Youth Have the Moral Authority

It has been an adjustment for me to become involved in a movement that is emphatically youth led and made up of thousands of young people.

But I have tried for decades to get adults to come to grips with the realities and consequences of environmental destruction, especially from fossil fuel mining and use. Obviously I haven’t been effective. We have failed our youth. Why would they look to us for help now? Bill McKibben’s article in the New Yorker yesterday, “the Hard Lessons of Dianne Feinstein’s Encounter with the Young Green New Deal Activists” expresses this very well, as he writes about the encounter with Senator Diane Feinstein and the Sunrise Movement recently:

Feinstein responds, “You know what’s interesting about this group? I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected, I just ran, I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality,” she continued. “And I know what I’m doing. So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.”

Well, maybe. But Feinstein was, in fact, demonstrating why climate change exemplifies an issue on which older people should listen to the young. Because—to put it bluntly—older generations will be dead before the worst of it hits. The kids whom Feinstein was talking to are going to be dealing with climate chaos for the rest of their lives, as any Californian who has lived through the past few years of drought, flood, and fire must recognize.

This means that youth carry the moral authority here, and, at the very least, should be treated with the solicitousness due a generation that older ones have managed to screw over.

“The Hard Lessons of Dianne Feinstein’s Encounter with the Young Green New Deal Activists” by Bill McKibben, New Yorker, 2/23/2019

McKibben goes on to describe why asking for a Green New Deal is not like asking for some incremental change in policy, rather it is probably our only hope for addressing the scale of the changes needed to get us off fossil fuel before it’s too late (if it isn’t already).

This smugness stings—although, of course, it stings far less than the climate denialism emanating from the White House. But that’s not really the problem. The problem is that, even if you give Feinstein every benefit of the doubt, her response illustrates the fix we’re in. Later Friday evening, Feinstein’s aides released portions of her proposal, and on first view they appear to be warmed-over versions of Obama-era environmental policy: respect for the Paris climate accord, a commitment to a mid-century conversion to renewable energy.

It’s not that these things are wrong. It’s that they are insufficient, impossibly so. Not insufficient—and here’s the important point—to meet the demands of hopelessly idealistic youth but because of the point that the kids were trying to make, which is that the passage of time is changing the calculations around climate change.


“The Hard Lessons of Dianne Feinstein’s Encounter with the Young Green New Deal Activists” by Bill McKibben, New Yorker, 2/23/2019

McKibben ends by saying the same thing I’ve been trying to say, which is the role of us who are no longer young should be “to have the backs of the young”. So I encourage us all to seek out youth, and listen to what they say, and support them as they lead the way. A good place to learn about this is from the Sunrise Movement (that the youth who encountered Sen. Feinstein belong to). https://www.sunrisemovement.org/

“You didn’t vote for me,” Feinstein said to one of the young people in her office. Which was true, because the girl in question is sixteen. In our reigning political calculus, that makes her powerless—she can’t vote and she doesn’t have money to give. But that calculus must shift; the job of older people, at this late date, is to have the backs of the young. We have skills to bring to the task: Feinstein has amassed a career’s worth of legislative savvy, and she can put it to good use here; Ocasio-Cortez could doubtless use the help. But, having blown our chance at leading, it’s time for those of us of a certain age to follow, with all the grace that we can still muster.

“The Hard Lessons of Dianne Feinstein’s Encounter with the Young Green New Deal Activists” by Bill McKibben, New Yorker, 2/23/2019
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