The old will soon die; the young will long suffer. These are the core human realities of the escalating ecological crisis. Baby boomers in the rich countries have enjoyed the highest consumption levels in history, and will conveniently expire before this bounty disappears. The young, by contrast, will face the tragic consequences of this affluence: a collapsing environment, a crumbling economy, and the social chaos that will accompany these disasters.
If the crisis and its solution were deep mysteries, there might be an excuse for not tackling the problem and preventing the worst of these outcomes. But there is no mystery. The problem is readily identified as ecological overshoot: the violation of multiple environmental limits due to excessive economic activities and low efficiencies. The rational response is easily understood as rapid impact reduction: an end to overconsumption, lower populations, and increased efficiencies. Implementing these measures will require the old to restructure the economy, but this is well within their capacity. In brief, there no mystery, and there is no excuse. The old have simply abandoned the young to a gruesome fate.
Given their dismal prospects, the young should be raging against the economy’s irrational logic and ecocidal growth. For the most part, however, they are sitting quietly in their classrooms or diligently performing their assigned tasks at work. What would cause this self-destructive passivity? A big part of the answer is that they have been relentlessly manipulated by their purported allies – the progressive movement, the environmental movement, and the academic field of ecological economics. These initiatives have thoroughly confused the young about their predicament while directing their attention away from those most responsible for the crisis.
The key method used is a false choice. The concerned young are informed by people they trust — David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Gus Speth, etc. — that profit-hungry corporations are destroying the environment, but that this destruction can be reversed through social movements that compel governments to adopt enlightened policies. They are thus urged to choose between greedy corporations and beneficent governments. They obviously prefer the latter, so they focus on persuading their elected representatives to do the right thing.
This approach is futile, and the choice is therefore false, because governments lack the necessary economic control. As the term implies, a capitalist economy is controlled by capitalists, not by the people or their governments. Public policies can influence the economy, but they cannot radically transform it. If any government were to attempt fundamental economic restructuring it would be quickly undermined and removed from office. History provides us with numerous examples of such ousters when powerful interests were threatened. Today’s leading voices are shamefully betraying the young by ignoring these critical facts.
The youth ecological revolt seeks to liberate the young from this doomed approach by giving them a workable strategy for a sustainable future. This strategy makes two assumptions. The first is that the young, if provided with accurate information, will reject the current manipulations and become strongly motivated to preserve the biosphere. The second is that the business world includes rational capitalists who are deeply troubled by the crisis and are willing to consider alternative economic arrangements. If these assumptions are valid, the young can pressure these capitalists to sideline their irrational counterparts and implement the necessary measures. Further, the young can push the old to meet their moral obligations by supporting them in this effort.
Pressure can be exerted in two distinct ways: through arguments and direct actions. A crucial argument is that business activities long preceded the current system and will undoubtedly continue in a future economy. Thus, moving beyond growth-dependent capitalism will not negate private enterprise. Another is that the social disruption associated with ecological collapse will inevitably cause the powerful to lose their grip on both the economy and society as a whole. Thus, rational capitalists can likely be convinced that sustainability does not hurt their long-term interests, but instead safeguards them.
The young can also argue that the transition to a post-expansionary economy is an unavoidable adjustment to altered environmental conditions. Most capitalists understand that organisms must evolve in order to survive in the natural world, and that corporations must continually adjust their behavior in order to survive in the business world. Those who reject economic rationalization can thus be portrayed as individuals who lack Darwinian fitness and must be culled from the capitalist herd.
Shifting from arguments to direct actions, the most effective tactic for the young will be to vehemently protest the economy’s rampant expansion. This will require them to unflinchingly confront the realities of a capitalist economy and to propose a credible alternative. My conceptual framework, the Economics of Needs and Limits (ENL), is a possible starting point.
For students, pressure can be exerted through strikes. They could leave the classroom and refuse to return until decisive steps have been taken towards an ecologically relevant education. This includes a revamped curriculum that fully acknowledges the crisis, retrained teachers, and instructional methods that encourage independent thought rather than rote learning and high test scores.
Students should also follow the courageous example of climate scientist Kevin Anderson. He has publicly expressed his disgust with policy analysts who falsify climate numbers in order to satisfy their political masters. Students should likewise challenge teachers who present misleading environmental information or who offer ecologically fraudulent advice. They could also turn up the heat by disrupting school assemblies or sports events with banners, chants, walkouts, etc. A well-formulated message should accompany such actions so they cannot be dismissed as immature outbursts.
It must be candidly acknowledged that participating in revolt activities could imperil the education and careers of young people, and may well compromise their personal relationships. Such risks are inherent in any heroic project, but this does not make them any easier to bear. Let me therefore address the young directly and suggest lifestyle patterns to minimize their pain.
One possibility is to avoid having children. This is ecologically beneficial, diminishes future suffering, and allows you to avoid the associated expense, exhaustion, time consumption, and stress. If you nevertheless want to raise kids, consider doing so cooperatively with other individuals or couples. This could lead to modified family structures that reduce population levels.
Another significant lifestyle choice is to lower your material expectations. Many of your yearnings for a home, vacations, electronic toys, and stuff generally have been implanted by corporate marketing hucksters. To a large degree you can consciously reject these desires and seek satisfaction in a modest existence. The same can be said for the level of education to which you should aspire. My own view is that a well-chosen undergraduate degree is sufficient for all but the most specialized purposes.
To recap, humankind’s existential crisis is ecological overshoot, and the rational response is rapid impact reduction. The young, who have the most to lose from a degrading biosphere, have been manipulated into self-destructive passivity by people they trust. The youth ecological revolt aims to shatter this betrayal by exposing the manipulations and providing a workable strategy. The central feature of this strategy is to put intense pressure on rational capitalists to initiate rapid impact reduction.
The young should consider lifestyle choices that ease their personal burdens as they conduct the revolt and face the grim challenges of ecological decline.
Should you be squeamish about disrupting the status quo? Recall Thoreau’s wistful remark in the opening pages of Walden: “… if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”