None of us can talk to our parents … You know that thing where you break up with someone and say, it’s not you, it’s me? This is the opposite. It’s not us, it’s them. Everyone knows what the problem is. The diagnosis isn’t hard – the diagnosis isn’t even controversial. It’s guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt. The olds feels that they irretrievably fucked up the world, then allowed us to be born into it. You know what? It’s true. That’s exactly what they did. They know it, we know it. Everybody knows it.
That’s from John Lanchester’s brilliant new novel The Wall, a book that describes a near-future dystopia in which young men and women take turns guarding the barrier that excludes climate refugees from the wealthy nations.
The generationalism voiced by these ‘Defenders’ makes intuitive sense in our own world, where the epithet ‘Boomer’ increasingly attaches itself to anything feckless, entitled and smug.
The environmental catastrophe confronting us today stems, after all, from decisions made in the past – but not, crucially, in the ancient past. As David Wallace-Wells explains, ‘the majority of the [fossil fuel] burning has come in the last 25 years – since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of the Second World War, the figure is about 85%.’
Such statistics bolster – at least at first – an intuitive sense of the present as a swindle inflicted by one demographic cohort on another.
Today’s politicians came of age during the long postwar boom. They enjoyed unparalleled prosperity in the early days of consumer capitalism and the developed welfare state. They attended universities that were free; they waltzed into secure and well-paid jobs; they holidayed all over the globe and returned to their beautiful homes and expansive gardens.
But once in positions of economic and cultural power, they set about denying others all the advantages they’d so casually enjoyed. Despite the benefits they accrued from the despoliation of the planet, they showed neither remorse nor humility. On the contrary, they doubled down on politics (whether overt denialism or ‘sensible centrism’) that prevented anyone else effectively ameliorating the environmental damage they’d caused.
In a justly praised Guardian article, Richard Flanagan rages against Scott Morrison and his crew with rhetoric that many would extend to an entire demographic: ‘Those faces contorted in weird mirth are the grotesque masks of a great and historic crime, deriding not just their political opponents but mocking the future with that pure contempt of power, daring us to remember beyond the next news cycle, to care beyond the next confected outrage, to see past the next lie. It is the image of our age: power laughing at us.’
Yet, despite its emotional heft, generationalism obscures more than it enlightens.
Imagine yourself transported back to the sixties, fully conscious of the processes behind global warming. How, exactly, would you live your life differently? Would you refuse to drive cars or catch jets? Would you eschew consumer comforts so as to leave the smallest possible footprint?
Perhaps so, but you’d know that such gestures wouldn’t matter.
In 2019, we’ve been confronting climate change long enough to understand that individual sacrifices don’t alter a carbon economy. You can recycle as much as you want but you won’t change the deep structures that make a few centuries of capitalism far more damaging to the environment than all the other forms of human societies combined. Besides, as Jacobin recently noted, just a hundred fossil fuel companies have been responsible for 71 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions released since 1988.
Hence, to make a real difference in our time travel scenario, you’d need to throw yourselves into struggles for radical, even revolutionary, change.
Which, of course, was what many Boomers did.
The great social movements of the sixties and seventies still shape the terrain of radical politics. It’s not simply that anyone who wants to fight for climate justice today must look at lessons from the Vietnam struggle, women’s liberation, black liberation, gay liberation and (of course) the early environmental movement.
It’s also that many people either inspired by or directly involved in those campaigns are still fighting for social change, including in respect to the climate.
Generationalism might be understandable. But it still constitutes a slander against the activists of the past, many of whom never sold out or gave up.
In the same manner, it provides an unjustifiable alibi for the present. Chronologically, we might all be in this together but, politically, we’re not.
The increasingly destructive manifestations of climate change have not, after all, driven an entire generation into progressive activism. On the contrary, alongside widespread apathy, we now confront a newly confident conservatism, swelled by the recruitment of an angry young cadre.
Some of the best sections in Lanchester’s book describe the Defenders oscillating between (mostly) boredom and (occasionally) terror, as they wait for an attack on their position. The passages draw, fairly obviously, on the experience of the trenches, so much so that we might think about The Wall as a war novel.
I’ve written elsewhere on how the slow-moving inevitability of climate change recalls the period before the Great War, a time when most people sensed the catastrophe approaching but remained powerless to prevent it.
That conflict also produced a deep split between parents and their children, expressed in terms very similar to those voiced in Lanchester’s novel. The French, for instance, used the evocative phrase génération au feu (‘generation in flames’) to describe those who experienced total war in the heart of Europe.
In ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, Wilfred Owen described the biblical figure Abram instructed by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
The poem concludes:
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
But what happened to the génération au feu?
A disillusionment in a culture that could produce the Somme led some to political radicalism, with October 1917 made possible by August 1914. But inter-war fascism could also trace its origins to the trenches, with combat veterans providing initial cadre for both Hitler and Mussolini.
In other words, despite its rhetorical power, Owen’s poem confused more than it explained, since many in the younger generation proved themselves just as capable of slaughter as the old men they despised.
The same might be said about climate politics, where the ostensible struggle between the old and the young hides the real conflict between the left and the right.
Image: ‘Waste ash from coal fired electricity generator’ / Jordi Guzmán