Elderly Environmentalism

“We need to get our act together,” began renowned environmental activist Bill McKibben in his latest Harvard address. The “we” in this case was not college students. McKibben’s talk, hosted by the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, was directed at a different demographic: the elderly.

These days climate change activists focus much of their efforts on younger age groups, and it is common to find “young people leading the fight all over the world” as McKibben remarked. Yet the elderly are typically not as engaged as the youth in environmental issues. According to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 28% of people 65 and older believe that global warming is mostly because of human activity, compared with 47% of those aged 18 to 29. Similarly, just 29% of people 65 and older think that global warming is a very serious problem compared to 43% of young people. However, this does not mean environmental activists should exclude the elderly. Rather, they must adapt their messaging to include this important cohort. With this particular lecture, McKibben attempted to convince the elderly audience that continued inaction would lead to painful, generational regret.
McKibben began his presentation by pointing out salient statistics supporting climate change. Oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were 30 years ago. The extra heat trapped by carbon dioxide adds up to the heat equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs daily. He also pointed to recent events, citing forest fires in Sierra Nevada and “biblical” floods in Colorado. Each fact hammered home the gravity of inaction.
Then came the guilt-tripping. McKibben paused in his slideshow on a picture depicting a group of toddlers from the Maldives Islands (the third most endangered nation due to climate change). A forlorn McKibben remarked, “those girls will be refugees sometime in their life and it’s not for something they’ve done.” “We are going to be the first generation of human beings to leave the planet in substantially worse shape than we’ve found it,” said the 52 year-old McKibben, generously lumping himself in with the elderly. However, he also assured the audience that there is still hope.
McKibben then offered his organization’s work to exemplify how exactly audience members could become more involved. McKibben’s generation has seen the alarming growth of carbon dioxide to 400 parts per million, which is much higher than the 350 ppm that should be in our atmosphere according to scientists. His organization, 350.org, has led demonstrations around the world in an effort to raise awareness about climate change and to seek a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. McKibben showed pictures of 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries including Afghanistan, China, Ethiopia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and New Zealand. Said McKibben, “They don’t call it global warming for nothing. This is the breadth that we need.”
On a more local level, McKibben encouraged the audience to get involved with climate change movements in the area. He particularly noted Divest Harvard, an organization on campus trying to convince Harvard to remove its holdings in fossil fuel companies. McKibben made it clear that no matter what the audience chooses to do, anything is better than inaction.
An audience member, Gaby Friedler, former medical professor at Boston University, said in an interview with the HPR, “I am appalled, but not at all surprised. I did recognize that we were in peril. It made me feel like I have to do something. I mean, what have I got to lose? I am disappointed in myself for not having been more involved in this cause before.”
This was clearly the reaction McKibben wanted. The fact that the majority of his listeners were elderly helped McKibben instill a sense of collective guilt and regret that he used as a motivator to join the cause. Most importantly, the fact that McKibben included himself in the fight made the delivery of his message that much more effective and unique. He is not merely directing the crowd from above. Rather, he is fighting on the ground alongside everyone else – everyone including the elderly.
Photo credit: Paul Lisker, Graphics Editor

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