Can Millennials (Literally) Save the World?

“Men argue. Nature acts.”
― Voltaire


Tropical birds converse noisily on Hawaiian mornings and because the temperature is an even 70° F pretty much every day they get to do it all year round.  They warble with languor because the air is thick and wet and because nothing on the island reminds them of winter. Their songs don’t need to change with the seasons. They live in a perennial spring.

The birds sometimes like to hang out on the road and, even when cars come screaming by, they don’t consider moving. The concept of traffic doesn’t seem to register. They’ve been here for millions of years; to them, we’re just the latest nuisance.


The redwood trees of the California coast are thousands of years old and look it. They are the oldest and the tallest living things on planet earth. Their bark is wooly and rust colored; they feel like the beards of old men. They stand upright as if they take pride in their maturation or find wisdom in their deep roots. The air in the forest is so crisp that your first breath snaps; it’s like biting into a fresh apple.


I was born on the coastline of California and raised on the island of Oahu. Though they share with each other the Pacific Ocean, each place has its own distinct kind of natural beauty. The particularity of each ecosystem seems to always linger with me.

The natural world is something dear to me. I value environmentalism immensely. I suspect this is, in part, because I’ve been lucky enough to actually live amidst the kind of organic, exquisite set dressing that the movement seeks to preserve.


California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Credit: Felix Lipov | Shutterstock

I find these natural things genuinely moving and it’s important to me to protect them. The problem is the possibility that my concern for nature is partially rooted in the privilege of having lived so close to it.

Let me explain: I currently live in New York City where there’s really no ‘environment’ to speak of. There’s no crisp air, no blue water, no old trees, and nothing to protect. Here the important things are quarterly earnings, deadlines, deals, new jobs, newer apps; in the city, we have the coolest parties, the freshest trends, and the only things to look at are big buildings and even bigger buildings.

So it’s shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s hard to convince people in The Bronx that coral reefs are worth the effort it takes to preserve them. It makes sense that there has been a difficulty in conveying to the citizens of Kansas that it’s of immediate and crucial importance that they consider the polar bears along with their children’s future.

Here lies the problem: how do we get Americans to understand that environmentalism is in their own best interest? Americans (for the most part) haven’t seemed to pick this up yet.

You would be hard-pressed to imagine—even in the creation of a fictional character— someone worse suited to leading the Environmental Protection Agency than Scott Pruitt. Pruitt was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate on a 52-46 vote.

As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the agency more than a dozen times. His lawsuits were aimed at weakening protections that Americans depend on for their health. Pruitt is openly skeptical about the human influence on climate change—something that is no longer up for debate in the scientific community.

His coziness with fossil fuel industries is well-documented and highly unsettling. The Chronicle reports: “Energy lobbyists actually drafted letters for Pruitt — which he sent out on state stationery — complaining about the hardship of environmental rules. They also have showered him with campaign donations.”

In his case, what is usually a line for political melodrama is frighteningly appropriate: actual lives are at stake.

Pruitt’s professional life has been focused on making sure that factories and power plants are allowed to emit more carbon, more smog, more toxic mercury pollution; Pruitt has been making a killing on politicking in favor of poisoning local water sources and destroying wetlands.

America voted. Congress advised. Pruitt is the man we have. In brief: American voters have made it clear that they don’t care very much about old trees and songbirds.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu. Credit: Vince Tylor

But there is hope, as there always is, in youth.

While energy issues are usually extremely partisan, Millennials are far more interested in the effects of energy use on the environment. They are more inclined—both on the left and the right—to believe in climate science and to support renewable energy. If I had to guess, I wouldn’t say that this is because Millennials are better people than their parents; this trend is most likely attributable to the brute fact that Millennials will be forced live in the world that we shaping now—a world hurtling towards environmental ruin.

Global warming will happen sooner than we thought. And it’s going to cost us. “The millennial generation will lose approximately $8.8 trillion in lifetime income if we fail to act on climate change,” according to a new report from NextGen Climate. The lifetime cost of climate change for Millennials will be $187,000 per person. That means it will cost Millennials more than the Great Recession or the student loan crises.


Image courtesy of NexGen Climate

Maybe we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Maybe we should think about the transition to clean energy as greatest the economic opportunity of a lifetime.

Maybe we can rebrand the fight for the environment as being about preventive health and saving billions of dollars in medical costs. Maybe we should tell Wall Street that our initiatives to offset carbon emissions are important because without them downtown Manhattan will be underwater in a couple generations. Maybe we can say we’re fighting against hunger and war—climate caused starvation and the social volatility that comes with resource insecurity.

This could be a fight about health care. This could be a fight about the economy. This could be a fight about national security.

So, maybe, if we’re not convinced into climate activism by the ‘majesty of nature’ or the ‘value of biodiversity’ or the whales or the polar bears, maybe we should, instead, think about our pocketbooks (and the economic opportunities for our children)— it’s coming for that too.

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