Are the Elderly Relevant to Futurism? 

As Viridian green fades to grey 

We are an avant-garde that is specifically interested in OLD PEOPLE. If anyone should be galvanized with guilt over [global warming], it’s guys who have been driving big ugly cars and living in leaky mansions for sixty years. This is your legacy to the grandkids. . .
We’re interested in biomedicine and life-extension drugs. Mostly we’re interested in these drugs because they are the only mind-altering drugs that are well-designed. Because believe me, when you live longer, your mind gets permanently altered. . . .
We’re concerned about the problem of short-term thinking in environmental issues. We want people to live longer, so that they can comprehend the full extent of their foolishness.

Bruce Sterling’s “Viridian Note 00001,” 1998

There are the same percentage of American registered voters between the ages of 18-30 as there are between the ages of 66-83.

Thought-experiment: are both groups equally relevant to environmental futurism, in all its various guises?

Before the subject-line “This woman wants to disenfranchise your grandma!” can commence, let me say that disenfranchisement of anyone is a very sinister business. But I am concerned with Generation Gaps (plural: this report does perhaps the best job of any in articulating schisms between the Silent Generation, Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials) in contemporary American politics and policy—schisms which seem to be increasing (perhaps not coincidentally) as quickly as the generational wealth gap.

And any offense inherent in my question—should we be trusting long-term decisions to those who are all-but-surely not going to be present at their fruition—is surely dwarfed by Bruce Sterling’s more radical suggestion above, from the 1998 founding of his Viridian movement: that life-extension technology be harnessed as a sort of a Promethean punishment chaining OLD PEOPLE (his caps say it all) to their own immortally perpetuating harm.

To one way of thinking, OLD PEOPLE would not be the most obvious target to convince (or to convict) in an environmentalist manifesto. For one thing, they are finished with the most obvious action that drives up resource consumption: they are done having kids. And at least some studies have shown that older Americans have a smaller environmental footprint than younger ones—though that is more due to the very elderly having less income available for consumption, than it is to any difference of environmental mores.

So why the Viridian emphasis on the elderly population—a theme that Sterling returns to, in a somewhat more hopeful vein, in his “Viridian Manifesto” of January 3, 2000:

The fact that we are living in an unprecedentedly old society, a society top-heavy with the aged, offers great opportunity. Long-term thinking is a useful and worthwhile effort well suited to the proclivities of old people.
Clearly if our efforts do not work for old people (a large and growing fraction of the G-7 populace) then they will not work at all. Old people tend to be generous, they sometimes have time on their hands. Electronically connected, garrulous oldsters might have a great deal to offer in the way of managing the copious unpaid scutwork of electronic civil society. We like the idea of being a radical art movement that specializes in recruiting the old.

But besides just “liking the idea” of such a movement, do we have any evidence that our elderly do indeed stand at the vanguard of productive “long-term thinking” or the futurist potential of “an electronic civil society”?

The body of evidence, I would have to argue, says, not necessarily. Take this recent article which reports on some comparative generational stats and features activist Bill McKibben lecturing an audience of retirees, well, like children:

“We need to get our act together,” began renowned environmental activist Bill McKibben in his latest Harvard address. The “we” in this case was not college students. McKibben’s talk, hosted by the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, was directed at a different demographic: the elderly.
These days climate change activists focus much of their efforts on younger age groups, and it is common to find “young people leading the fight all over the world” as McKibben remarked. Yet the elderly are typically not as engaged as the youth in environmental issues…. With this particular lecture, McKibben attempted to convince the elderly audience that continued inaction would lead to painful, generational regret….“We are going to be the first generation of human beings to leave the planet in substantially worse shape than we’ve found it.”

That only 47% of Americans under 30 believe in the man-made nature of global warming is frightening. But that only 28% of those 65 and older believe so is prehaps more upsetting—all the more so in that U.S. representative democracy is so age-shifted as to be unrepresentative. The median American age is now 37; our average Congressional age, pushing 60. The gerontocracy that Sterling predicted has arguably emerged, but whence the “opportunity”?

In “The Last Viridian Note,” published in 2008, I like to think that Sterling acknowledges, tongue-in-cheek, the trap his movement has laid itself, the nature of this futurist conundrum:

Some Viridian principles can be lightly re-phrased, buffed-up and likely made of practical use in days to come. Others are period notions to be gently tossed into the cultural compost. I could try to describe which are which — but that’s a proper job for someone younger.

Someone younger? Or is that an unnecessary—even unhelpful—affectation? What’s the answer here, as viridian green fades to grey?