Is it ethical to burden future generations with the environmental mess this generation created?
From a Jewish perspective, the answer is no. We’re constantly reminded about passing this world from generation to generation (dor l’dor). It’s almost inconceivable that we’d dump our mess on our children to pay for and clean up. Torah and Talmud are packed with admonitions and commandments to take responsibility for our present actions, that we may guarantee clean relationships and a healthy world for future generations.
But recent Pew Research polling indicates that majorities of older “Boomers” and “Silents” resist acknowledging climate change and taking actions to manage it. Majorities of Millenials, Gen Xers and younger Boomers, on the other hand, are not only aware of the challenges, they want to get them handled (Millennials are 18 to 30; GenXers are 31 to 46; Baby Boomers are 47 to 65; and Silents are 66-plus).
And so we set up an intergenerational conflict that’s impeding our progress toward solutions. As the global population reached 7 billion on October 31, 2011, global birth rates were actually declining. As fewer babies were born, more grown-ups were not dying, thanks to centuries of advances in nutrition, sanitation and medicine. Overall, Earth’s human population is getting older. And they’re facing three serious challenges:
1) An exponentially growing population is creating worldwide environmental crises;
2) Intergenerational friction is blocking movement toward solutions; and
3) Current theories and institutions are not designed to meet these challenges.
Conservative, older Boomers and Silents primarily lead our countries and institutions today. Often misinformed about environmental issues, jostled by competing interests, and overwhelmed by the scale of the environmental challenges, they’re often unwilling to take bold actions. Rather, they settle for desperate, stopgap measures to mollify constituents and ameliorate the worst of environmental impacts. By advocating “safe” nuclear and “clean” coal, GMO foods and geo-engineering, they dump the root problems on future generations to solve.
So the challenge for younger citizens is how to get action on issues their elderly “leaders” find discomfiting or unpopular. The answer: Revolutionize conventional wisdom. This ability appears to be wired into Jewish DNA. It’s Moses using signs and wonders to free the Hebrews from Pharaoh, and then lead them for 40 years in the wilderness; Theodore Herzl implementing the modern Jewish homeland; Samuel Gompers helping to create America’s trade unions; Alisa Gravitz co-founding America’s biggest “green” business co-operative; Mark Zuckerberg co-creating Facebook. Now, Jeremy Rifkin is helping facilitate the “third Industrial Revolution,” which is replacing the world’s current structure of secretive, tribal, patriarchal hierarchies into transparent, new, laterally organized, egalitarian models.
“The great economic revolutions in history occur when new communication technologies converge with new energy systems,” Rifkin says. In this case, the Internet is combining with global commerce and renewable energy to create such innovations as Amazon.com, Wikipedia, YouTube, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.
Rifkin outlines five “pillars” of the third Industrial Revolution:
Renewable energy growth, movement away from centralized power plants toward energy generation distributed among all buildings everywhere, deployment of hydrogen and other storage technologies, transformation of every continent’s power grid into Internet-based, energy-sharing intergrids, and transitioning our transport fleet to electric and renewable power sources.
The challenges we face today may be huge, but they’re surmountable. We can feed 7 billion people and preserve the planet’s abundant fresh water — by minimizing centralized, industrial meat and agriculture production and maximizing organic, local and regional grain, fruit and vegetable production. We can shift entirely away from fossil fuel use and pollution to renewable energy by building worldwide energy efficiency. And we can create millions of good-paying jobs in the process.
We needn’t reinvent the wheel or
eliminate conservative old folk to do this. Like Honest Tea co-founders Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff, we need only create, rethink and/or join initiatives that offer widespread benefits: In this case, reducing obesity- and diabetes-causing sugar from bottled beverages. Pretty soon, people you may not have expected — in this case, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper-Snapple, Kraft’s Capri Sun and others — will join you.
When Israelites first appeared circa 1700 BCE, historians estimate that about 35 million people lived on earth and life expectancy was just over 30 years. Outside of The Flood, there had never been a “global climate crisis.” That hadn’t changed by 1800, when human population reached a billion, and average lifespan was nearly 40 years. But by 1974, when human population reached 2 billion, environmental crises were standard fare. They got worse as population hit 4 billion in 1999, and they promise to worsen as we reach 8 billion by 2025.
Letting things get worse is not a promise we must keep. We’ve got a more important promise to keep instead: That we won’t leave our mess for the next generation to clean up.