“A Fierce Green Fire” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 2)

Another friend got into the discussion (also very slightly edited):

I won’t argue with Kant or Chomsky (since I haven’t studied them in great depth) but I see a few problems with your hypothesis for the lack of engagement in activism, namely the Sierra Club, among the young. The brain may not lack an organizing capacity for historical reflection. Just because we’re “hard wired” as it were for immediacy doesn’t mean we aren’t also predisposed for reflection; we just shouldn’t try to do it all the time like when we’re escaping predators. But historical reflection will allow us to cut down on encountering predators.

I’m not sure if you mean the perceived lack of engagement is for the local chapter of the Sierra Club or if they are having a national crisis for membership. I can see alternative explanations for either case. Let me address your points more directly.

1. “Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.”

Our recent history has not been bland. Our students are well aware of economic depression, since 2008 they have lived during one. They have also lived through three different US wars in the Middle East, two of them lasting almost their entire lifetime. The impact of natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina and more recently Sandy also affects them. They are also concerned with other global issues such as genocides in Darfur, wars in Georgia, Syria, and now Ukraine.

2. “A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.”

This sounds like the charge Socrates made against the youth of Athens. There have always been distractions from what other people consider important. So let’s look at what today’s youth considers important. It’s not always entertainment as your hypothesis claims. Locally, I know our students have a great concern for employment. They seem genuinely disinterested in anything I have to say until I connect it to them getting a job. This isn’t unreasonable since they have just started on their careers during the worst depression the US has seen since the 1930s. They don’t come from affluent families so the current trend in higher education of graduating students with a crushing debt is an ever present worry for them. They are also the first ones in their family to go to college. For many, especially the women, this is in itself is a form of activism. They are fighting a cause more dear to their hearts than the environment — class struggle and freedom of education. 

The media outlets you bemoan are not the problem in and of themselves. It’s who else is using those media outlets. Most news sources and networking sites inundate youth with worrying messages about their future in terms of jobs and debt. The environment is drowned out as a long term worry while economics is presented as an immediate problem; this triggers the part of the brain that deals with “escaping the predator.” What does an 18-22 care about the earth dying in the next 100 years if he has no idea where he will live or how he will eat when he turns 23?

Many environmental organizations do use these digital and social media outlets to get their message across and the youth do respond. I think the 5th point of the movie, globalization, underscores this. Perhaps the lack of interest isn’t about the environment but just the Sierra Club. Youth may be looking for more global platforms. How does youth membership in Green Peace and World Wildlife Fund compare to Sierra Club? Or other types of political activism such as Amnesty International? 

3. You used the phrase “my generation.” An important point to keep in mind is that in terms of just numbers, your generation and the baby boomers simply outnumber Generation Y and the Millenials (today’s youth). So what may be perceived as a drop off because people aren’t engaged may just be a drop in young people even existing. Can’t engage what doesn’t exist. 

You really want to engage the youth in political and environmental activism, connect it to them earning a living. Occupy Wall Street is a good example. Many young people are starting non-profit corporations that target environmental issues (such as installing solar panels at low cost) rather than joining huge public protest movements. Perhaps your perception of what constitutes political/environmental activism needs to change.

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