The Green Gap

In the Cold War, we feared a Missile Gap was a strategic weakness. Nowadays, we must awaken to the fact that the Green Gap is true strategic weakness: the nations whose economies will thrive in the coming years will not be those with the biggest factories, but those with the most sustainable, efficient, and ecological markets. What we require is a Strategic "Green Reserve" of ecological design to weather the coming changes that both climate and resource scarcity will force on the international economy.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

An Open Letter to Mom and Dad

Dear mom and dad,

I love you guys. I really do. Though you didn't have a lot of money to start with, you kept us living more or less beyond our means in order to keep us kids in a positive environment. You made our meals, you kept us fed and clothed. You gave us good values: sharing, caring, and fairness. You gave us a respect for law and education. You gave us a love of diversity and fostered our circumspection about prejudice and hate. You elevated the ideals of selfless altruism and evil-conquering justice. It's for these reasons I feel there are a few things I need to tell you.

In order to talk about this stuff, I thought I'd talk a bit about history. Your history, in fact. To tell you the truth, I learned a lot about your history - but not necessarily from you (though you did give your own personal anecdotes). My life, and the lives of my co-generationists, were actually filled with endless reminders of your youth. As you know, I was born on the cusp of Generation X and Generation Why. We bore witness to the cultural and demographic domination of your generation over everything we did. You didn't and couldn't notice: you were and are part of the generation doing the dominating. You were simply doing what came natural to you. Being numerically and financially superior, the boomer generation was glacial in its force and staying power. I remember little things, like playing Trivial Pursuit, watching any sitcom on TV, listening to the nostalgic music of your youth constantly played on the radio... these activities were and are permeated with references and sensations that were known specifically to you. You should know this: the weight of demography has made us feel utterly without voice for decades.

This isn't some great "j'accuse". I'm just pointing out that we absorbed a lot about you, and that didn't leave a lot of room for us, at the time. Generation X never really found steady work. They were economically overshadowed by you guys because they were looking for jobs while you were in your working prime and stagflation still had its death grip on the economy of the western world. It was only when your generation started to retire, and Generation Why started becoming financially potent, that our culture started bubbling up. Nowadays, references to the boomers are diminishing as, more and more, my generation becomes the economic power on the planet and your generation starts to muse about retirement and think about buying that bungalow.

Some of us are kind of vicariously nostalgic about the past you had. You had your period of "sex, drugs, and rock n' roll". You had your flower children, your anti-war protests, your draft-dodgers, and your love-ins. Truth be told, many of us non-boomers still listen to and enjoy the Beatles; Rolling Stones; and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. A lot of us have dreamed of another "summer of love" to call our own, or a Woodstock, or a cause as deep and unifying as the anti-war movement, but every generation is different. We know what was important to you. We heard a lot about these things, but some of us have been forced to wonder if you've heard about what's important to us. In order to help you understand what's important to us, let me re-tell a bit about your history from the objective (ish) perspective of someone who didn't live through it.

You were well-meaning. With the coming of the "Age of Aquarius", the young, disenfranchised youth of your generation were poor and under the thumbs of rather authoritarian parents - many of whom had witnessed some real tough times. Your parents had lived through the dustbowl era, Fascism, and World War Two. These were not happy events, they were not even mildly discomforting events... these were hell. They came through all this into the after-war economic boom that gave them jobs, the opportunity to own a home, have an extended family, and bring their kids up in a peaceful environment. They went through experiences that may have affected their psychologies deeply. Most of all, perhaps, they exhibited two characteristics: they felt that their suffering helped build calm, stable, and peaceful society you lived in and eventually (in their eyes, ungratefully) chose to reject; and they defended their world order with conservatism and the rage of a damaged youth that had, for once, found some serenity. While I won't say that you yourselves upset this serenity, a lot of kids from your generation did. The peace movements your generation participated in, the drugs your generation enjoyed, and the lifestyle your generation attempted to flirt with, these were generally offensive to the established order.

And so it should have been. We respect that. There was a lot of wrong in that order. You stood up to it, and you achieved some great successes. You righted many wrongs that needed righting.

Going into the 70's, there came the birth – albeit painful - of a general understanding of how the world worked. Since your parents' generation was retiring, there were plenty of jobs for you, and finding work without an education was not a problem. Into this world where you found a new source of income came a shock: specifically, there were oil shocks. In 1973, your money went a lot less far than it used to. Your gas-guzzling land barge couldn't get enough miles to the gallon (it was still MPG then, mom - Trudeau had only just introduced metrication in 1970 and it didn’t take hold until the 80’s), and the west started to realise that a few countries in the middle east actually had us by the short-and-curlies. You had started a real job, you had just gotten into society, moved out, gotten married, and now there was this crisis... well, it's no wonder it took you so long to have me. You went into a work life under incredible stress - not only from the old order your parents still hadn't let go of, but from the fact that their order was now existing only as an hallucination in their own minds. You were entering a harsher reality that necessitated a change. It makes sense that the "back to the land" and "self-sufficiency" movements started in earnest in the 70's. It's no wonder fuel efficiency, methane digesters, the re-emergence of the homestead movement, rediscovery of vernacular house construction all reappeared. You started digging for solutions, and the solutions started to appear. 1979 and the fall of the Shah reinforced the idea that you needed to change the world. Something was wrong. You recognised that the way we were going was no longer sustainable.

But then, something happened. For reasons of expediency, I will simply remind you of the names Thatcher, Mulroney, and Reagan. I still remember you telling me, when I was a little boy and perhaps you thought me incapable of remembering, that “Ronald Reagan wanted to destroy the world”. The 70's were a somewhat frightening time, but they were full of promise, too. You were learning new ideas. Your flower child past told you that something had to be done to live with the earth, to live without taking more than we needed. Some of you thought we could wean ourselves off foreign gas imports. Well, modest efficiency improvements and the failure of many industries took its toll on oil demand and also oil prices: by 1986, the taps were open and less people were buying oil. Even in the midst of the period of stagflation, industry started slowly to pick up again. With oil prices so low, for so long, all of a sudden growth was possible. Oil was indispensible to that growth, and you became accustomed to that cheap oil.

For some reason, when the taps opened up, the advances of the 1970's were completely forgotten. Environmentalism was once again relegated to the closet reserved for the socialist predilections of youth. You advanced in your jobs, and your parents’ generational old guard shuffled off to retirement. You stayed in those jobs, too... so much so that a lot of our brothers and sisters in Generation X couldn't find steady work. The only way many could compete was to get one or more university degrees – something I know you may have resented when younger people with degrees stole your promotions - but there you have it. We are probably the most educated generations in the history of North America, and part of that drive came from the fact that we had to compete for jobs your generation held onto with an iron fist. You know it well: I’m the only person in the history of our family to get a university degree. Nowadays, it’s mandatory. There were layoffs and hiring freezes on many parts of the Government of Canada and the US through the 80's and 90's that reflected private sector freezes, such as that of Cognos in 1985. Many OECD nations had the same issues. That meant your generation filled the jobs you had and didn't let anyone else in until the tech boom of the 90's. That's when my generation went to University. Luckily I wasn't a full-fledged Gen-X-er, or I might not be doing as well as I am today (knock on wood). I got my degree and nosed my way into the job market, taking part-time jobs to bide time while something more long-term opened up. That took about two years.

The problem was that during this 15-year period in the 1980s and 1990s, you experienced an environment where leaving your job was not practicable, and very little new blood came in to make an orderly change in culture from the older to the newer – so culture froze with the hiring. Our generations didn’t have a voice because we were either pre-employment or working in the jobs your generation didn’t want to take. You worked to put food on the table, kept your head down, and did what you had to do to survive. All those fancies of your youth? They were impractical. Besides, once the locks came off your salaries in the later 90's and the world started booming again, those fancies became more the nostalgia of a youth well-spent rather than the reality of the here and now. You certainly reflect on those periods often - in movies, song, and Jeopardy trivia. Up until just recently, I must admit to thinking most forms of entertainment in North America were simply boomer fan-service products. Now, your grip is slowly loosening. The culture that had kept you your job, though, had paid off. You became the old guard - OUR old guard. Your culture firmly entrenched from well before we arrived on the scene in numbers. For a long time, our culture simply didn’t stand a chance. Many of your generation think we Gen X and Gen Why’ers are apathetic and uninterested in political change – or even politics itself for that matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are interested in change, but we are being crushed underneath a demographic boulder that is the boomer generation. We can’t change anything as long as you guys keep thinking in the old economic mode and keep voting for the same people. We are accustomed to our vote being worthless because it can’t overcome yours, no matter how hard we try… so many of us don’t bother.

And now, after the past 10 years of economic upheaval (2000-now), you are - perhaps - wondering what happened. Perhaps not. You've come to the end of your working lives, and many of your friends have a nice retirement to fall back on. Your days of being concerned about the world are more or less over. The next issues for you are going to be keeping fit and healthy, eating right, and enjoying the occasional visit to your grandchildren. But there's a problem. Mom, dad, the path you didn't travel back in the 70's and early 80's - it's coming back to haunt us again. I don't want to sound rude, but someone has to say this directly or it just won't stick: there is a reason the boomers are called the "me" generation. During your lifetimes, the oil production of all oil-producing countries has already more than likely peaked. You have been the beneficiaries, at the expense of an entire generation, of a great deal of corporate largesse that no longer exists. The path not travelled - that of sustainability and living within our means - is now staring us in the face as the only path with a future. The choices you made - and failed to make - have doomed your children to clean up your mess. Oprah is still preaching to the Cult of Taking Care of Number One, and many of your generation are still listening.

The fact is that you, and your generation, have to hear this from us: your kids. We're just starting out now. Your grandkids are just being born. We are in that same precarious place you were in the mid-70s trying to get your financial bearings. We're going into an economic crisis that makes the 80's look like a minor blip on the line graph of economic history. We're running out of fuel. We're running out of food. There is only one thing I can guarantee you: your generation has made certain that your grandchildren will lead very, very uncomfortable lives unless something is done now. I know you have always protected and taken care of us, and for that you have my unflagging respect, love, and loyalty - but now I have children. Not even you are more important than they are, and your choices might harm them irrevocably. If that comes to pass, I must admit, I will not be able to forgive your generation, ever. I'm sorry, as much as I love you, these are my children. It would be them, not you, who would bear the future punishment for your generation’s failure to act now.

Unless something changes - and by something, I only partly mean you - we are headed for difficult times. Ordinarily I wouldn't come out and say this. I hate doomsayers. They are typically wrong. I would very much like to be wrong, too, but the signs are there for all to see. I lived through the food shocks in Sri Lanka. China, wher I live now, is about to have a food shock of its own. Everyone is having oil shocks. Housing prices are rising faster than inflation, and the younger generations are being priced out of living space. Food is going to become more costly, as petroleum-based fertilisers become more expensive to make and ship, pesticides are reducing yields. Soil productivity is dropping even with all the power of the green revolution’s technology (and sometimes because of it). Coffee and cocoa are just the tip of the iceberg. The people who grow these cash crops are going hungry… precisely because they are growing cash crops and depending on the big breadbaskets to produce their staples. I know it sounds weird, mom and dad, but the third world countries that produce tea, coffee, sugar… all those cash crops… they don’t actually produce enough food for their own populations to eat. When I was in Sri Lanka, the only nation in the region with a rice surplus was Thailand, and the rest of the region literally went begging. We’re one of the breadbaskets that produce ample staples, but if we start going without, our governments will hold back grain exports, just like Moscow did after the fires last year. We will do well for a little while longer on the strength of our industrial food output, and the third-world cash-croppers will starve as they make the painful and difficult shift from cash to staple crops. In the end, there will still be scarcity, and scarcity means higher prices. Higher prices means I pay more for my kids’ food and I have less left over for mortgage payments. Or I pay my mortgage and my kids eat a bit less. The old paradigm - which is leading into the "new normal" -  will end one way or another. Ending it mindfully, consciously, and conscientiously will be less painful than letting it end on its own.

We're at a historical tipping point. There is still time to do something about it, but the job of my generation now is to force you to care. We've got to snap you out of this late-life reverie of a paradisiacal post-employment existence in the south of France, sipping wine. The economic system is buckling. If we keep thinking of things in the terms of well-worn economic adages (you know, the same theories that said such a thing as stagflation couldn't exist - the same stagflation you lived through?) we will keep getting the same economic results. We need a change. We need you to wake up that dormant war-resisting flower child. We need to pull the cobwebs off your sleeping inner homesteader. Didn't you notice that the American boomers - the ones who grew up as flower children - were the same parents who proudly sent their kids off to war in the Middle East?

Didn't that raise any alarm bells with you? How could the boomers have so forgotten their past that they support the activities they once decried? That revolutionary youth you once were, was he or she right to believe peace and understanding were better than blind consumerism and resource conflicts? Do you remember how that youth thought?

Bring all the old memories back, mom and dad! Bring out your civil rights protester. Bring out your peacenik. Bring back the spirit of your youth. We need you now. We need your numbers to bring sanity back to our civil discourse. We need to start thinking about how to build a sustainable future - not how to buy a motorhome. Get out and vote with your feet. If you aren't with us, we may miss our window of opportunity. It's possible to make change. You did it once before. I believe in you. I love you. Come with us.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with us baby boomers making mistakes to make the world the way it is now, has not been TOTALLY the fault of the baby boomers that the world is in the state it is in. everyone and every generation is contributing in an ongoing fashion along with the continuing changes of the universe that the baby boomers have no control over. It is our responsibility as residents of this earth of all generations to all contribute to the positive change in an ongoing fashion. Blaming others is not going to help anything. what's done is done, you can't get back time. Move ahead and plan what we can to make positive change. We would not be alive without previous generations. ):