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Young people are justifiably anxious about their future lives in a changed climate. Recognising this anxiety positions climate change within our own homes, spurring us to take up our responsibility to protect our young by reducing our consumption and voting for transformative climate mitigation measures.

Climate change will not play out equally. Those of us with enough money to burn up an outsized portion of the earth’s resources are likely to be protected by geography, money and age from its most dramatic effects. Following yet another extreme weather event, us fortunate ones wisely exclaim that climate change is upon us but we don’t allow it to disrupt our lifestyle of consumption.  We push climate change to the back of our minds, to be dealt with sometime later, possibly, when it’s inevitable – when it’s really upon us.

Closer to home than we think

But what if the effects of climate change are already lurking within our homes?

A 2021 survey of 10,000 children across 10 countries found that 84% felt moderately worried about climate change, and 59% were very worried about it. Emotions reported included sadness, anger, powerlessness and guilt. A staggering 45% felt it already had a negative impact on their functioning in daily life, including on their work and private lives, sleeping, concentration and eating.

In the intervening period, we have witnessed record polar temperatures, devasting floods and fires across Europe, Australia and North America, and crippling droughts in parts of Africa. The 6th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released, which reiterated the need for carbon-dioxide emissions to peak in 2025 in order to keep within 1.5 degrees of global warming – which is above the temperatures driving today’s destructive climate events. And the International Energy Agency reported that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 to their highest ever level. It is reasonable to hypothesise that if this survey were repeated now, the percentage of young people who felt that climate change was affecting their daily life would be far higher.

Translated, these figures of youth climate anxiety mean that every second young person in your life is feeling the impact of climate change – on their mental health.  Us ‘boomers’ know that feeling of dread about the world’s future.  We grew up with the threat of nuclear war and acid rain. And yet we ignore or minimalise the current anxiety of today’s youth, often with the justification that every generation has faced global crises.

However, there is a chasm of difference between the political commitment that was required from two world leaders to reduce the threat of nuclear war and the multifaceted, multilateral commitment that is now required from all governments, industries, institutions and individuals to create a new global economic order that forces us to reduce our addiction to consumption.

Young people’s concerns are real and realistic. They are supported by the science. They are recognised by law. They are evidenced by the increasing severity and speed of climate events.

Don’t worry? Really?

The step before fear, anxiety makes us alert to events we perceive as potentially stressful or dangerous. It is a call to action. But the action taken to date does not leave young people with much confidence that those in power will act effectively in their interests.  

Greta Thunberg perfectly captured the anxiety rendered by the climate emergency; “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

My kids quizzed me at the recent onset of the Russian war in the Ukraine about what we would do in that situation – would we stay or flee? And I was reminded of how I had also asked my Mum the same question when watching the news about a far-distant war. I remember my genuine fear about whether my mother would take the necessary action required to protect us.

Research (1) into climate anxiety among young people has found that an important contributing factor is witnessing the failure of older people to address the crisis and the subsequent failure to protect them. Feelings of powerlessness exist not just because of the overwhelming challenge of climate change but because the adults who are supposed to be doing something to protect their young are not doing enough, or dismiss their concerns as teenage angst (2).

Relegating parental responsibility to governments?

Thunberg was addressing governments. Climate mitigation is dependent on government action and regulation. But this does not abdicate us from the individual responsibility inherent in our roles as elders, citizens and consumers – a pivotal role in the current economic system – from taking whatever action we can as individuals to address climate change.

Unfortunately, good intentions to act are easily waylaid by conflicting personal values and circumstances (3). The global nature of our economic system and of climate change, combined with the addiction and pleasure of consumption, makes it increasingly difficult to value the importance of individual action: we, and our young people, feel social pressure to show off our spending capacity; distant tropical beaches in the other hemisphere are very alluring; I would love to show my kids the Great Barrier Reef before it dies out. The overwhelming flood of online opinion and advice further stifles our responses to our young folk: Am I being over-protective? Not protective enough? Will it undermine their resilience? What about their self-determination? Shouldn’t we focus on something more positive? Until, once again, we become paralysed and do nothing.

Research has documented a range of internal emotions that can lead to the adoption of pro-environmental behaviours, including empathy and a strong internal locus of control (3, 4). Also referred to as agency, people who have a strong internal locus of control in relation to environmental issues are more inclined to adopt behaviours that have less impact on the environment.

When we understand and acknowledge that climate change is already affecting our young ones and we anchor the crisis firmly within our own households, our individual actions become decisive – for those we love. By recognising that climate change is personal, local and happening now, we can foster our belief in the importance and effectiveness of our own actions in addressing climate change.

From this perspective, beliefs about whether individual actions help mitigate climate change are secondary, because the primary aim of climate friendly behaviour is to address and relieve the concerns of the young person. But through this response to the anxiety within our homes, we are also fostering our internal locus of control in respect of a global problem.

Reducing our individual consumption and voting for transformative change do matter, both to our young people and to the environment.

References

  1. 1. Jones, C.A., Davison A. Disempowering emotions: The role of educational experiences in social responses to climate change. Geoforum, 118, p. 190 – 200 (2021)
  2. Hickman, C., We need to (find a way) to talk about …… eco-anxiety. Journal of Social Work Practice, 34. p. 411 – 424 (2020)
  3. Kollmuss, A., Agyeman, J. Mind the Gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour. Environmental Behaviour Research. 3 (2002)
  4. Pavalache-Ilie, M., Unianu, E. Locus of control and the pro-environmental attitudes. Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences. 33. 198-202. (2012)

An interesting idea, but ……….

Let’s talk through our concerns about our individual impact in order to find answers instead of using them as an excuse to do nothing.

It’s great to start talking with people about the idea of an intergenerational climate apology. Not being prescriptive, it is interesting to see how people interpret it differently and find varying degrees of relevance.  Two concerns seem to arise pretty quickly: firstly, people are quick to point out that it is often young people who are still jet setting around for quick breaks; and secondly, reducing our consumption will lead to economic collapse.

Both are legitimate issues that need to be discussed – and this is key. What we cannot continue doing is using our questions and concerns as excuses to do nothing about our emissions. Let’s talk about them – extensively, with curiosity and a willingness to find a way forward.

And I believe this is the strength of an intergenerational apology – it is a process that requires us to talk and listen to each other and explore what would be a relevant, effective contribution to climate mitigation within our own particular family dynamic and constellation.

Changing our individual behaviour is not the solution to the climate crisis – that requires a multi-lateral, multi-faceted response from all actors in the public and private sectors. However, if we as individuals don’t change our behaviour, their actions and the potential benefits of technology will be limited. We are all pieces in this complex puzzle and without our contribution the puzzle cannot be solved.

If we listened to all their complaints we’d still be living in a cave

One of the more disconcerting aspects of Switzerland’s 2021 rejection of the proposed C02 laws, which would have aligned Swizterland with its Paris Agreement obligations, was that 58% of those under the age of 34 voted against it. 

Us boomers express exasperation and disbelief that, after the whole Fridays for Future movement, young people still want to keep flying on cheap flights. And then we shrug our shoulders and wash our hands off the whole problem.

But we spend our lives as parents and elders encouraging, cajoling and often forcing our kids of all ages to do all kinds of things they don’t want to do – brushing their teeth, eating broccoli, going to school, studying, not smoking, not drinking, calling Grandma – I’m sure you can add a few more.

Why do we suddenly feel so powerless to address this one particular thing they don’t want to do? It may be a matter of strategically choosing the more important battle (according to the most immediate consequences – so tackle homework not climate change). But I think it’s also because it’s a very convenient excuse for us boomers to avoid the difficult task of reducing our own consumption.

And why are we surprised that they still vote for cheap flights? Why are we surprised that they want to do what we have done these last years? Why are we surprised that they behave as consumers when they have been raised in a consumer culture? Why do we expect them to do what we chose not to do for so many years? Why should it be one rule for us and one for them?

‘I’m sorry, but we can no longer fly to Spain for our summer holidays’ is the same ‘sorry’ as ‘I’m sorry, but you have to go to school’.  The intergenerational climate apology becomes an expression of sympathy and understanding that what we are asking (telling?!) them to do is annoying, difficult, less convenient and involves depriving them of things that are almost considered a ‘right’ in the global North.  It is an expression of sympathy that it’s not fair that they cannot do so freely what we have had the choice to do for decades.

‘Yep, it’s annoying and perhaps unfair – but, we’re going to do it.’  We can’t use our kids’ resistance as an excuse to avoid taking the action that is required of us by science.

Why do I suddenly have to be an economist?

I find the second concern about the economic impacts of changing our behaviour more insidious. It feels like there’s some invisible old guy in a grey suit and a top hat, waving his umbrella at me, admonishing me for being irresponsible and ignorant.

We have to challenge the default position of unlimited growth that is raised threateningly over our heads as if it were some law of nature.  It’s the ultimate silencer at a time when we desperately need to explore other ways to exist and co-exist. Even more problematic, it prevents a conversation about the incredible economic risks of continuing with business-as-usual and an uncontrolled response to run-away global warming.

Those guys in their grey suits never expected me to be an economics expert when I fulfilled my role as a consumer these past decades. So why do I suddenly have to be an economics expert to stop consuming?  

Let the experts deal with that. There’s enough of them. They’re incredibly clever and have come up with some fascinating models – degrowth, no growth, green growth, doughnut economics, foundational economics.  And more.

Sadly, these fascinating and viable theories rarely get an airing in the mainstream because of that silencer guy, paid by the super-rich and powerful to make us nervous of talking about other possibilities to replace our very recent and, in its latest iteration, not very successful form of capitalism (unless you happen to be super-rich and powerful).

Google these models, read about them, explore them, talk about them. Shine some light on them so they can grow and allow both people and the environment to flourish.  Add this to the list of steps we can take as individuals to enable our governments to seriously address the climate crisis. And in the meantime, let’s reduce our consumption.

Vote green for more than a day

There’s no time left for armchair environmentalism. Voting for a green party has to be followed up by voting for transformative climate mitigation measures, even when these affect our lifestyles and back pockets. Governments cannot act if we don’t let them.

We let out a sigh of relief when Australians finally voted for parties and politicians promising to address climate change – among the myriad of other problems requiring urgent action in the lucky country. It is a strong sign of hope in the murky, neo-liberal, English-speaking axis of pollution.

Switzerland experienced the same euphoria a few years back. In 2019, there was a green wave in the national elections. Tackling climate change felt within our reach – until referendums in 2021 and 2022 in which we rejected specific legislation that might have affected our back pockets.

Research shows that our intention to act green can be quickly side-lined by a plethora of other considerations, often related to costs and impact on lifestyle (1). Cost concerns are legitimate for the increasing number of people in the North who are struggling to make ends meet. Compensation mechanisms have to be built into mitigation and adaptation measures.  However, the majority of us can afford to choose to either shoulder the costs of continuing with high consumption decisions or reduce our consumption.

Arguments about costs are a distraction. There’s a huge body of expertise offering viable economic solutions (2).   

Lifestyle and status issues are stickier. Put simply, we want to have our cake and eat it to. We vote green because we expect those politicians to magically solve climate change while we book our bucket list of exotic holiday destinations. We outsource the difficult task of reducing emissions so that we don’t have to reduce our consumption and, even better, we have someone else to blame when nothing changes.

Separating and compartmentalising our actions lets us justify individual levels of consumption that are unsustainable. It is our human capacity to trick ourselves into feeling safe while our house continues to burn.

But if our house was burning, to use Thunberg’s analogy, we wouldn’t go and sit in our deckchairs with a beer and watch the fire brigade work. We’d work alongside them to do whatever we can – even before calling them we’d try to close doors, turn off stoves, candles, smother embers with wet blankets, and then we’d take the hose, take a bucket.

Smoking is another analogy dear to my heart as a smoker who is excellent at giving up. No matter what laws, restrictions and support programmes governments introduce to reduce smoking, it is up to me whether I light that next ciggie or not. At the end of day, it is that simple. It is not easy – I know – but it is that simple.

Voting for a green platform is just one of many actions that we need to take as individuals. We then have to vote in favour of the necessary mitigation and adaptation legislation and funding, even when that affects our back pockets and lifestyles.

And at the same time, we need to do whatever we can to reduce our personal consumption. Why wait for the politicians to tax flights? Just cancel your next flight if it’s for pure holiday purposes.

Why wait for advertising nudges and pricing incentives to adopt a plant-based diet? Our kids are the ultimate nudge and incentive, living with us everyday, afraid of climate change. We talk with them, eat with them, plan their future with them – we are doing everything we can for their future except ensuing their future is livable.

So, a pat on the back for Saturday’s election result in Australia. And then draw in a deep breath, face your kids and ask, OK, what’s the next step? Do we really need to get on a plane for our next holiday? Do we need that steak tonight? Do we really need that next thing?

Breaking our pattern of outsourcing our responsibility is energising for our kids and effective for their future. The capacity for change lies in our individual actions, which flow outwards to influence our kinship circles, our communities and our societies.

We’ve got this.

References and notes
1. Kollmuss, Anja. Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behaviour? Environmental Education Research, (2002), 8(3)

2. There is a wealth of expertise available online offering alternative economic paradigms for economics dummies like me. For starters, see:

Kate Raworth and her model of doughnut economics

https://degrowth-switzerland.ch/

Also see IPCC mitigation report of 2022 or google ‘circular economies’, ‘post-growth’, ‘de-growth’, ‘limits-to-growth’. It’s fascinating and very encouraging stuff.

Duty of care for the Anthropocene

Most schools in Switzerland now take their students on European trips by train instead of plane, a great decision that reflects both the science and a professional concern for students’ future.

But as soon as school’s out, flying season is on. Summer holidays are looming in Europe and the rush to book a flight is on. The reflex of schools to factor in the ecological harm of their activities seems to be lacking at home.

Caring for young people, whether as parents, relatives, godparents or professionals, focuses almost entirely on preparing them for their future. We plan for and invest in their health, educational needs, hobbies, social skills and professional development. Those privileged enough plan to leave some inheritance to help them in their future. I still can’t believe the amount of money I paid out for orthodontal care to avoid the vaguely worded threat that my kids might get headaches when they’re old. It’s a well-intentioned process, filled with love and some crazy decisions, aimed at trying to give them the best possible future. Resilience is the latest goal – something they’ll definitely need to deal with climate change.

And yet we are failing to safeguard the very cornerstone of all these plans – the environment they will inherit and inhabit.

This is no surprise. Our system actively encourages us to raise young people to survive individually in the ultra-competitive world of our consumer capitalism – to get a good enough job to pay for their health care and their rent – if they’re lucky a home of their own and some holidays. We outsource mitigation measures to governments, but then vote down necessary legislation. We shy away from bearing the costs now because we won’t have to pay the costs of doing something later. Our kids will.

Most families are trying their best to raise their children to function effectively and happily within our current system. This omission of caring for their physical world is not intentionally harmful. However, the science proves that it is harmful. And so we have to recognise this harm, acknowledge our mistake of omission, and take steps to correct our course.

Expanding the discourse

Bequeathing a liveable planet should become intrinsic to planning and decision making in the family: not just which French beach will be the least crowded, but which one we can get to without flying. What would it mean in the family to shift to a plant-based diet? What happens to the 2-year-old phone and computer when we replace it and where and how were the minerals for the new ones sourced? And then there’s the clothes, electricity consumption, Mum’s taxi, sports equipment, blah, blah, blah.

To make amends for the harm we have caused, we need a new discourse about raising kids that guides our actions towards reducing our consumption and voting for transformative change.

It will be easier if we don’t expect it to be easy. Opting for local holidays and not keeping up with the Joneses probably involves saying ‘no’ more often and putting up with some moody kids. It’s really annoying when you think you’re doing the right thing and your neighbours aren’t. We must vote for new models and stricter regulations, which may also be more costly – and clearly not everyone can afford to take these steps. But those of us who can must factor into our thinking the costs our kids will bear if we don’t take this action now.  

We must extend our discourse about raising children to include a perspective of handing over more than just the family history, a good education and some inheritance. The importance of these will be diminished if we don’t hand over a liveable planet.

Parenting within planetary boundaries. Duty of care for the Anthropocene. A discourse that influences all of those who have some responsibility for and relationship with young people.

A ministry for now

This week’s heatwave across India and Pakistan has brought to life the horrifying first chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s gripping dystopian novel, The Ministry for the Future. The first chapter drops readers into the horrors of the agonisingly slow, relentless march to death during a heatwave in India, just like the one this week – the inescapable deathly heat and thirst, the frantic search for cool water – for any water – for air-conditioning, for shade, the panic as electricity and water sources run dry, the desperate hope and paralysing fear before the final resignation.

The brilliantly imagined details are people’s reality this week. Published in 2020, the world of The Ministry for the Future has arrived. We have lost an important defence against inaction: that climate change will happen in some far distant future, to be dealt with by our kids and grandkids.

We who are far away from India and Pakistan can still imagine a calming geographical barrier. Close enough in good seasons to jump on a plane to visit the Taj Mahal, it is far enough away to avoid having to think about climate change. Close enough to benefit from the cheap production of most of the world’s soccer balls and surgical equipment in Sialkot, but far enough away to ignore the environmental impact of buying another new ball.  

However, this heatwave is shocking proof, if more was needed, that climate science is correct – albeit a little optimistic on the timeframe. This means that the IPCC projections about climate impacts can be safely interpreted as our young people’s current and future reality.

Even cocooned in the relative safety of the global North, Europe’s kids will experience an increasing number of destructive, deathly and expensive extreme weather events. They will feel the economic, social and political pressures of rising food prices, diminishing resources, and massive migration pressures. This future will exacerbate the climate anxiety already being experienced by so many.

I feel deep pity and sorrow for those living through this heatwave. And I am sorry that this is what my own kids are going to inherit. This is both an expression of empathy and an acknowledgement that my actions have contributed to their suffering. My contribution can be interpreted as meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Or it can be interpreted as one of the drops that makes up the ocean.

While I can put some distance between me and the horrors currently playing out in the sub-continent, it is difficult to do that with the kids I live with – these horrors prove what our kids fear. It’s time to face up to the fact that the future is here and now, in our very own lives.

Alone, the word ‘sorry’ is meaningless. But an apology to my young folk becomes powerful when it results in the simple steps of reducing my individual consumption and voting for measures to meet our Paris Accord commitments. And when enough of us take these steps, our individual drops become waves pounding on the shore.

   

“We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Former US President Jimmy Carter, 1976

A restorative justice perspective

Intergenerational climate injustice is increasingly being championed by young people as a legal issue. Disturbed by government inaction on climate change, they are taking their governments to court over climate injustice, and winning. Such drastic steps to protect their future has, unfortunately, become essential. However, framing intergenerational climate injustice solely within a legal framework limits the stakeholders and the scope for change.

Young people are not only citizens of countries and the responsibility of governments. They are members of families and communities which have not been paying sufficient attention to this injustice.  By focusing on the roles and responsibilities of all parties to an injustice, the principles of restorative justice compel us elders to address the harm being felt by the young people in our circles, or what the science is telling us they will experience in future.  It personalises climate change through a process of recognising harm, acknowledging our own role, and making amends to our own kin. It seeks to change behaviour.

Drawing on traditional conflict resolution practices of indigenous communities, the modern framework was developed in the US in the 1970s to complement formal criminal justice systems and has formed the basis of New Zealand’s juvenile justice system since 1989. It has subsequently been adapted and applied in a broad range of contexts, from addressing historical, systemic injustice to working through interpersonal conflicts in school and work environments. Howard Zehr, one of its founding fathers, has defined it as a “set of principles, a philosophy, an alternate set of guiding questions” (1). The following principles could help individuals to focus on the importance of their own actions in the overwhelming puzzle that is climate mitigation.

Accountability

Individuals have agency over their own consumption and voting patterns, even when faced with the enormity of climate change. Research has found that believing in the impact of individual action, also known as an internal locus of control, supports pro-environmental behaviour (2). The intergenerational apology proposes that we can strengthen our internal locus of control in two ways: firstly, by acknowledging our roles as elders, consumers and citizens in the global system that has led to anthropogenic climate change; secondly, by holding ourselves accountable for our individual actions within our own kinship circles.

Accountability is a core principle of restorative justice and is the step after acknowledging the harm felt by the victims (1). It requires offenders to face up to what they have done. Having accepted that climate change disproportionately affects young people we know, a restorative justice framework requires that we stop making excuses for continuing with behaviour that we know is harmful.

Given the global complexity of climate change, these excuses seem reasonable – one more flight or steak is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  And our neighbour’s footprint may far outstrip ours. But by focusing on our role in the current and future needs of our young people, a restorative justice lens doesn’t let us deflect the responsibility we hold for our own consumption patterns.

Likewise, a restorative justice perspective requires us to examine our role in government action to mitigate climate change. Governments can only legislate and implement appropriate measures if their citizens enable and compel them to do so. In June 2021, the Swiss voted against proposed national legislation to sharpen climate measures and in February 2022, voters rejected increased state taxes on higher polluting vehicles. In democratic countries at least, individual voters play an essential role in government policy. We can’t blame climate change on weak government action when we vote against mitigation measures that might affect our back pocket.

Making amends

A key strength of applying a restorative justice lens to the issue of intergenerational climate injustice is its concern with making amends for the harm done. According to this principle, all actors in the system that has led to climate change – governments at national, regional and local levels, international entities, corporations, institutions, communities and individuals – are compelled to change the behaviours that are causing harm.

A potential stumbling block of an intergenerational climate apology between older and younger kinship members is that an apology is so closely associated with the word ‘sorry’.  Arguably the least significant of a three-step process, this highly charged word and its implied guilt can raise our hackles and overshadow the more important phases of acknowledgement and amendment, the most effective of which is a change in behaviour (3).

In order to avoid getting hung up on it, the meaning of ‘sorry’ is not prescribed in an intergenerational apology. It can be the same ‘sorry’ we use to express sympathy at someone’s loss of a loved one or a job, or it can be the ‘sorry’ we use to acknowledge our wrong-doing. In this context, it is not overly important because an intergenerational apology is about what comes after the word ‘sorry’. It is about making amends by reducing our consumption and voting for our governments to take transformative action to address climate change.   

Offenders as victims

Recognising that offenders may also be, or have been, victims is a particularly relevant aspect of restorative justice. This does not absolve them from taking responsibility or making amends for their harmful actions; recognition and restitution are corner stones of restorative justice (1).  However, accepting that climate change offenders can also be victims of our economic and social systems respects the difficulty of choosing to live sustainably.

Carbon inequality refers to the proven link between CO2 emissions and higher income, and therefore consumption capacity (4). This inequality is greatest between countries of the North and South, meaning that richer countries pollute the most. However, there are many economic victims in the global North who do not have the spending capacity to consume at the same dangerous levels as their wealthier compatriots. According to OECD research, income inequality in member countries is at its highest in 50 years and is being exacerbated by COVID-19, the war in the Ukraine and a range of country-specific issues.

Beyond all those struggling to meet their basic needs in the gig economy, in care work or on social benefits are those who feel hollowed out by the treadmill of work and lifestyle pressures. While this constant pressure for growth has brought us an enviable standard of living and convenience, it has compromised other aspects of our well-being. However, choosing to jump off this treadmill is difficult for a myriad of personal psychological and financial reasons.

Just as we ‘boomers’ can identify as victims, so young people can be identified as offenders. They are still flying for long weekends away in Barcelona, accumulating fast fashion and unnecessarily updating their phones. They are the perpetrators for future generations. We boomers latch onto their behaviours with relish as a great excuse to continue doing nothing to reduce our own emissions. But from a dual perspective of offender and victim, it is easier to understand that young people are behaving as we have raised them – as consumers – and they face exactly the same challenges as us ‘boomers’ in changing their behaviour. 

To a greater or lesser extent, we are all offenders and victims of the addictive nature of the consumption economy. But us elders have been offending for longer and have to take responsibility for this – and take the lead on it when our young people are lagging behind.

Old ideas, radical results

Restorative justice recognises its debt to ancient ideas and practices of communal healing and restitution. This call to recognise and act on personal responsibility runs through the world’s great religions and philosophies. “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” (Stoic philosopher, Epictetus). Its latest reincarnation is found in the billion-dollar mindfulness industry.

Rehashed ideas never seem radical (or at least not until they are relabelled and monetised on social media!). But actually enacting ancient wisdom is radical. If we all acted on what was within our control, we could make a radical difference to global mitigation efforts.

The intergenerational apology is proposed as a lens to zoom in on the impacts of climate change as experienced now and in the future by the young people we know. By making the threat of climate change personal, it provides us with an opportunity and the motivation to change our own environmentally damaging behaviours in the interests of those we love and are responsible for.  

Notes

  1. Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Good Books.
  2. Pavalache-Ilie, M., Unianu, E. (2012). Locus of control and the pro-environmental attitudes. Procedia. Social and Behavioral Sciences. 33. 198-202
  3. 5. Slocum, D., Allan, A., and Allan, M. (2011) An Emerging Theory of Apology.  Australian Journal of Psychology.
  4. Kartha, S., Kemp-Benedict, E., Ghosh, E., Nazareth, A. and Gore, T. (2020). The Carbon Inequality Era: An assessment of the global distribution of consumption emissions among individuals from 1990 to 2015 and beyond. Joint Research Report. Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam International.

My personal apology

I shock myself when I face the reality that only in the last few years have I taken steps to reduce my footprint, and only then at the initiative of my teenager. And yet I have always known about the science and kept abreast of the latest news of climate change. This gap between my knowledge and my daily actions takes my breath away – but somehow the serious implications and hypocrisy of my inaction has always got lost in the busyness of daily life and the relentless pull of our social and economic model towards the next thing – the next job, trip, course, child, holiday, home, holiday, car, clothes, experience …..

When I take a moment to heed this shock, I want to sincerely apologise to my kids. Most of my mistakes were small, at the time insignificant, choices. But with more thought, I could just have easily made choices with far better consequences for the environment. After all, it really isn’t that difficult to reduce meat. And I have rarely taken the time to discover all the nooks and crannies of the town where I was living- I didn’t need to fly for a weekend break to a foreign place. And more often than not, my dependency on my car reflects laziness than necessity.

And so here is my apology to my kids and the other young people in my life for the serious, negative consequences of my actions, starting more than 30 years ago.


In 1988, while at uni, we had to do a tour of our philosophy professor’s self-sufficient farm. He was too sharp to be the butt of our student jokes, but was so far removed from our cool uni lifestyle that he warranted no attention. He seemed ancient to us. Tall and wiry, smelling of earth, he wore old, mended clothes, knitted socks, and had enormous, gnarled hands which didn’t fit with his day job.

His farm was on the outskirts of sprawling Sydney. It took forever to get there and was miles from any hint of civilisation, like a pub. The tour started in his house – functional, dimly lit, an overwhelming feeling of brown. It contrasted starkly to the interior decoration aspirations of everyone I knew. He explained his electricity system driven by his composted waste, which I knew was admirable but just seemed to be a whole lot of unnecessary work and bad smells.

The tour moved outside, past the chickens and enormous vegie garden, particularly impressive to me as a child of the city supermarket. What I still remember most clearly were the charming, meandering paths, bordered with grasses and flowers and overhung by branches. Turning a corner, we’d come upon a quiet place to sit, with playful statues glimpsed between the trees. It was so very quiet and peaceful, and unusually intimate for the normally flat, open Australian bushland. And all the while, he continued to quietly explain his philosophy of living harmoniously with nature.  

We left after the allotted time and scurried back to our student flats and favourite bars, duly wrote up the required essay on sustainable living and promptly forgot about his mission. I was impressed by his commitment and effort, but felt zero connection to the overwhelming brownness of it all. Although a young social work student, I had no appreciation for how climate change would become the most important social justice of all time. And little interest in – and no understanding of – the already well-documented science of climate change. That was something for the science students on the upper end of campus.  

And I am so sorry for that. I think now that I was ignorant and arrogant, and my actions were stupid.

I am sorry that I didn’t take the time to think more seriously about the information he gave us. That I didn’t make the effort to find a connection between it and my life at the time.  

There are valid reasons why I didn’t. I was just following the path I was expected to follow. We all were –  I’ll refrain from using the sheep analogy. I lived in the centre of Sydney, not on a farm. And I was finally independent and relishing big city life in Sydney.  It was my time to be in the sun. To spend, to have fun, to travel.

But that’s a lot of ‘I’s.  And there have been a lot more ‘I’s since then that I wish had been tempered with regard for what the young people in my life are inheriting.  


Making amends by taking the steps to live more closely within the planet’s resources will be an ongoing individual and family project. It won’t be linear. And it’s sometimes annoying and inconvenient not to mindlessly consume as I used to.

But, taking these steps with my kids – changing how we consume as a social unit – gives my individual actions a lot of weight. What I do matters an awful lot to them and their current perspectives of their future – and their capacity to contribute to that future. And suddenly the equation is not my individual action vs. climate change – David vs. Goliath. It becomes my kids, my family, then my extended family, perhaps my social circle, my colleagues and my neighbourhood vs. climate change. This is an empowering and motivating perspective.