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Pluck and Realism

by Christa Wagner

November 5,2006

A couple of months ago Vanity Fair ran the winning essay from an annual contest they sponsor. The prompt asked what, if anything, is on the minds of today’s young people. The selected piece, titled “Another Feitelberg Against the War,” by 34-year-old Brooklyn lawyer Deirdre Sullivan, catalogues examples of so much wasted youth, a generation that’s more or less dumb, fat and happy. So much to define us, we are defined by nothing. But, she concludes, at least we have “pluck and realism and we do have Coke.”

My fervent hope is that all of our tongue-in-cheek self-awareness will indeed be plucky enough to recognize and respond to what can be the defining issue of our generation. As easy as the nurturing arms of our nice, corporate friends like Coke and Apple make it to ignore, our generation does have a bogeyman to combat: global climate change.

If our generation has no obvious common purpose, then this is one. If our generation is spoiled by technology and a buoyant economy and a war being fought by someone else, but we’re not so naïve that we don’t recognize our great privilege – then this is our chance.

Sullivan continues: “Not particularly optimistic (as our 60s-era parents were), nor particularly well equipped to deal with hardship (as our grandparents were), we have learned history’s lessons about the way things really work, yet have no real need to put that knowledge toward any great cause. Oh, sure, we have plenty of promise, but, as yet, haven’t been given a screen to project it on.”

Well, I want my history to be written by the effort I made – literally – to save the planet.

Still, a lot of people would agree with Sullivan. At a dinner I recently attended, a friend remarked that when he was a kid the threat of nuclear war and the use of nuclear power made a big, scary impression on him. But, he thinks, there’s nothing equally compelling to his children, ages 8 and 10. Fifteen years from now he’s not sure what they will say defined their youth. And yet…

The scary stuff is out there. But, as Deirdre Sullivan points out so well, we’re content enough with our own lives and concerns that it comes as a shock should we be called up to “suffer because of [our] moment in history.”

If the “climate activists” on college campuses are any indication, though, the kids these days are alright. They have figured out that “environmentalist” is a non-starter and “liberal” is a curse word. But “climate activist” is gritty and it holds real promise. These kids are different from the first waves of enviros because now they’re dealing with one issue that trumps all the rest. The environmental movement is also less reactive – to burning rivers and acid rain- and more proactive. Now we’re creating a new energy future. Now, if we can figure out how to address global warming, then all of the other issues will get fixed, too.

If we solve the problem of global warming, environmental benefits like cleaner air and water and keeping the mountains of West Virginia standing are just the beginning. Getting climate-altering pollutants out of the atmosphere is eminently practical: we can use less energy and get the same or better result. Amory Lovins, the nation’s foremost expert on energy efficiency, estimates that the astonishing $220 billion America spends each year on electricity could be easily cut in half – and the upgrades would pay for themselves in a year. The Millennium Generation’s cause célèbre should be finding the economic opportunity in stopping global warming.

Whenever I travel for my job, I leave my car at my parents’ house. While I’m away a mysterious “cleaning gnome” gets to work on the coffee splattered floorboards, the grime-caked windows and the piles of newspaper and water bottles I intend to recycle. It occurs to me that I am too old for my parents to be cleaning up after me. But, looking at the big picture, it seems unfair that I’m part of a generation that has to clean up after its parents. And yet, somebody will have to do it. And with pluck and realism, that somebody can be me.

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