by Leslie Wharton
What does it mean to be an “elder” these days? Before World War II, elders were viewed as the font of wisdom, the people you went to when you needed solutions to problems that you had not encountered before. Elders could tap into memories of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors to remember how the community had handled difficult situations—unexpected droughts, strange peoples moving into the area, the sudden death of leaders—situations that threatened the community’s well-being.
After World War II, however, with the enormous growth of technology, the rise of professional “experts” (each “owning” knowledge in a specific domain), and the loss of stable communities, the traditional role of elders pretty much disappeared. Who would ask an elder for a critical opinion when they could look it up on the internet? Who would ask an elder when the question falls into the domain of the physical or social sciences, or other areas of trained expertise? Who would ask an elder how their great grandparents handled a problem as our world began to change so radically and quickly? Would answers that may have been appropriate then be so now?
This reflection does not mean that our lives as elders are meaningless. To the contrary, it calls on us to understand the world we live in and how it has changed so that we can define our elderhood to meet today’s challenges. And challenges there are! I myself became aware of climate change more than a decade ago and assumed that our government would take action to protect us. But as I got older—and somewhat wiser—I realized that those with the power to prevent climate devastation were effectively twiddling their thumbs. I redefined myself as an elder climate activist. Since 2015, I have been an enthusiastic member of the Elders Action Network’s Elders Climate Action (ECA) initiative, where I use my elder wisdom and perspective to do whatever I can to preserve a healthy planet for our children, grandchildren, and all life. To me, this is meaningful elderhood.
For me, becoming an elder activist was not easy. Even though I am a lawyer, the idea of meeting with members of Congress to ask for action on climate change was almost paralyzing. But ECA provided training and support, and once I’d met with some members of Congress and their staff, I knew there was nothing to be afraid of. As an introverted bookworm, I’ve never been one to join marches and rallies, but in the last four years I’ve been out on the streets and fallen in love with the energy and passion I’ve discovered. I’ve walked miles with other ECA members carrying our banner proudly in marches for the climate, tabled at the Mom’s Clean Air Force annual “Play-In” on the National Mall, hosted National Calls and Climate Tea & Talk gatherings—and many other things that I would have never imagined just a few years ago.
Joining with my fellow ECA members not only does good for the world, it is fun! I remember the excitement when about 50 of us gathered in the grand rotunda at Union Station in Washington, DC. One of us took out a guitar, we formed a circle, and sang and danced our protest and call to action, as tourists and commuters stopped and gawked. Watch the recording of our Flash Mob on ECA’s YouTube channel!
We elders have very real strengths and advantages when we step out on climate change—or on any other social, political, or environmental issue that summons our dedicated response. Many of us are retired and can devote time to protecting the future while still preserving peace and balance in our personal lives. We have perspective. We can look back over the enormous changes that took place during the lives of our grandparents, parents, and our own, and realize that it is possible to do what is needed to address climate change in the short time available to us. We can take greater risks than our children, many of whom are tied down by the demands of their jobs and responsibilities of raising a family.
Looking back, I am very grateful to ECA for all that I have learned and for the many ways my awareness and response-ability has grown throughout this phase of my life. And I’m looking forward to all I can do, arm in arm with my elder-activist friends and colleagues, to help safeguard the future for our children, grandchildren, and all life.
Leslie Wharton grew up among small farms along the Delaware River north of Philadelphia in the 1950s and 60s. Her most cherished memories are of long, solitary walks through fields and forests soaking in the beauty and peace of nature around her. She received a Ph.D in history, where she came to appreciate the impermanence of the world we take for granted. She then got a J.D. degree and has been practicing law for the past 35 years. Leslie is dedicated to Elders Climate Action where she serves as national co-chair, heads the Council of Chapters, and is building a local chapter in the Washington DC area.