Popular Belief #4: More ecologically-conscious than previous generations, Millennials want to protect their environment.

In 2015, Marshall Burke, Solomon M. Hsiang, and Edward Miguel (Stanford, U.C. Berkeley), demonstrated that “the basic productive components of an economy (labor supply, labor productivity and crop yields) . . . all decline abruptly beyond temperature thresholds located between 20°C and 30°C.” Not only does climate change pose a direct risk to life on this planet, but it has a number of equally disturbing indirect consequences. In the United States, the economic consequences of climate change are hitting the Millennial generation hardest: it is estimated that as a whole, Millennials will lose nearly $8.8 trillion in lifetime income because of climate change (NextGen Climate, August 2016). For example, a 21-year-old college graduate earning a median income would lose over $126,000 in lifetime income, and $187,000 in wealth.

In this context, Millennials, children of the living environment sacrificed by the excessive consumption habits of Baby Boomers, have developed a keen awareness of the importance of fighting climate change, a conviction that is reflected in more considerate consumption habits. In fact, 75% of Millennials say they are willing to pay more for a product that respects the environment (Nielsen, 2015),48 compared to 51% of 50- to 64-year-olds.

And yet… young people today often appear to spend more, consume more energy, and be less aware of the environmental impact of their actions than one would expect from the “green generation” image with which they are so often crowned. They are at once both sensitive to the “sustainable” and “green” hot buttons and oblivious to the ecological cost of their habits, particularly their voracious use of new technologies.

Surfing the web presupposes the existence of a very concrete infrastructure network: the immateriality of the web relies on very real equipment — a computer and box providing Internet access, transmission cables (copper, optical fibre), routers and, at the processing stage, servers, storage units, telecommunications equipment and air conditioners. Thus, one web query represents 10 grams of CO2 equivalent, 5.5 grams of iron equivalent, and 2.7 grams of oil equivalent. For each Internet user in France carrying out an average of 949 searches per year, that corresponds to CO2 emissions equivalent to driving 1.5 million kilometers by car. One statistic alone sums up the ICT paradox of materiality and virtuality: one avatar on the Second Life site consumed 1752 kWh per year — ten times the energy of a ‘real’ Cameroonian, twice the energy of a ‘real’ Algerian, or about as much as one flesh and blood Brazilian.”

While the apparent ecological position of Millennials is therefore not entirely reflected in their actions, even their discourse is not as ecological as one might think. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, found that Millennials were “less likely [than previous generations] to say they did things in their daily lives to conserve energy and help the environment.” Further, when Gen-Yers were asked to describe the type of commuter they identify with, the “eco-friendly” qualifier held the same rank as for other generations.

This article is part of our installment “Factcheck: Millennials, an Urban Legend?”, in which La Fabrique de la Cité deconstructs the Millennial stereotype and analyzes this generation’s rapport to the city. Read the integral version of this Factcheck on our website.