To Conquer – End the Divide between Young and Old
One of my favorite cartoons shows a medieval king in a gold crown standing on castle ramparts with a robed advisor by his side. Down below, a crowd of angry peasants gathers to storm the castle, half of them armed with pitchforks and the other half with torches.
“You don’t need to fight them,” the advisor tells the king. “You just need to convince the pitchfork people that the torch people want their pitchforks.”
This brilliant cartoon explains everything from feudalism to populism. And to my mind, it also explains a lot about ageism. How is that, you ask? Let me begin with a confession.
I spend too much time arguing with young people on social media who are convinced that each and every person over fifty is individually responsible for the ruination of the planet. The suggestion that these young men and women should respect their elders is of course a lost cause. I don’t even bother. Instead, I ask them to consider whether they themselves have ever driven a car or drunk water from a plastic bottle, but the young people I communicate with remain unconvinced by talk of their double standard. “Stop whining, Granny, and admit your generation ruined the planet,” is typical of the comments I hear. When I raise the idea we are all enmeshed in a systemic problem, I am drowned out by the chorus of “OK Boomer,” a refrain I was hoping would have died out long ago.
But really, wouldn’t it make more sense if the torch people and the pitchfork people got together and stormed the castle? What would that look like?
And what is the king doing to prevent that from happening?
We already knew that Big Oil has been covering up evidence about climate change for forty years. As early as 1977 a senior Exxon scientist presented evidence to senior management of climate change caused by fossil fuels and the consequences of inaction. Yet the company spent decades pushing climate misinformation. In 1989 Exxon funded the Global Climate Coalition, an organization devoted to questioning the scientific basis for climate concerns. Since then, Exxon has spent $30 million to promote climate denial. And this effort was not restricted to any one oil company. A Scientific American article discusses a memorandum of understanding among the major oil companies in which they pledged joint efforts to promote doubts about climate change.
Funding fake science is not a new stratagem. Back in the 1950s, Big Tobacco used similar tactics to create a false controversy about scientific findings on the link between smoking and lung cancer.
For decades, Big Tobacco funded basic cancer research and positioned itself as the savior of cancer victims, using the precept of scientific uncertainty to question any claim of a link between their products and lung cancer. At the same time, the companies developed the most addictive forms of tobacco they could. https://truthinitiative.org/research-resources/harmful-effects-tobacco/how-big-tobacco-made-cigarettes-more-addictive
But in 1998 Big Tobacco settled a major lawsuit with state governments saddled with the cost of treating lung cancer sufferers. With that settlement, the fantasy of no link between cigarettes and cancer became untenable. To fight hundreds of lawsuits brought by individual cancer sufferers, the industry pivoted to a nearly opposite argument: That “everyone knew” cigarettes caused cancer and therefore the responsibility for lung cancer lay entirely with individual patients. Notice how useful the “lone-cowboy” American mythos can be for corporate litigators.
With that terrible example in mind, it is no surprise that Big Oil followed a similar path. The “climate hoax” defense is untenable, as basements flood in Brooklyn and fires rage in California. Big Oil has pivoted to pointing at individual accountability for climate change. A study published by two Harvard University researchers documents that the push to frame climate change and planetary ruination as a matter of individual responsibility results from a massive advertising campaign launched and paid for by—you guessed it—Big Oil.
The study documents a years-long, coordinated campaign to blame consumers for buying and using polluting products while at the same time, industry found ways to drive up demand. Big Oil now tells us that climate change is not the fault of the people who make plastic bottles and gas guzzling cars. No, that’s just capitalism: Companies can’t help making the products that people want to buy. No matter how long Big Oil fought scientific evidence of climate change, the resulting planetary damage is the fault of the people who buy the products.
And guess who has been buying those planet-killing products the longest? The people who have been around the longest: You and me, the Boomers. And for many of today’s young people, climate change is not industry’s fault. It’s the fault of those horrible nasty old people who drove them to Little League practice. Apparently our ulterior motive was to leave our kids a cinder of a planet. Who among us (over age fifty or not) can claim to have left no carbon footprint? How can we push back at industry when we are seemingly complicit? How to fight such an airtight argument?
Think back to my favorite cartoon, and now let’s update it. Instead of a velvet-robed advisor with the king on the ramparts of a castle, imagine two guys in expensive suits on a roof in midtown Manhattan. They are looking down at the crowd below as the Public Relations guy whispers to the Big Oil CEO: You don’t have to leave the oil in the ground. You just have to convince the young that their parents are destroying the planet.
End the Divide between Young and Old
My message for youth is this: If you are tempted to trot out that tired OK Boomer mantra, take a moment first to follow the money. Who benefits if we are divided? Who benefits if, instead of taking Big Oil to task and demanding systemic change, you spend your energies blaming your parents and grandparents? You know the answer. Don’t be a dupe of Big Oil. We are all in this together. Let’s go after the companies that have lied to us, that have ignored evidence of climate change, paid for misinformation, driven up the demand for oil, and who now tell us they support the Paris Climate Accord while at the same time they drill more wells.
We need to learn, and move on together. Let us together support candidates for office who pledge real change in our systems, for everything from electric cars and chargers, to requirements for reusable containers, and research on biodegradable plastics. And let’s all vote, young and old, for the good of our planet. There is not a moment to waste.
One hundred companies are responsible for seventy percent of the world’s climate change.
Don’t let them play Divide and Conquer for one more minute.