke for her generation once she’d finally had enough of our bullsh*t. I believe the Anthropocene — as we now call it, after human-generated disfigurement — only lasted as long as it did because our wealth extraction tools were inefficient. For all but its final 150 years, we lacked the necessary means to finish the job.
With the Second Industrial Revolution, that changed. We created the scalable tech required to succeed: in bulldozing the world’s forests, in scraping its oceans of fish, in generating eternal summer indoors 24/7/365, in lighting civilizations while we slept, in moving goods globally, endlessly, to power the consumption machine, and in waging world warfare for control of all of it. We did this so that we could eat strawberries in February, chew Bluefin tuna in the desert, devour cows and their lactation at every meal, drive Escalades to the hairdresser, buy as much of anything as our wealth would allow us — then ignore everything once we finally owned it — and expend the least amount of energy humanly possible doing all of it.
Along the way, we forgot that we lived in a closed system. There’s no escaping ourselves. So today, the oceans are nearly empty, the forests are almost gone, the ice has nearly melted, the earth we grow crops on is poisoned, the animals are nearly extinct, the humans are wildly sick, the poor are largely dying, the weather is increasingly raging, and while we can’t undo any of it, because we can’t buy another planet on Amazon, the Earth doesn’t care about any of it. As the world’s greatest photographer of famine and war, Sebastião Salgado, told me, “She’ll be just fine. It’s only our own demise we are hastening.” He smiled the smile of a relaxed man who realized that the planet he loved would recover, with or without our help.
Only the children care.
Somehow, the Internet revealed that the adults were lying. We lost our carefully crafted, painstakingly guarded monopoly on knowledge, to the search engine. Children found it, then mastered it, then they created a global network for sharing what the remaining scientists were studying, without being filtered first by the adults in charge. They realized that the game we had been playing for millennia — of musical chairs — was coming to an end, and that they would be the first humans ever to lose a seat when the music stopped.
And it pissed them off. We pissed them off.
So Greta told us.
Then seven million other pissed off children followed her. The adults called them climate strikers when they reported it on their news stations last month, to the other adults. We hung our heads in shame. Again. We realized that our time was up, and that we had really soiled the carpet, beyond recognition. Well, at least, some of us realized that. Some of us can’t hear the children; their #winning music is too loud, and they’re still dancing.
Today, exactly half of the US population is under 35, comprised of Millennials and Gen-Zers — all Gretas, and her older and younger siblings. They are like-minded, because if they don’t clean the house they inherited, they will die. Instead of wandering fields full of bees and butterflies, discovering their back yards out of boredom, they are being shuttled in cars to pre-arranged play dates, to play indoors with ‘black mirrors’. Instead of reading books about savannahs and wildlife, they are reading about colony collapse and the foods that disappeared because of it. Instead of picking berries off of bushes, they are picking plastic from the oceans. Instead of swimming in ponds, they are sidestepping toxic rivers and drinking water. And instead of dancing in the rain, they are bracing against Category Seven hurricanes, for which they must now change the numbering system.
Well, they are almost — almost — in charge. Today, Millennials alone are already 25% of the US population, 30% of voting age people, and 40% of the workforce. Gen-Z is right on their heels. And they want to live.
Jaclyn Corin does, too. She’s not pissed about the climate and the greed that fed it. Or rather, she probably is, about that, too. But right now, she’s focused on the shredding of our social fabric at the hands of the economic, political and legal state we built for her and her classmates. That state led her school friends to be murdered in front of her in their classrooms, at the hands of a despondent child who didn’t know how else to cry for help once he had given up, and we had armed him. Afterwards, she organized the March for our Lives, which produced 880 simultaneous protests throughout the United States on March 24, 2018, attended collectively by two million people who were as angry as she was.
She’s not alone. Her friend and classmates now know, as CNN published in March last year, that “More US school-age children die from guns than on-duty US police or global military fatalities” — nearly 40,000 of them, since April 1999, when the Columbine High School massacre reset our focus, and our clocks. Wikipedia even has a page for it. There have been over three hundred school shootings since that date. The adults in the room are telling the children that it’s regrettable; that they have prayers to share; that the parents, teachers, therapists, friends, enemies, or other outliers are to blame, in spite of a perfect system. They are generous with their prayer and their excuses.
But the kids aren’t buying it anymore.
They neither have the money to do so, nor the time.
Nor, somehow, the greed.
On this last point, perhaps it’s because they share everything, openly: their feelings, their cars, their homes and their services. They created the sharing economy. The sharing economy not only works; it’s not only more economical for debt-strapped youth; it’s not only more environmentally sensible for a newly resource-poor planet; it also influences our children’s behaviors when it comes sharing what the adults hoarded: their wealth.
In fact, the Millennials are the most generous generation ever. Forbes reported that 84% of working Millennials gave to charity last year, while 70% of them donated their time to charitable causes. They care, not only for the planet they’re inheriting, but for one another, as we used to, when we still lived in small enough groups that it was personal.
It is because, in my view, of this overarching quality our children possess — their generosity — that they stand a chance of saving their planet; a planet that because of our greed, we have nearly destroyed for them.
That’s where the good news comes in. I am fairly convinced that we are on the precipice of an about face. It’s too late to ‘go home’. That ship sailed. We won’t cool the climate. It’ll stay 3°F warmer that when we inherited it, by the time they’re done stopping its warming, and the weather will remain wild. We won’t put fish back in the oceans, whose corals will remain dead, and whose marine life will nearly disappear. We won’t regain the terrestrial diversity from which we evolved. We will have zoos and books for all that. We will call it history, sadly. And they will not resurrect murdered children. Their deaths will stand as cautionary tales for a system that valued deadly toys over lives. But I believe in the ingenuity of technology, of integrated thinking, of collaboration, of human-centeredness and of generosity of spirit. And the generation that is about to send us into the sunset have a surfeit of all of it. They will wield it to erase what they can, and to put rules in place to ensure that we never slip backwards. Not that they risk doing so. While there will always be outliers — young people who act as callously and as greedily and as lazily as we do — they are now a tiny minority. For every Steven Miller, who at 34 embodies the dying gasp of the empty souls he serves, there are a hundred Greta Thunbergs, who at 16 is brimming with life, and just getting started. Miller and his kind will not overcome the spirit of a youth, united.
They won’t dare.