Our Millennial Destiny

This is Part 5 of the Sustainable America series.

It’s been said that millennials are special. As a millennial myself, I agree with this. We have new ideas, new habits, new expectations. But it bothers me when the media paints us as this selfish, callow, directionally-aimless horde of underemployed social media addicts that live with our parents and hop from career to career. Way to crush our spirit, news media. It’s no wonder that most millennials don’t even prefer being called “millennials” at all. We don’t consider ourselves patriotic, moral, politically active, or responsible. But in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Crucially, millennials demonstrate exceptional interest in one thing above all other generations: climate change. If you want to look for something positive in the millennial generation, this is where the answer lies. Millennials may even be the answer we’ve been looking for all along.

For decades, the older generations of the world have been looking for a solution to climate change, a problem largely caused by their own behaviors. Baby boomers in particular have driven, due to their sheer size, an enormous increase in consumption, leading to an accelerating rate of resource depletion and fossil fuel burning. Over the course of my father’s lifetime, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 40%, and the global wildlife population has halved. Humans, once numbering at 2.5 billion in 1950, now comprise 7.5 billion people, a 300% increase that has devastated the globe. It’s into this picture that the millennial generation was born, at a time when the older generations were increasingly aware of the environmental degradation they had caused, and worried that the future wouldn’t be a viable place for their children. It’s no wonder that young people care so much about climate change: it’s about us, and it will affect us more than anyone.

Unfortunately for us millennials, the solution to climate change has remained an elusive achievement for these older generations. They were supposed to save us from their own mistakes! Instead, they’ve been talking our entire lives, and climate change has gotten so much worse. Meanwhile, we kids have grown up with global warming an established fact, and with every year getting hotter than the last, it’s pretty clear to us that nothing has been done about the problem.

The good news is, we aren’t kids anymore! We don’t have to let our parents make the rules for us. We can decide for ourselves what kind of world we’re going to live in, one that doesn’t have to be defined by the mistakes of our parents. This is why our generation’s concern for climate change is so important — if our parents aren’t going to come to our rescue, then it’s up to us. It is literally do or die, because if we don’t solve climate change, we’re in for some desperate times. Projections indicate global temperatures will rise several degrees within our lifetimes, which will devastate our civilization with associated climate impacts. But only if we millennials let it happen.

The older generations have tried and failed to solve this problem, and their failure will be our failure if we don’t pick up their slack. Carbon stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and the global warming caused by it will affect the climate for a hundred thousand years more. This is more than just a scientific issue; it’s the defining fact of the rest of human civilization. History will remember these years, and the people who lived in them, for having made the future what it will be. Millennials have been born at this unique moment in history, and it is now our charge — perhaps even our destiny — to solve this problem before it’s too late.

This is why the “millennial” label to me seems so perfect: the next thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand years of life on Planet Earth depend on what our generation will do with this opportunity. We will either be celebrated for saving the future, or condemned for turning our backs on it. But despite what the media says about us, there are so many positive trends about our generation that, according to indications, are poised to disrupt everything we take for granted about how our society works. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we might just disrupt it for the better.

Consider, for example, one simple fact: millennials number 75 million Americans, now a larger demographic than the baby boomers. If we all vote, we will be the largest portion of the electorate by a wide margin. Nine out of ten millennials are concerned about climate change, and we’re looking for the solution our parents could never provide. There is a clear opportunity to leverage politics to this end, voting for candidates that support a sustainability agenda, and running for public office ourselves. With so many millennials on board with climate action, and a growing 70% majority of Americans who care about climate, a political agenda with sustainability at its center is poised for widespread support.

While older generations continue to argue about whether or not climate change is worth dealing with, a consensus has been reached without them. Politicians consider climate a divisive topic, and it was notably absent from the 2016 presidential campaigns of major candidates. The GOP in particular has been perceived as anti-science and allergic to climate reality. What these politicians seem to be missing, however, is that young conservatives are pleading with party elders to pay more attention to the climate issue. The number of organizations that cater to conservatives interested in climate change has increased dramatically in recent years, like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, which emphasizes the moral responsibility of phasing out fossil fuels. Young people are leading the dialogue on climate change, and not even the Republican Party will be able to deny the truth for long.

There are welcome signs that these efforts have been paying off. In the US House of Representatives, the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus has been adding members from both sides of the aisle, now boasting 17 Republicans working with 17 Democrats to take decisive action to reduce climate risk and impacts. Whereas the past decade of American politics has been marked by unprecedented gridlock and partisan polarization, solving climate change could be the issue that unites the parties in mutual cooperation. The thaw is inevitable; after all, Americans everywhere are feeling the extreme heat, and millennials in particular are demanding a solution.

While the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 may have felt like a huge political setback for the climate — and it was, given his deconstruction of the Environmental Protection Agency, and his suite of executive actions to undermine pollution regulations — it has actually had a surprising effect on the environmental community. In just the few months since Trump assumed the White House, the climate justice movement has galvanized like never before, united with all groups threatened or insulted by Trump. Protests have sprung up weekly, and millennials in particular have been more politically engaged since his election. This is a natural consequence of our demographics: we are the most diverse generation in American history, and Trump opposes diversity and racial understanding. His inflammatory remarks have angered so many of us that we cannot sit in silence. Taking to the streets is quickly becoming our national pastime, and that sort of political activism is a fertile landscape for new ideas to take root.

The 2016 election also demonstrated that many millennials are disengaged with the politics as usual of our two-party system. Young adults in the last election were more likely to identify as liberals, but not as likely to consider themselves Democrats. Meanwhile, only a third of millennials hold the GOP in a favorable light. This shows that young people remain unconvinced that the two standard parties are speaking to what matters to us, and they haven’t convinced us that they’re deserving of our loyalty. This is most apparent in Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the Democratic primaries, rallying millions of young people and speaking to a new political paradigm that the old order of things isn’t going to stick around for much longer. More importantly, it can’t stick around much longer if climate change is going to be solved, for political reality thus far has precluded necessary action from gaining wide support.

This means that millennials are seeking a third way: we don’t want to be shoehorned into one of two inadequate political parties operating in an inadequate political system. We don’t identify as Democrat or Republican as much as our forebears, and the one thing we do agree on — the need for climate action — transcends these labels. The third way we’re seeking isn’t necessarily liberal or conservative, but sustainable above all else.

One of the most promising recent developments in this shifting political landscape is the Sunrise Movement: a youth-led organization committed to ending the political influence of climate polluters, and building in their place a new people’s government in the name of sustainability. Sunrise has a four-year plan to promote candidates for office in politically-important contests across the country. This initiative will chart a new course for American politics, a sustainably-focused, youth-driven movement, a millennial movement.

Beyond the political inroads millennials are starting to make, we also live our lives very differently than generations before us. We are digital natives, and are constantly connected to one another through social media. This has allowed us to build movements with a global reach, and enabled larger turnouts at spontaneous meetups and protests. Social media in particular has partly driven this explosion in organized demonstration, and has opened a new landscape for political activism.

We also have a lot less money to spend than older generations, thanks to dismal job prospects and low pay coupled with insane student debt. This is why we have deferred many major life milestones, like marriage, buying a house, and raising children, all of which is quite expensive. Because of our lack of money, we’ve spent less of it on things we don’t really need: cars, for instance. Millennials are more interested in access than ownership, which is why ridesharing has risen in recent years, and the sharing economy has allowed fewer goods to be used by a lot more people, reducing the need to produce more of it to meet demand. According to economist Jeremy Rifkin, car ownership will be an anomaly 25 years from now. If self-driving technology continues apace, the entire automotive industry will be transformed, with all indications pointing to a reduced environmental impact as a result.

Our consumption habits alone will go a long way toward reshaping our society, but millennials will solve climate change given our personal connection to the subject. Many of us have experienced dramatic environmental changes in our lifetimes, and for some reason we’re more likely to notice it than our parents. My father has been around for twice as many years as I have, and the climate has shifted substantially in that time, but he hasn’t noticed it quite like I have in my much fewer years. I remember when, growing up, the snow in my driveway would pile up to twice my height. I’ve grown since then, so the benchmark is different, but I’ve watched the snows grow smaller each year. The winter is nowhere near as harsh as it was in my childhood, and it feels like my home has changed a lot. There’s a word for this: solastalgia, distress caused by environmental change, and it’s something more and more millennials are feeling every day.

As Washington Governor Jay Inslee said, “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.” Climate change was always an issue of future generations, until those future generations came of age. We millennials are the first such generation to come of age. Unlike what has beleaguered other generations who have sought to solve the issue, climate change doesn’t divide millennials; it unites us in a special way, and millennials are more united about it than ever before. The time is now to make something of it.

So yes, millennials are special, special in that we’ve been handed the perfect opportunity to take ownership over our future. The older generations have tried to enact the necessary change, and they haven’t worked fast enough. The future is now in our hands, and if we want to do anything with it, we need to act now to save it. Given our position in human history, millennials have a singular purpose: we must save the world from climate change. We’re already doing it every day, and once we rally around this objective as a generation, not even Trump will be able to stop us. I can’t think of anything more patriotic, politically engaged, or morally responsible than that. The future is millennial, and millennials have a destiny, a destiny that will guarantee humanity a future for millennia to come.