by William Meyers
When I spoke with Karl Eric Knutsson in Stockholm in mid-1999, he had recently retired from the United Nations, finishing his career as a senior official and important seminal thinker for UNICEF. I was in town to help Save the Children Sweden re-think its international program in anticipation of the year 2000. My job was to help it answer the question, “What new threats to children’s survival and well-being should Save the Children expect to confront in the arriving 21st Century?” It made sense to put the question to Karl Eric, who by virtue of his UN experience had an extraordinary global perspective.
After a pause to think, he began his reply by relating an experience from the mid 1980’s. According to him, the UN Secretary General, concerned by the UN’s disadvantageous posture of typically addressing emergencies only after they had already occurred, wondered if it might not be possible to predict and prepare for some of them in advance. Karl Eric was assigned to help assemble a confidential interdisciplinary meeting of top world experts in crucial topics such as population dynamics, food and water, armament and security, political stability, health and education, changes in climate and natural resources, and so forth. He described how, over a few days, the group mapped the course of many foreseeable challenges that would not only intensify with time, but would increasingly interact in complicated and highly destructive ways. He explained how, exacerbated by population pressure and climate change, this mounting complex of overlapping problems would gather force until, around 2030, it would burst upon the world as a furious, many-faceted “perfect storm”. He pointed out that the international system has no institutions able to manage a challenge of such overwhelming magnitude and complexity, and therefore the task of coming up with measures needed to preserve human civilization in the face of such a cataclysm would fall on children already born and known to us. After telling this story Karl Eric grew silent, lost in thought, and then quietly added, “It is too late just to save the children; now we have to prepare them to save us.”
“Perfect Storm 2030” remains on course, and observing scientists suggest we may now be entering it. Of course, we silent and boomer generations, who have made this planetary mess and don’t want to clean up after ourselves, have not even “prepared the children” to take on the formidable task we bequeath them. We have mostly abandoned them. So, more attentive than we to both scientific evidence and moral imperatives, the kids have on their own set about preparing and organizing themselves. Not only to save themselves, but graciously also us, the big mess-makers, too. They are even providing crucial social leadership that we will not, the majority from girls and young women, including a preternaturally visionary teen-ager on the autism spectrum. Youth, more than adults, are providing the mobilizing and moral leadership that might just possibly save us humans from ourselves. But too many of we adults ignore or even actively oppose them, standing in the way of our own salvation that they generously offer us. Pretentious claims to inherent “wisdom of elders” to instruct the young ring hollow in the gathering gale of the climate crisis. The wisdom that most counts may now be coming from the young more than the old.
Recognizing that we must start from humility, how can we elders who care about the kids and also seek to redeem a piece of our generation’s legacy best help them? First of all, we can follow their example; there is nothing wrong with being faithful followers. That can include being good allies, opening doors to voice and influence for the young where we have the connections and power.
Above all, we have the gift of love to offer in their support. In September I spoke with a young climate activist in Bergen, Norway. She complained that youth protests against national addiction to fossil fuels are being received by government with patronizing words instead of serious action. Norway is a recognized leader in the technologically advanced electrification of its own national infrastructure, but its economic status as one of the world’s richest countries rests on oil exports by its hugely profitable North Sea petroleum industry. The kids are challenging this contradiction. I asked her if she and her youth colleagues sometimes felt abandoned and alone in their fight for a sustainable future. Her face brightened and her eyes danced as she responded, “Oh no, not at all! Our grandparents have organized to support us!”
Would that all of our children and grandchildren everywhere could feel so loved and supported in their quest to save the planet for all of us!
We elders can make that happen.
William (Bill) Myers is retired from the United Nations, where he worked for UNICEF and the International Labor Office primarily on child protection issues. Currently he is focused on issues around children and youth in climate change, addressing them from an intergenerational perspective. He lives in Elk Grove, California, where he is a founding member of Compassion Elk Grove and active in the NorCal chapter of Elders Climate Action. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the International Institute for Child Rights and Development.