For those who have hopes and dreams - and who doesn't? - the last few decades of life are a time of reckoning. What mark have we left on the world, they ask? What is our legacy? Is there anything we can do to make it better?
Yes, there is. The elders can put millions of orthopedic boots on the ground, figuratively and literally. People in their 60s and 70s today have a lot more road ahead than their parents did. The question is how to travel it. The 60- and 70-somethings have spent their lives on the tip of the Baby Boom spear. Those who were social, political, and environmental activists in the 1960s and 1970s know that the work is far from done.
Generalizing about any generation is inevitably inaccurate because each contains diversity. But there are some things we can say. The Baby Boom cohort was born between 1946 and 1964. At more than 71 million, it was the largest generation in American history, until Millennials began outnumbering them in 2019.
Demographers, economists, and social scientists expected it to change the world if only because of its size. The oldest members were in their late teens when multiple social issues came to a boil in the 1960s, including the antiwar, women's rights, civil rights, and environmental movements.
Not all Boomers marched; attended Woodstock; got high in Haight Ashbury; abandoned convention; or braved tear gas, police batons, arrest, and even death by taking to the streets. We may associate baby Boomers with burning bras and draft cards, but 40% of the men served in the military, and many fought in Vietnam. By 1967, most of the men dying there were Baby Boomers. I have no relevant data about the bras.
But something in the air seemed to make this generation different. It made its members thirsty for change. Some wanted to tear down “the system”, while others wanted to transform it with love. Injustice took center stage, whether it took the form of racism, misogyny, the oligarchy, or forced military service in a war that continued filling body bags long after the generals knew we couldn’t win it because politicians did not want America to lose its first war on their watch.
Baby Boomers were the most idealistic generation in American history. They set very high expectations, impossibly high perhaps, and as the oldest enter their 70s, they are likely to reminisce with disappointment because many of the problems they hoped to solve remain today.
Their idealism was forced to coexist with despair. Kids became familiar with death before they were old enough to vote or drink. Every evening's news showed the violence in Vietnam and on the streets at home. The Ku Klux Klan, other known racists, and unidentified shooters murdered nearly 40 civil rights workers in the South. Assassins killed the generation's most inspiring leaders, one after the other: John and Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Harvey Milk, and more. National Guardsmen cut down 13 unarmed students and left four dead during an anti-war rally at Kent State University in Ohio. Four Vietnam war protestors accidentally killed a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by bombing a building in the middle of the night when they thought no one was there. They believed it housed research on Agent Orange.
Back then, events reminded Baby Boomers that they lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. In 1961, an aircraft carrying two hydrogen bombs broke up in the air and dropped the ordinance in North Carolina. Fortunately, the bombs didn't detonate. In 1966, a nuclear reactor lost its coolant and melted down in Detroit. It happened again in 1979 when a nuclear reactor melted down at the Three Mile Island power plant near Harrisburg, PA. In an early example of "fracking," the Atomic Energy Commission detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb underground in Colorado to liberate natural gas from sandstone formations. As it turned out, the gas was too radioactive to use.
But the threats of bombs and missiles were the worst. Bob Dylan condemned the "masters of war" for creating weapons capable of incinerating the world in an instant of poor judgment, anger, terror, paranoia, or insanity. "You have thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled," Dylan sang, "fear to bring children into the world."
There were few regulations to protect the environment. Over Thanksgiving weekend in 1966, a weather inversion trapped pollution from vehicles, industries, and chimneys to fill New York City with smog so severe that it killed as many as 200 people. In 1969, an oil well blowout released 235,000 gallons of petroleum into the Pacific Ocean at Santa Barbara, CA. Goo fouled 30 miles of beach. The same year, a spark from a passing train ignited industrial effluents in Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, creating the oxymoronic scene of burning water. Time illustrated its story with the photo of an earlier fire on the Cuyahoga and shocked the nation awake to water pollution.
US Senator Gaylord Nelson, Congress's leading environmentalist, happened to fly over the Santa Barbara oil spill on his way to a conference. It so bothered him that he founded Earth Day, loosely following the model of antiwar teach-ins. Twenty million Americans, 10% of the US population, attended the first event on April 22, 1970. People around the world still celebrate Earth Day every April.
Public reactions to these incidents inspired Congress to pass the most important success of environmental-protection laws before or since. It created the Environmental Protection Agency, protecting ground and surface waters, conserved wilderness, and reduced acid rain. Environmentalists founded the Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the World Wildlife Fund.
Corporate power was the enemy. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson's science advisors warned him that fossil energy pollution was causing the climate to change. Johnson gave passing reference to it in a speech to Congress, but it didn't inspire action. In 1968, a meteorologist warned the American Petroleum Institute that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels "may be the cause of serious worldwide environmental damages." In 1977, Exxon’s scientists warned management about the same thing. They covered it up and spent millions of dollars casting doubt on climate science. Undeterred, the United States increased oil production after Middle Eastern producers cut off supplies twice in the 1970s.
A student at San Francisco State College summed up the generation's mood during a speech in 1969: "The naivete, enthusiasm, and idealism of poor young people is not a thing to be scorned, for it is the raw material of constructive growth…We will stop the destruction of this planet even at the cost of our futures, careers, and blood."
There were many powerful pushbacks from Big Business and conservatives who mistook protest for a lack of patriotism and told dissenters to find another country if they didn't love America.
Yet, there was always hope. The world got its first look at Earth from space on Christmas Eve in 1969, raising expectations that those on the ground would share the astronauts' epiphany about how frail, isolated, and in need of protection, the planet is. In the most important of its environmental laws, Congress declared in 1970 that the government's responsibility is to "create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social economic and other requirements for present and future generations." It was nearly as good a statement as anyone had seen about the right relationship between humankind and the rest of the biosphere. Only one other statement was better:
"We are caught in the devil's bargain," Joni Mitchell sang, "and we've got to get back to the garden."
Then came adulthood
Families, careers, and mortgages preoccupied most Baby Boomers in the years that followed, even as the aspirations of the earlier years went unfulfilled. They remain largely unmet now. Governments have to create the conditions for productive harmony with nature. Congress has failed to confront climate change. Nuclear weapons continued proliferating after Bob Dylan's lament; in the hands of extreme and unstable leaders, they are a more significant existential threat now than they were then. Young people are still afraid to have children because of "an overwhelmingly negative expectation of the future with climate change." Fifty years after Congress passed the first Clean Air Act, nearly half of the American people still live where it is dangerous to breathe.
The social climate remains toxic, too. Neo-Nazis and Klansmen have come out of the shadow in the US; women still don't earn as much as men in the workplace; Americans of color suffer multiple and too often fatal economic, environmental, and personal injustices; and oligarchs control even democracies to make sure profit rather than genuine progress remains society's most important mission.
Even after multiple views of the forlorn Earth spinning in the black void of space, there has not been a civilizational ah-ha moment about protecting it. On the planet’s surface, seas are rising and dying; species are rapidly disappearing, and nations have not yet shown the political will to preserve the hospitable climate the Earth has provided for 10,000 years. In fact, governments are spending trillions of dollars every year to subsidize the production and consumption of the fuels causing these existential threats. Old activists look back at their Sisyphean history where they pushed and made a few feet of progress, only to have sociopathic indifference push them back.
Fortunately, some Baby Boomers are still pushing. One of Britain's prominent environmentalists, Jonathon Porritt, is a good example. At age 70, he looks back at leading the Green Party of England and Wales, directing Friends of the Earth in Britain, chairing the UK's Sustainable Development Commission, advising leaders from Tony Blair to Prince Charles, and founding Forum for the Future in 1996 to counsel multinational companies on sustainability. In 2000, he earned the title of Commander of the British Empire.
These impressive achievements have not spared him from angst, however. In his excellent new book, Hope in Hell: How We Can Confront the Climate Crisis & Save the Earth, Porritt reckons that his career-long dedication to the world's environment has failed to catalyze the changes or sense of urgency the planet's health requires. Like his peers, he may remember his achievements as millimeters of progress when the world needed a great leap forward.
Porritt introspects about how a 70-something activist can best use his remaining years. He decides to shift from civil leadership to civil disobedience. He will go back to his roots in the Green Party and Friends of the Earth and join the new generations of environmental activists trying to deal with their crisis-laden inheritance.
Other Baby Boomers should not make the mistake of thinking they are obliged to pass the torch to the next generations. Not yet. The elders still have incredible leverage if they organize to use it. Their annual spending power is now more than $7 trillion; it's expected to reach $13.5 trillion by 2032. Despite the dismissive "OK Boomer" meme, the activists of the 60s and 70s have much to teach, including how grief and optimism can coexist and how to sustain a movement until politicians realize it's not going away. Only persistent day-by-day agitation for more than a decade ended the Vietnam war.
A recent article observes, "What we're witnessing is a first-time shift in who controls the American economy, from parents to grandparents. And unlike their geriatric predecessors, baby boomers are not just using their savings on canes and denture cream—they're using it to keep up the vibrant lifestyle of their younger years."
The "vibrant lifestyle" should include a return to activism. The old should organize vibrantly, fuss vibrantly, and cause good vibrant trouble. Baby Boomers should resolve to go out with a bang, not a whimper. They will feel much better when they look back and know that they never gave up.