As good as it ever got? Hurtling towards the environmental abyss

Sep 11, 2023
A lively group of over-65 friends gathered at a countryside house, laughing and shouting together as they take a joyful group selfie.

As we collectively hurtle toward the environmental abyss, it’s worth asking whether we have definitively passed the highwater mark of human development. If so, should baby boomers be wracked with guilt about their entirely underserved good fortune and failure to avert the imminent crisis? The answer to both questions is probably yes.

In 1957, then Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, assured the British people that they’d never had it so good. Given that for most of them war was a recent memory and there had been a brutal depression before that, he was probably right. The interesting comparative question is whether it ever got much better. Either way, I think we’re unambiguously past the developmental peak and it’s all downhill from here.

If so, the underserving baby boomers have lucked out yet again. Indeed, it’s possible to make a not altogether preposterous argument that people like me were part of the most fortunate generation there has ever been. Improbably enough, I may be one of the last iterations of the proverbial good life – or at least of those with a realistic opportunity of pursuing it.

Living standards were rapidly improving in the 1960s, as was the quality of life, especially for aspiring hippies like me. Jobs were plentiful for those that wanted them. Thankfully, it was even possible to emigrate to Australia with just your passport as long as it was British, of course.

This proved to be rather fortunate as I was entirely bereft of skills, abilities, or qualifications. And yet my welcome was startlingly different to those of most would-be economic migrants now, despite the fact that my first action on arriving in Australia was to sign on the dole.

No danger of getting shunted off to Vietnam to protect the nation from the communists, either. That utterly pointless conflict was nearing its end by the time I arrived, and you had to be an enthusiastic volunteer to take part in wars after that. Indeed, even when I began to study international relations, I never really fretted about the prospect of war. It was called the Cold War for a reason, after all, and such conflicts as there were, happened in places the boomers tended not to frequent and could not even name.

But when you did travel it was cheap and relatively easy forty or fifty years ago. Taking six months off to do a trip was affordable, and getting another job was a cinch. Backpacking through Asia, South America and China was less fraught then than it likely is now. And there was even free education (with grants!) when you eventually got back.

Even for a late developer like me, when I eventually got my first serious job in academia in my forties it was a continuing position for which I was surprisingly well paid. It was also indoors, which was quite a step up from some of my earlier career choices.

Look away now millennials, but I also managed to get on the property ladder late in life. In my defence, I should say that I only own one property, unlike some of my peers. Even prominent members of the Australian Labor Party own multiple properties and directly benefit from the toil of youngsters and the less fortunate – just the sort of people they’re supposed to care about and represent, in fact.

I’m digressing, but only a bit. While the boomers aren’t personally responsible for rampant capitalism and vacuous consumerism, they didn’t do much to stop it either; all that love and peace, notwithstanding. You can’t blame people for the date they arrived on the planet, but you can hold them to account for their actions afterward.

To be fair, though, it’s hard not to stuff things up. Having a good time, travelling, or living in a nice place, still don’t seem like entirely unreasonable desires. They certainly compare favourably with the alternatives, which are never likely to be experienced by my generational counterparts in what now looks likely to be the non-developing world.

Young people don’t have the luxury of such choices, of course. Not only do they have to make tough decisions about how and where they live, but they have to do so in the knowledge that their collective futures are fraught with uncertainty. Even with a stronger work ethic and greater sense of purpose than I could ever muster, the prospects of even the most diligent of millennials are likely to be blighted by what could realistically prove to be the greatest set of interlocking disasters in human history.

I realise this may not be the most constructive or original observation that someone of my generation has ever made, but too many of my peers seem unwilling to recognise just how different things are now. Even inter-state war is making a comeback, to add to the economic uncertainty and environmental gloom, rendering the idea of progress almost comically at odds with reality. This is an idea that Americans will find especially hard to digest given the central place progress assumes in their historical sense of themselves.

But if we can’t stop doing what Barak Obama famously called ‘stupid shit’ – like starting or preparing for wars and trashing the planet – what hope is there for doing something useful that requires thought and effort on the part of a growing transnational gerontocracy that doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on?

Perhaps it will eventually dawn on the young that they have more in common with their counterparts in other countries than they do with the people that run theirs. Now there’s a thought that could put a different spin on the idea of intergenerational justice.

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