Walk the dog. Grab brunch. Change history.
Is that how it works? Can changing history be accomplished just by showing up someplace on a Sunday afternoon?
Twentysomethings like me were raised to believe that we can change the world. All-school assemblies, motivational movies, and a cultural mantra repeated by parents, teachers, politicians and the media told us that we, the Youth of America, are in fact capable of changing the world, we just have to want it badly enough and be willing to work for it.
So we got to work. We did everything we were supposed to; we did our homework, played three seasons of sports, volunteered at the local soup kitchen, adopted the family pet from a shelter, and studied for the SATs. We got admirable grade point averages in college, and then, just as we were ready to reap our reward in the great world and assume the types of jobs our parents had held and we always assumed we’d have, the world fell out from under us.
Millenials, the generation that was told, “you can change the world,” spent their final formative years watching huge tracts of it literally and figuratively melt. We are the ones raised in the shadow of Columbine, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and as we set out to become independent adults we met Inconvenient Truth, Katrina, and Lehman, Occupy, and Arab Spring.
All of the sudden the privilege of “changing the world” became the responsibility to not let it disintegrate completely. In addition to forging our way in our respective professional fields, we are now the ones who have to contend with the enormous concept of sustaining human existence on earth as we know it.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live through the dropping of the first atomic bomb or the trenches of WWI or the Dust Bowl or slavery or the Boston Tea Party or the Black Plague. Not many times in history have been easy times (except maybe the 90s in America, when we were all raised), but even during all the tumultuously stressful wars and upheavals of history, no one worried about oceans rising up to swallow cities or plants shriveling unpollinated because humanity had wiped out bees. Winter in 1812 was rough, but it was winter, and no one worried that it might be the last time they saw snow.
We’re the ones who did our homework and studied for the SATs; we don’t think Climate Change is a hoax precisely because we know how to be discerning in our interpretation of data and we see that this is the real deal. But what then? We’re still supposed to check all the cultural boxes of being employed, paying taxes, listing a permanent address on those taxes, setting up a joint bank account and getting a mortgage when we get married, and voting every November. We’re supposed to be responsible citizens, but we’re also the generation whose delusions of changing the world have forcibly been replaced with the urgent task of making sure the very habitat in which we exist doesn’t disintegrate.
What the hell are we supposed to do?
For Millennials, the demographic at which that subway advertisement for the September 21st People’s Climate March in NYC was directed, the idea of accomplishing something without actually doing anything is extremely attractive.
We’re working 60 hours a week (on a good week) just to take care of all those cultural boxes and indulge in eating an expensive omelet with friends every Sunday. We’ve been working hard since we made honor roll in 5th grade. But working hard isn’t enough, because we know we’re also supposed to change the world, and reports of disappearing lakes in Kazakhstan are barbs of reminders that we really should be doing something about that.
But what can we do? When the problem is bigger than any war or plague or election, what do we do about it in the few hours we have leftover every week?
After brunch and a walk with the dog, maybe we can show up somewhere with several hundred thousand other people and that can constitute a meaningful action. We can’t be sure, but at least trying makes us feel better. At least it’s something.
We could go out and reclaim a vacant lot and start a community garden and sweat and get dirty and do, but does that get us any closer to saving anything either?
Fellow Millennial Eric Roseman cites examples of twentysomethings being particularly jazzed about sustainable investments. The idea that our money can do one thing while we do something else is a particularly exciting solution to the problem of how to we stay afloat as individuals taking care of our own ducks while tending to the responsibility to make sure the world doesn’t fall apart.
I’m trying to reconcile this idea of lazy change-sans-actual-action with labor intensive coffee farming and farmers who make change happen tree by tree, sack by sack, shovelful by shovelful. Is “change” the product of toil or strategic chess moves and power plays?
Some problems need manpower to be fixed; others require money. The problem of a world floundering in environmental unpredictability probably requires equal parts of both, but nothing in today’s world ticks without some funding, so that might have to come first.
Climate and air and water and temperature do not have borders, so contending with them will take entities that are as borderless as the weather: businesses. Really, probably the most surefire way to save our world is to be the CEO of DuPont or Dow or BASF or Bayer. And to get to those positions you will probably have to work 80 hours per week, which doesn’t leave you much time for dogs, brunch, or marches, and certainly not enough to have a garden.