Rebels with a Cause: Young people calling our attention to the reality of climate change

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Naïve and innocent are two of the most widely used adjectives to describe teenagers like a sixteen-year old young lady who sings “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” one of the songs in The Sound of Music by Rogers and Hammerstein. Other widely used adjectives to describe teenagers—and young people in general—include such words as: angry, foolish, ignorant, impatient, reckless, and wild. These adjectives reflect the conventional view of young people that is prevalent in almost all cultures. In contrast, grown-ups, and older people, are described as being discretionary, knowledgeable, stable, and wise.

There is, of course, an exception to the conventional view of young people. We are made aware of such an exception on September 23, 2019, when a sixteen-year old Swedish young lady by the name of Greta Thunberg challenged the older generations in the world to address the critical issue of climate change with her speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. As she sees it, the older generations have stolen her dream and her childhood with empty words about how they are dealing with the issue of climate change. She accuses the older generations because all they talk about is “money and fairly tales of eternal economic growth.”

Given that business leaders and policy makers are still preoccupied with economic growth, it is clear that the older generations do not want to admit that the idea of eternal economic growth is a deluded idea in view of the finite carrying capacity of the universe. They refuse to accept that what is at stake is sustainability, not just of the kind of material standards of living we have become accustomed to but also of the life of humans and all other species on our planet. An increasing number of extinctions of plants and animals reported in the world around us is a clear warning for us because the sustainability of any life depends on the sustainability of the natural environment, which is the whole ecological system with an intricate network of connections and interactions among all living and non-living systems.

In a way, the term “sustainable development” mentioned frequently in academic discourses and political debates seems to have become an excuse for not confronting the critical issue of sustainability of all living and non-living systems in the natural environment. Most economists and politicians find it difficult to dissociate the discussion of economic development from their preoccupation with economic growth and simply define sustainable development as “sustainable economic growth.” Other definitions of sustainable development include: “environmentally sound economic progress,” “ecologically balanced environmental management,” and “the steady-state in the use of matter-energy in relation to the size of human population.” None of these definitions of “sustainable development” is sustainable in view of the finite carrying capacity of the universe. Instead of talking about “sustainability,” we should really be talking about “viability,” for what is being threatened by climate change is the viability of the whole ecological system that includes all living as well as non-living systems in the natural environment.

As a guiding principle, “viability” requires that the use of matter-energy be “minimized” so that the viability of the biosphere, or the space of ecological interaction among all living and non-living systems in the natural environment, is maintained. The requirement of “minimization” in the use of matter-energy in the biosphere applies to renewable as well as non-renewable resources because all resources are subject to the laws of thermodynamics in the finite universe we live in. This means that reusing and recycling of resources must be done to the fullest extent possible, for economizing the use of resources is one way to make sure that “the needs of the present do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” as the World Commission on Environment and Development reminded us in its 1987 report Our Common Future.

“Viability” as a guiding principle requires that the present generation change its behavior in consideration of what its behavior means for the welfare of future generations. The ethical dimension is essential for “viability”: the code of good behavior on the part of the present generation in a viable society should not be myopic in addressing the issue of climate change in consideration of the welfare of future generations. As Greta Thunberg gives us this warning: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” It is incumbent on us grown-ups to start listening to young people who are showing us what needs to be done to protect the fragile ecological system called Earth. The urgency of the task for us echoed by Jim Stark, the main character of the 1955 movie, Rebel Without A Cause: “I want answers now. I’m not interested in what I’ll understand ten years from now.” While Jim Stark was a rebel without a cause, Greta Thunberg and her cohorts are rebels with a cause who are calling us to wake up to the reality of climate change: “The world is waking up and change is coming, whether you like it or not.”