Straight Dope 1/20/2023: Have baby boomers wrecked the planet?

Arguably, they didn’t so much deny it as they had more glaring concerns to address. When the Boomers were children they saw eco-catastrophes such the Great Smog of London and the Cuyahoga River fire. Coal plants didn’t just emit carbon dioxide, they emitted mercury-laden ash and large quantities of sulfur dioxide. Leaded gasoline was still sold and the nitrous oxides that cars emitted contributed greatly to urban smog. People only half-sarcastically depicted futures where you’d have to wear a gas mask to venture outdoors.

The Boomers spent the 1970s and 1980s addressing these immediate and overt signs of pollution. The long-term and non-local effects of carbon dioxide were far down the priority list.

I thought population control was considered a triumph of the Boomer generation. Today there are ~8 billion people globally; weren’t the Population Bomb crowd predicting like 15 or 20 billion based on an extrapolation of birth rates at the time?

As I remember it, most of us didn’t even know about the warming issue in the 70’s and 80’s. Yes, I know that there had been such predictions then and at least one even earlier; but they didn’t become generally known – it’s now coming out that some such references were deliberately hidden by some of the oil companies.

By definition, the Boomers are the children of the generation that multiplied the most.

It is a justified reaction to boomers’ unflagging enthusiasm for patting themselves on the back for “having made the world a better place”, while simultaneously disregarding what they did (are still doing) to make it worse. See the OP for an example.

Maybe, but it would have been nice perhaps to point out that it was a myth. It is just so hard to convince people that we need to action on climate change without having the global cooling myth pop up here and there and people go “Aha! I knew it! It is all alarmist nonsense!”

Yes. To say otherwise is nonsense. You might as well invent Generation 5Q and call it all people born from 1957 to 1982.

I posted this vid in another thread a while ago. Well worth watching. Especially the end, where Sagan flat out says we must stop use fossil fuels now. And this was in 1985. you say most of us didn’t even know but clearly we did know, as evidenced by Sagan speaking to congress. Those with power just didn’t care.

Any politician who can push a problem to a future when he isn’t in office and can be held responsible will do so. Too many examples to list.

Such things are inevitable. It is a tragedy that Americans have a tendency to disrespect elderly people and it is a mistake to turn one’s back on experience and wisdom. But is this always so? Most of the Presidents and politicians have been, still are, elderly men and Trump and Biden are still likely candidates. The same could be said of most world leaders and relevant rainmakers.

Accommodations for disabled people are mandatory and widespread. Groups like the AARP have real power and on a generational basis American elderly have massive wealth and clout - political, economic, though not social. But they are a smaller market than younger people in a society prioritizing materialism and merchandising. These priorities are not new - The Who talked of their g-g-generation sixty years before and greed considered good for four decades. The elderly are most likely to be out of step with younger trends, and it was ever thus.

It is not wrong to reevaluate priorities and question past decisions and policies. Veterans have suffered from this reevaluation. Many elderly people struggle greatly and need help. They deserve respect for accomplishment, for remarkable resilience, for toughness and tenacity. But not for standing astride the world and telling it to stop, nor trying to return to a time that never was. Deriding younger generations will not generate this necessary respect. I suspect my generation will also deserve its share of criticism for failing to deal with important problems, perhaps including ageism, but also many other concerns. We may not always agree, (insert future form of “OK Boomer”), but let us listen.

OK, 1985. 1975? My memory of when I first heard it discussed is blurry. Pretty sure it wasn’t in the 70’s.

I do remember a significant effort trying to lessen use of fossil fuel energy because of environmental damage done by producing it and because of fears of running out. The fears of running out have so far been premature, though I’m sure there’s a limit there someplace; quite a bit of the environmental damage, even aside from climate change, has occured and is occuring, although efforts to reduce it have had some effect.

A couple points.

First, I agree with @Dr_Paprika and others, in that assuming ever member of a generation is all one thing or another is falling into such generalities that it’s meaningless. There were people that were actively part of the problem as well as trying to draw the public’s attention to the problem in that same generation. Sure, we could argue percentages, but it’s nowhere approaching unity.

Second, Cecil’s column feels a touch smug, coming down on the side that the baby boomers were overall good folks, and that things weren’t as bad as the doomsayers predicted. And he’s not entirely wrong, and is coming in from the perspective of dismantling the equally overwrought “they wrecked the planet,” but it isn’t a good look overall.

Third, being a late forty something myself, I periodically have to remind myself that the ease of getting information that we take for granted in the last 10-20 years, was NOT a thing for the majority of the time we’re throwing blame at the boomers. Yes, there were plenty of people who had good information on climate change and other environmental factors, and a few of them overcame the huge industrial inertia to bring it to the publics attention, but it was a major uphill battle against the invested interests.

Fourth, there is another problem with the assumption “Baby boomers wrecked the planet.” I most often (by no means exclusively) hear it from non-BB individuals who immediate say afterwards some flavor of “since it’s too late, nothing I can do makes a difference.” Which is also not helpful. We’re here, blaming someone else doesn’t mean you get to wash your hands of the problem. Especially when you use that excuse to continue to make the same mistakes.

Finally, though, back to blame issues, the BB are still part of the problem, just as much of as the rest of themselves. The toxic nature of American politics means that many of them are voting for representatives that are still trying to ignore or downplay the problems. Still by no means exclusively, but certainly as a higher percentage than gen Z + by all metrics.

So, in short, sure, they’re a part of a problem, along with the rest of us, and arguably they were the first generation that had the tools and information to realize the scale/scope of the issues, but were so busy putting out the small fires and NIMBY issues to actually do much to address the bigger issues… but that’s true of every generation. Right now, I’d love to throw less shade, and recruit as many as possible of every rational individual, regardless of age, to focus on keeping our blue marble intact and livable.

In the 70s a push started to use less fossil fuel due to air & water pollution.
Not to mention to cut down on oil spills, dumping waste oil down sewers and the coal industry mining practice were and are fairly horrific.

There was also the dependency aspect of National Security on Oil. Not to mention the Oil Crisis and rationing.

But I didn’t start hearing about climate change until the 90s and I’ve been a Green since at least 1985.

Yeah, I don’t believe I knew about the Sagan speech at the time; though it’s possible I’ve just forgotten. I was getting news mostly from one newspaper and an occasional newsmagazine, and while they may (or may not) have mentioned it, I very much doubt that they made a large amount of fuss over it. It probably came across as “this scientist says that, and this other one says the other thing”; which is still a problem, even with better news access these days; for that matter, some of Cecil’s OP reads like that to me.

ETA: watching that: it seems to me that Sagan is attempting to explain the “greenhouse effect” to a Congress full of people who he doesn’t expect to already know anything about it.

I’m 61, so smack in Gen-X.
I don’t remember it either. I do remember concerns about acid rain, air pollution, oil spills (they are not really a thing anymore?) and other problems related to fossil fuels.

The damning thing is that Sagan testified to those in power in '85. And they did nothing.
That the oil companies kept quiet is par for the course. But coming off the oil crisis, double digit inflation/stagflation and a raised awareness about environmental issues (Rachel Car was '62 or '63?) and that congress invited Sagan, makes it clear that there were concerns. Maybe that didn’t penetrate my 24 year old brain. But it should have made those in power prick up their ears. How many of them sitting there are Boomers? I don’t know.

A touch? I’d say emblematic for the Boomers, the greediest generation in history.
Now, this is from the perspective of a Scandinavian, but I think it’s applicable across countries to an extent
Throughout my life, he Boomers have always set the agenda, controlled the discourse. It was always their current issues that got most play in media, in politics. Most OECD countries are now forced to raise retirement age (cf. France), because they simply cannot afford that people stop working at 63 or 65. And why? Partly because Boomers retired early and emptied the pension funds.

Hans Rosling (a countryman) was mentioned upthread and he did support some of Cecil’s claims. The world is better over all. And I’m not talking about 75" TVs.
I clearly remember that there were shooting wars everywhere in the 70’s, flaring up one year in the ME and the next in S. America. In the beginning of the 70’s - and discounting the commie block - there were still three dictatorships in Southern Europe. Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and many newly minted former colonies in Africa were tearing themselves apart with everything from insurrections and coups to downright civil war. The cold war was raging and even here, the nightly news reported on the U.S. death toll in Vietnam every day.

Things are better. Leaning back and saying “We didn’t start the fire.” is dishonest and plays down the immense problems ahead.

I think I first heard of global warming in the 80s, because I heard Paul Harvey talk about that old “they thought there was going to be global cooling in the 70s” canard, and I rarely heard Paul Harvey after the 80s, because not only was he on fewer stations by the 90s, I was with fewer people who sought him out on the radio. But I could be mistaken.

It’s hard to say that anyone has ‘wrecked the planet’ when the planet is doing better than at any point in my lifetime. The air is cleaner, people are living longer, the third world has seen the biggest increase in living standards ever. The ozone hole is closing, coral reefs are doing better than ever, and on and on.

The problems with housing are not the Boomer’s fault. Housing is not zero-sum except in lunatic places that attract people yet refuse to expand housing. You can blame bad government policy and a lack of desire to do what Boomers did - move. High housing prices are a result of government pushing housing bubbles, NIMBY construction laws, increased housing regulations / standards, and a general trend towards urbanization that is pushing people into increasingly crowded urban areas. That’s not the boomers, that’s Millennials and Gen-Z. Boomers understood they didn’t have a ‘right’ to live in an expensive place, so they moved to where the jobs were and the real estate cheaper.

The biggest blame to be placed on the boomers would be the rise of anti-nuclear activism in the 70’s, which doomed us to global warming. Luckily, younger generations are starting to wise up to the need for nuclear power, and many boomers are following suit, like the aforementioned Oliver Stone. But a lot of damage has been done in the interim.

The people wrecking the lives of humanity now are the ones trying to foolishly push us into a ‘decarbonized’ world of wind, solar and hydro power without fossil fuels or nuclear power. The biggest mistake young people are making now is to deny the necessity of natural gas and preventing new gas development, which will doom us to coal and more global warming (see: Germany).

Every generation makes its mistakes. But every generation from the Boomers forward has made the world a better place so far.

Good column, Cecil. We need counterpoints to prevailing narratives, and this was a good one.

They certainly are. Google “oil spills 2022”, for that year alone.

Not many. The oldest Boomers were 40; most of us, of course, younger than that. The average age of Senators in 1985 was 55; of Representatives, 51.

Sorry. Your a Boomer. Not that it means anything.

Coral reefs are slightly recovered from a massive bleaching and die-off. They are not in better shape than ever. Air quality isn’t better than ever, especially in the third world that you seem so concerned about. And on and on.

Really weird to watch the narrative change so abruptly as you change gears from defending the establishment to criticizing environmentalists. Which is it, is the planet in awesome shape, or is it doomed?

I thought I was pretty clear. In general, the planet is healthier now than it was in the past. Every generation makes mistakes, but overall things are getting better. I provided an example of a mistake the boomers made, and mistakes currently being made. All consistent, all on point.