A little over a year ago, 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a speech at the UN Climate Action Summit to a large group of politicians and company executives. The speech was compelling, emotional and centered around one recurring phrase: “How dare you?”
Throughout her speech, she listed all of the present and future consequences of climate change and asked how the attendees can look to her for hope when it was their job to prevent them from happening. Thunberg said that the science behind climate change has been established for almost 30 years, and yet, politicians act as if there is nothing they can do and look to future generations to “save the world.”
Even before this speech was given, I had noticed young activists like Thunberg and Amariyanna Copney, aka Little Miss Flint, receiving this kind of treatment from older generations. For whatever reason, there seems to be a general urge among adults to name teenage advocates “heroes” and proclaim that Generation Z will fix everything.
There are many problems with that, but the most glaring is that the people saying this have the power to change things right now. So much of what climate activists like Greta fight for is immediate, structural change. So to diminish her into a symbol of “hope for the future” instead of acting on her pleas feels nothing short of sinister. Although the intent may be encouragement, it comes off as prematurely shifting the burden of the world’s problems onto a group of people who largely have not graduated college yet.
Another reason I find the “Gen Z will save the world” mentality so odd is that it is probably not true. First off, UN climate scientists say that we have 11 years until the effects of climate change are irreversible, at which time the oldest member of Gen Z will be 33 and the youngest will be 19. It is not realistic to expect a group of people to save the world as teenagers and 20-somethings while you sit back and admire their work. If the world is going to be saved, the saving is going to have to come from the people already in power.
Lastly, at the risk of sounding self-pitying, I do not want to save the world. I don’t want to spend my life cleaning up the mess made by past generations’ greed and inaction. I want to use my brain to make discoveries unrelated to the planet collapsing around me. I want to be guiltlessly non-heroic and have ambitions that do not determine the future of humanity. Previous generations have been allowed that luxury, but unless world leaders take immediate action, it will be denied to us.
So, as a message to baby boomers, millennials and Generation X: do not wait for my generation. It’s true that people like Greta Thunberg and Amariyanna Copeny have great ideas, but we don’t have time to wait around until they are old enough to craft them into policies. Instead of seeing brilliant young people as a beacon of hope, look to them for inspiration.