Environment: Young people unimpressed by boomers’ environmental and social neglect

Feb 12, 2023
Chemtrails and roses in a summer blue sky.

All countries are failing to look after their environments and their people. Long haul flights will continue to generate most CO2. The world’s youth are not happy.

Biophysical boundaries and social thresholds

This piece requires familiarity with two concepts: planetary boundaries and doughnut economics. The first posits that there are nine environmental factors that must remain below critical levels (boundaries or ecological ceilings) to avoid critical planetary degradation and maintain a safe operating space on Earth for humans. All nine are essential but two are central: climate change and biodiversity loss (biosphere integrity).

Doughnut economics suggests that there are also thresholds for twelve dimensions of social life that if we want to avoid human deprivation and ensure social equity and personal dignity we cannot let individuals and communities fall below.

The doughnut is the space between the social thresholds and the planetary boundaries, represented in green in the diagram below – it’s the sweet, safe and just, but narrow, spot for human existence.

So, the crucial question, can societies surpass the social thresholds without exceeding the planetary boundaries? And how have individual countries been progressing along these two tracks? I’m glad you asked. A study published in 2021 (which recently resurfaced in my pile of ‘articles yet to be read’) examined seven environmental indicators and eleven social indicators for over 140 countries over the period 1992-2015. Focusing on the headline findings:

  • No country has met the basics needs of its residents at a sustainable level of resource use;
  • On average, most countries are failing to achieve the majority of the social thresholds and failing to remain within the majority of the planetary boundaries;
  • Countries tend to transgress environmental boundaries faster than they achieve social thresholds, with the result that …
  • … countries tend to violate most or all of the planetary boundaries before satisfying a substantial number of social thresholds;
  • Looking at the world as a whole in 1992, the planetary boundaries for CO2 emissions, phosphorous and nitrogen fertiliser use, and humanity’s ecological footprint (human demand compared with Earth’s regenerative capacity) had already been exceeded. These had all worsened by 2015 and the boundary for humanity’s overall resource use (‘material footprint’) had also been exceeded;
  • Also globally in 1992, eight of the eleven social thresholds were not being met, most worryingly those for income poverty, sanitation and secondary education. By 2015, the thresholds for social support and life satisfaction, for which data were not available in 1992, were also not being met. Some progress had, however, been made on nutrition, life expectancy and income poverty. Over the 23 years, equality and democratic quality were particularly resistant to improvement;
  • From 1992 to 2015, the number of countries overshooting the environmental boundaries increased from 32-55% to 50-66% (depending on the indicator);
  • A skerrick of good news is that over the same period, the number of countries exceeding the thresholds for at least five of the social indicators increased (life expectancy and educational achievement were the standouts). Not so happily, the number of countries achieving the threshold for social support and equity decreased, and four showed little change;
  • Australia is included in a group of wealthy countries that ‘despite decades of sustainable development rhetoric … show an alarming extent of ecological overshoot, and lack of progress in reducing the level of resource use needed to live within fair shares of planetary boundaries’.

The authors make some very depressing projections to 2050 and suggest that ‘deep transformations are needed in all countries to reverse current trends and move towards the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries’. That said, it is recognised that one size does not fit all and would not be fair – countries at different levels of development face very different problems and need quite different responses. The need to confront powerful extractive industries and vested interests that benefit from inequality was strongly emphasised.

Tiehm’s buckwheat or lithium

There are over 300 varieties of wild buckwheat. They mostly grow only in very small areas in North America and it wasn’t until 1983 that Arnold Tiehm discovered the one that now bears his name on four hectares of public land in Nevada. In 2019 almost 44,000 of Tiehm’s plants were counted in the area, their only home in the world, but in 2021 the number had fallen to barely a third of that.

Many wild buckwheats grow in very restricted areas because they have evolved to live on unusual soils. Tiehm’s buckwheat loves Nevada’s Silver Peak Range because it’s the only place in North America where the soil is rich in lithium and boron. That looked like a reasonable decision for a long time (no, I know evolution doesn’t really make decisions).

However, the situation changed when the transition to renewable energy came along. In 2017 a proposal was lodged to build an open-cut mine to access the deposits of the now-valuable metals in the area around the buckwheat’s home. Since then there has been much toing and froing involving various US government departments, the mining company, academics and environmentalists and, while the plant is now listed as an endangered species, the company seems to be close to getting approval for the mine.

So, which is it to be? Increase the supply of lithium to aid the energy transition that we need to limit global warming? Or remove a critical part of a local ecosystem, add another species to the list of extinctions caused by humans and reduce even further the biodiversity that helps to make the Earth habitable by us?

Did I mention that Ioneer (wordplay with ion and pioneer), the mining company involved, is Australian? If you’re keen to know more, they’ve produced an explanatory video about the proposed mine and have a conservation plan (of sorts) for the buckwheat.

Long haul flights generate most CO2

Flying generates a lot of CO2 and making the transition to renewable energy will be difficult for the aviation industry, particularly for the longer flights. That’s well known but which flights generate the most CO2?

Pre-Covid, 6% of flights were over 4,000km and were responsible for almost half (46%) of aviation’s CO2 emissions. Electrification of short hop flights (0-500km) is feasible but in 2019 they generated only 7% of emissions even though they made up 30% of flights. As the figure below shows, things aren’t predicted to change much by 2050. These figures relate to all departures from 40 European countries but I suspect that they are not very different for the rest of the world.


Of course, one would expect each long haul flight to have higher CO2 emissions than each short flight – they fly further. If for the sake of argument we assume the average short hop is 300km and the average long haul is 6,000km, there’s a twenty fold difference there. And the planes on longer flights carry more passengers so these figures provide no indication of the emissions per passenger kilometre flown for different flight lengths. I’m not arguing in defence of weekend getaways to London and New York, just clarifying what this data is and isn’t referring to.

Apart from changes within the airline industry, for instance electrification, hydrogen powered aircraft, cleaner aviation fuels, new aircraft designs and operational changes to use less fuel, one possibility for shorter trips is high speed rail. Japan’s bullet trains are often held up as the poster child here but three of the ten busiest domestic flight routes in the world are in Japan. And according to the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January, they are among the most expensive in terms of ticket price per 100km flown, so the presence of a fast train alternative does not seem to push airline fares down.

Not OK, boomer!

What do 1,000 16-25 year-olds in each of ten countries think about climate change?

84% of youngsters feel moderately, very or extremely worried about climate change; ranging from 75% in the USA to 82% in Australia and 89% in Brazil.

75% think that the future is frightening and 83% said that people (i.e. older people!) have failed to take care of the planet.

56% think that humanity is doomed because of climate change, ranging from 42% in Nigeria to 74% in India (50% in Australia).

55% of young people think that they will have less opportunity than their parents due to climate change. Even Finland’s relatively low 42% is hardly a ringing endorsement of their parents’ efforts to create a better life for their kids. Australia’s figure of 57% accords with my own experiences last year when helping to organise a one-day conference. When we were discussing the topics for consideration at the conference, the younger people on the organising committee were very bitter about climate change and the difficulties they were experiencing with housing, education and finances in general that they attributed to older generations.

The study provides more evidence of the widespread symptoms among young people of sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, helplessness, guilt and betrayal about climate change that affect their daily lives (often termed climate anxiety or eco-anxiety) and the perceived failure by governments to respond appropriately to climate change.

The bar charts are courtesy of Hannah Ritchie who is critical of people who (apparently) tell children that ‘all is lost’ and is keen to change the narrative to ‘it’s not too late to tackle climate change and create a world where all 10 billion people can flourish in an environmentally sustainable way’.

Going, going …

We might not be able to take photos of Tiehm’s discovery in its natural habitat for much longer so let’s have another look at a specimen and the home terrain where this perennial forb plays an important part in the lives of many arthropods and pollinators. Research in the area has not identified any sites where Tiehm’s buckwheat is not currently growing that are suitable for its future growth – where it currently lives seem to be the only places where it can live.

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