Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When special interest supersedes wisdom

I grew up in a culture that respects elders--their wisdom, their advice, their experience. I believe that certain ways of thinking and discerning only emerge with age, whether it is being able to see through people's arguments, being able to read between the lines of what people say and do. I realise more and more each day that much of the advice that my parents gave me when I was young was spot on. I just wasn't mature enough to understand what they were saying.

On the other hand, we have a world run by elder people that are stuck in their ways, whether it is neoliberal economics, cost-benefit analysis, American domination, and global competitiveness. We are also bound to national and international institutions and regimes that were founded in times when people had drastically different mentalities, institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and even the United Nations. Even in most all journalism that I read, in such media outlets like the BBC and the New York Times, the way in which situations here and abroad are analysed is one that treats the world as some sort of infinite reserve of material, a world in which a material and industrial economy can supposedly grow forever.

What has brought us to this point, ecologically, and consequently socially, and consequently economically, is a truly old way of thinking, further influenced by special interests. There seems to be a contradiction then between the wisdom that comes with old age, and the way in which special interests seem to supersede that wisdom. No old person in his or her right mind would say that the way we are treating the environment and ourselves is in the best interest of longevity of the ecosystems that comprise the biophysical world. But this seems to keep happening. We are constantly protesting decisions to go to war, decisions to let financial institutions off the hook, decisions to build a pipeline carrying tar sands across a continent. And that is probably why Abigail Borah, a student from Middlebury College, felt it necessary to take a stand in Durban a couple of weeks ago.

We can see clearly a generational gap, possibly one that existed in times of great change, like, for example, during the Civil Rights movement. This isn't to say that there aren't any elders who are thinking radically differently. But it seems that the world's environment and climate are changing faster than ever before, and that we cannot wait until 2020 for some "meaningful" climate commitment from nations. While the elders won't be alive in twenty or thirty or forty years, the youth will be, and they are the ones that will be faced with the difficult tasks of changing infrastructure, of adapting to a changing climate, of likely dealing with mass migration.

It is very difficult to sit back and hope that the elders running this country will change the way they think and behave. While working in the lab a couple of weeks ago, Scott said to me that it will truly take another twenty or thirty years for a generation of thinkers and actors to get into positions of influence to make meaningful changes in policy and culture. How do the youth navigate this? What might the youth be able to do to counter special interests? And how might the youth remain "youthful" in the future, open to changing ourselves in response to a changing world?

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