A Call to Our Elders

Our youth are raising their voices; they are speaking the truth of their hearts grounded in the validity of science; they are the future of human life embodying its right to a livable planet.  

Last week from England to China, from South Africa to Denmark, over 1.6 million youth organized in 122 countries to march for their lives and the health and well being of future generations [1].  An elder I know recently said, “thank god they didn’t let school get in the way of their education.” After all, many of their signs read, “what good is school on a dead planet”?   

Yes, the youth are rising and are calling for action; the question now is--what will be the response of our leadership, which is primarily composed of individuals 55 and older? Of course, it is all of our jobs to respond to the youth in the form of action that can help us avert the most severe consequences of climate change.  As the father of a three-year-old, I’m doing all I can to support the changes needed; I’m avoiding single use plastic whenever possible, eating less meat, and using my privilege to influence change to the best of my ability. However, my leverage as a conscious consumer, writer, educator, and activist along with the reach of many of my peers in their 30’s and 40’s is not as vast as those in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  

When it comes to the age groups that sit closest to the levers of power in this country and world, it is without a doubt, those 55 and older. In the federal political landscape, a 2018 study done by Quorum found that the average age in Congress was 57 and the average age in the Senate was 61 [2].  In terms of the average age in the board rooms of influential companies, a 2017 study found that 80% of the S&P 500 boards have an age range average in their 60s [3], and for CEO’s of fortune 500 companies the average age is around 58 [4].  Additionally, the fastest growing age groups in America are those over 65 [5].    

The power held by older generations both, financially and politically, means that they also have the most significant ability to respond to the challenges of our time and hence they hold the most responsibility. Therefore, the question then becomes: what will they do about it?  How will they use their power and privilege to respond to the fact that we only have 11 years left to reduce carbon emissions enough to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change that will accompany a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature [6]?  As the writer and mythologist Michael Meade, said, in his recent podcast titled, Olders, Elders and the Gap in Power: “we don’t have time for a revolution, and we don’t have time for evolution” [7].  Meaning we don’t have time to wait around for the older generations to pass, we need them now, our children need them now, and the future of human life on this planet, as we know it, needs them now.  

In the same podcast, Meade explores the concept of olders vs. elders.  In ancient cultures, elders deserve respect not merely because they have survived into old age but because, out of their authentic engagement with life, they actualized a type of visionary wisdom which then becomes utilized in service to the greater good of the culture later in life.  Olders on the other hand, live to old age, but they do not necessarily cultivate the wisdom, understanding, and vision, that serves the larger collective.  Olders, as Meade describes, remain in service to themselves and the status quo, whereas elders, use their vision informed by their authentic wisdom to stand up to the status quo in service to life and the health and well being of future generations [6].  

It’s no surprise that the modern system we live within today is built to manufacture olders and banish the elders.  As noted above, olders can be identified by their attachment to the status quo.  They defend against systemic change by labeling it as impractical, naïve, and or idealistic. Their style of leadership is void of vision and wisdom and in turn is meant to serve business as usual.   The ineffectiveness of our older leaders in dealing with climate change is a perfect example of such leadership. 

With the recent addition of younger blood into Congress there is finally a proposal through the Green New Deal to enact the changes needed to effectively deal with climate change.  Surprisingly the plan is supported by 81% of registered voters, and has 57% support from self-identified “Conservative Republicans” [8]. Not surprisingly, the older leadership in both parties dismisses the plan as impractical. Meanwhile, what is truly impractical are the growing number of climate induced fires, floods, and mass-migrations, with the promise of resource wars around the corner; which for every day of inaction on climate we raise the odds of our children having to live through in the coming decades.  Older-style leadership, is of course not limited to politics, and can be found across nearly every major sector of our society.  

In a country largely run by olders, in which many demonstrate more allegiance to the health and well being of a fossil fuel based economy than to the health and well-being of future generations, one naturally struggles to find any kind of hope.  I write these words because writing is one of the few actions that fall within my ability to respond to this crisis; therefore I see it as my responsibility to write.  Additionally, the action of my response, I find, is the only way to keep the feeling of hopelessness at bay.  

Ultimately, I offer these words as a prayer of sorts, an invitation; a call to our olders who might yet still be elders.  I seek to call you out AND call you into a deeper expression of meaning, purpose, and service with the time you have left.  What comes to me in the silence between these words is a reminder that many of you who hold power today were among the generation that bucked the status quo in the 1960s; a generation that had a belief, and more importantly a vision of a more just, beautiful, and caring world.  Though that period of time carried great division and tumult, it also clearly held a powerful spirit of hope and possibility. However, with the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, followed later by Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, both in 68, along with the ongoing wars at home (culturally) and abroad in Vietnam, that once bright light of hope for many was shattered by the reality of the systems grip.  I imagine that for many, due to burn out and the growing responsibilities of adulthood, that it became easier to join the system with the hope of changing it from the inside than to continue fighting it from the outside. 

Here we are today, 51 years after the death of MLK and RFK and once again, the youth are taking to the streets with dreams and visions of a more beautiful world.  A world where school shootings, police shootings, and terrorist shootings, are a thing of the past; a world where we align our energy with the sun, wind, and water, making oil wars and fracked gas a cringe-worthy memory.  A world run by elders wise enough to recognize the vision of our youth and humble enough to work with them in partnership to anchor that vision into reality.  

I didn’t start this piece with hope but I do end with it.  First, I honor all the elders that ARE alive and well in our world today, I see you, we see you, and we thank you for the thankless and at times brutal task of remaining authentic, of not selling out your morals, values, and vision for the highest salary and job title.  Your energy, love, support, and beauty, continues to be nourishment to all those you touch.

And to the olders out there, I choose to believe in who you once were and who you could still become.  I believe in the parts of yourself that you have been forced to tuck away, oppress, hide, and ignore to survive in a cutthroat system for decades.  My prayer for you today is one of remembrance.  Re-memberance not in the sense of recollection but in the sense of re-establishing a connection to your authentic self, your whole self; the self of vision, of compassion, of wisdom, of soul; the self that knows the inter-relationship it shares with the past, the future, and all living beings.  The self that acts not solely for the benefit of oneself and one's family but for the health and well being of the whole of humanity and the larger living systems of which we are kin.  Such action is what shapes a true legacy.  Such action defines what it means to be an elder and what it means to be an ancestor worthy of the love and respect of future generations.  


Endnotes 

[1] http://time.com/5554775/youth-school-climate-change-strike-action/

[2] https://www.quorum.us/data-driven-insights/the-115th-congress-is-among-the-oldest-in-history/175/

[3] https://home.kpmg/jm/en/home/insights/2017/03/age-diversity-within-boards-of-directors-of-the-s-p-500-companie.html

[4] Para 5. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2016/04/19/older-ceos-issue-knowing-when-bow-out/83114728/

[5] http://www.transgenerational.org/aging/demographics.htm

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-45678338

[7] https://www.livingmyth.org/living-myth-podcast-114-olders-elders-and-the-gap-in-power

[8] https://www.newsweek.com/green-new-deal-poll-conservative-republicans-climate-change-denial-alexandria-1264117