Boomers to Zoomers: a generational take on environmentalism

When COVID-19 shutdowns first hit around the globe, it impacted humanity in ways no one could’ve predicted. Businesses closed, in-person learning and gatherings were put on hold and friends and family were forced to see each other through windows and online meeting platforms. 

Scientists and psychologists rushed to see the impact this would have on people and relationships, especially on interaction and personal connections. As personal environments  seemed thrown into chaos, natural environments seemingly began to heal. 

According to a study published by the US Library of Medicine, the pandemic has caused the reduction of air pollution and water pollution, increased the ecological restoration of many natural tourist spots and saved energy. These changes, however, are seen as short-term by the environment sustainability community. 

There are many steps that people can take to promote a more sustainable lifestyle, however since the start of the pandemic and the beginning of a more serious climate change conversation, clear lines have been drawn between generations and their feelings about climate change. 

The view on sustainability and “going green” have changed overtime and responses vary depending largely on age, impacting the future of the push for sustainability and the longevity of the planet. 

“Every generation has their share of worries,” David Kaplan, climate research and professor of geography at Kent State University and climate researcher said. “They are looking for ways to solve the problem, they want to solve the issue. Many of them subscribe to the value of education. We have to create an environment where people understand what’s going on.”

Lately, the younger generation, or “Generation Z,” has been at the forefront of the climate change movement. Eighteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg made headlines in 2018 after addressing the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Standing before the General Assembly, Thurnberg exclaimed “how dare you” as she pleaded for understanding about oceans and ecosystems collapsing at her feet. 

She called upon young people like herself to stand up and demand changes of governments and corporations that were indifferent to climate change legislation. This sparked thousands of protests and young activists across the globe to speak out for the planet, much to the chagrin of older, more experienced generations.

“How we view sustainability changes through time,” said Joseph Ortiz, professor of geology at Kent State University. “The ‘Greatest Generation,’ or WW2 era families, had to deal with the Great Depression and rationing in response to the second world war. They viewed sustainability very seriously. They had to figure out how to … make do with less. Those perspectives changed a bit as we became more modernized.”

According to a study published by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, “Younger Americans have grown up with more exposure to the effects of global warming than their parents and grandparents. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that polls find young adults are particularly concerned about global warming. 

A 2018 Gallup analysis found a “global warming age gap” in some beliefs, attitudes, and risk perceptions. This age gap or differences in views of climate change can inevitably lead to a distance in generational relationships and an eventual climate divide. 

For example, “70% of adults aged 18 to 34 say they worry about global warming compared to 56% of those aged 55 or older.” 

The importance of sustainability has varied through generations, and as time goes on, resources are increasingly limited.

“I think if we look at the stories in the media, the younger generations [are] pushing the attention and interest in trying to take action. The folks who are in power have a vested interest in delaying significant action in addressing this problem,” Ortiz said. “We borrow the earth from our children, we want to leave an environment better than how we did. It behooves us to know how we are using research and resources and we are doing that in repsonisibile way.

The issues that affect each generation can affect how they view climate change. With climate change, comes technology that older generations may not understand or accept. The Climate Change Communication study found that younger generations are more likely to be engaged with civic environmental measures than older generations are. 

When it comes to contacting government officials to urge them to take action, Millennials are no more likely than Baby Boomers or members of the Silent Generation to report having done so (respectively, 13%, 12%, and 10%); they are, however, more likely than members of Generation X (8%) to have contacted government officials.

 “It’s important for us to be careful about the [environmental] issues,” Kaplan said. “It’s important for anyone to make a difference on a small scale [so] you feel like you’re doing a little bit to help.”

Annie Zwisler is managing editor. Contact her at [email protected]