Straight Dope 2/3/2023: Followup - Did baby boomers wreck the planet?

Followup – Did baby boomers wreck the planet?

Reducing the question to “Paul Ehrlich was wrong, we have tons of stuff actually!” is shallow, tendentious, and stupid … Terrible, shoddy work all around. – HMS_Irruncible

This column (written by a Boomer) is a poster child for selfishness. – TroutMan

Ugh. Cecil answered a completely different question than the one that was in the title of the article. Yes, the whole world is much more prosperous than it was 50 years ago … But that’s not the point. That prosperity, combined with a relative disregard for the reality of climate change, has led to things having gotten much worse on the climate change front compared to what might have happened. – glowacks

You could have written a column that pointed out that no generation … is a monolith and thus deserves the blame for the current state of affairs. Instead you showed yourself as one of the elite, regardless of generation, who fail to recognize the threat of global warming, the utter inadequacy of our current measures and the extreme unlikelihood of new technology arising to save us from it and [instead] hand wave it all away, helping yourself and others feel [good] about decades of dragging our feet on real action. – naita

I found the entire article just a tired rehashing of neoliberal propaganda … without any awareness that this is what it was doing [or of] the substantive critiques of the mainstream neoliberal line of thought. – Shalmanese

Oh, dear. I seem to have stepped in it, don’t I?

I blame myself. My aim in writing the column at issue was to (a) lampoon the idea that an entire generation could be fairly blamed – or credited – for anything; (b) stamp out rekindled enthusiasm for the Ehrlichs’ alarmism about population growth, which was wrong on the specifics but in line with the current gloom; and (c) point out that, contrary to wide belief, humanity’s lot over the past 50 years has significantly improved.

I might have gotten away with any two of these goals. Trying for all three was a bridge too far. In particular, what I thought of as a tongue-in-cheek premise (did boomers wreck the planet?) led some to expect an examination of generational complicity in climate change, or anyway something more substantial than “we’ll figure something out.”

Point taken. So let’s have another go, taking it from the top – and this time all kidding aside:

  • Baby boomers did some good things and some bad things. The same can be said of any generation. The idea that progress or the lack of it can be attributed to a specific birth cohort is absurd.

  • Living standards unquestionably improved in much of the world over the past couple generations due primarily to industrialization and the growth of the middle class. U.S. baby boomers had little to do with it, notwithstanding my impish suggestion to the contrary, except to the extent that they supported free trade, globalization, and so on (NAFTA promoter Bill Clinton was, after all, an early boomer), about which one can only say: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

  • The notion that boomers – or anyway people born prior to, say, 1990 – are collectively to blame for climate change presupposes several things: first, that the public years ago even knew what climate change was; second, that there was, or is, a consensus on what to do about it; and third, that said consensus approach, to the extent we have now arrived at it, would actually have worked. None of these things is true.

The last contention requires some explanation. Warning: This is complicated. We’ll take it step by step:

  • Little was known about climate change in the 1970s, when the middle contingent of baby boomers came of age, and what research existed was contradictory, with some scientists claiming the planet was cooling while others said it was warming up. A scientific consensus was slow to emerge, and even when it did, the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 said the crisis was still a long way off. It wasn’t until 2002 that the National Academies published a report recognizing that climate change was occurring more rapidly than expected.

  • I’d argue that, for Americans, the urgency of the situation didn’t fully sink in until Hurricane Sandy inundated much of New York City in 2012, whereupon the national news entities based there collectively went: holy sh*t. In Sandy’s wake, New York Times coverage sharply increased and other U.S. media followed suit (although some contend climate coverage by U.S. news media remains grossly inadequate). No doubt as a consequence, public recognition of the urgency of climate change, till then in decline, began heading up – and even so didn’t surpass 50% till 2020. So sure, most Americans now agree climate change is a priority problem. But that consensus has only recently emerged.

  • You may say: Shows you how clueless boomers are.

  • It’s not that simple. A major impediment has been the political polarization of the past three decades. The environmental movement that took hold in the 1970s had the advantage of bipartisan support – Republican Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order in 1970 and signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. I can’t imagine a Republican president doing anything comparable about climate issues today. Democrats overwhelmingly favor action on climate change; Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed. Lacking congressional support, Barack Obama was reduced to implementing climate policy changes by executive order, which Donald Trump subsequently revoked.

  • The most serious problem, though, is that no realistic plan for dealing with climate change has yet been devised, and there’s no immediate likelihood of one emerging. Some will object: What about the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls for limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees, by mid-century? That’s not a plan, that’s an aspiration. The fact is that, on the current trend, (a) there’s no chance we’ll meet that goal, and to be honest, (b) we better hope we don’t.

  • How so? First, as your columnist pointed out in 2006, carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver of climate change, are a function of industrialization – developed countries burn a lot more fossil fuels, and thus emit more CO2, than undeveloped ones.

  • Second, as this 2021 projection from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows (scroll down to slide #8), developed countries (more precisely, the 36 industrialized, mostly Western nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) can reasonably hope that, with concerted effort, their energy consumption, and thus their emissions, will eventually plateau. However, in the rest of the world – which accounts for 83% of Earth’s 8 billion people – energy use and emissions will keep rocketing upward, swamping any improvements in OECD countries. Result, according to the EIA:

If current policy and technology trends continue, global energy consumption and energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will increase through 2050 as a result of population and economic growth.

Mind, this is a federal agency, effectively telling the signatories of the Paris Agreement: sorry, folks, your grand scheme isn’t going to work. A recent Washington Post analysis came to the same conclusion.

  • Third, we want energy consumption in the developing world to increase, because – stay with me now – that means those countries are becoming more industrialized and middle-class. Worldwide prosperity, and the desire for smaller families that comes with it, is our best hope that global population growth – and here we circle back to the Ehrlichs’ nightmare – will ultimately level off. For what it’s worth, CO2 emissions and population have both flattened out in China. In India, not yet.

  • You may say: no problem, we’ll just switch the world to renewable energy, and carbon emissions will go away! Don’t get your hopes up. As I pointed out in 2011, there aren’t enough alternative energy sources on the planet. Granted, my source for that declaration hadn’t factored in solar power, which he hoped would make great strides, as indeed it has – I’ll have to reach out for an update. But whatever solar may contribute, we still need one or more non-weather-dependent energy sources to tide us over during dips in the alternative juice supply. One obvious candidate – and yes, I’ve said this multiple times – is nuclear power. Other than Oliver Stone, you see many people demanding we bring back nukes? Me either. But the day may yet arrive.

So, can our failure to solve climate change be pinned on doofus boomers? Obviously there’s more to it. Not saying the old coots are blameless – regardless of political persuasion, they had a weakness for simplistic answers and magical thinking. Just like the young geniuses of today.


After some time off to recharge, Cecil Adams is back! The Master can answer any question. Post questions or topics for investigation in the Cecil’s Columns forum on the Straight Dope Message Board,

Unqualified, I still think that’s a misleading statement. Suppose you have a neighbor who, on a modest income, makes a modest living: modest house, modest car, and so on. Their money lasts the month, and little more.

Now suppose that, at the end of a month with some unplanned expenditures—perhaps the car needed repairs—the money doesn’t last. But nothing happens—the number on their bank account just turns negative, to be replenished with next month’s wage. Your neighbor thinks to themself, well, that’s sure a neat trick—and the following month, deliberately spends a little more than they earn. Again, nothing happens, save a small ‘-’ on their bank statement.

And so it goes: using all that ‘extra’ money, they buy themself some nicer things—nicer clothes, better food, perhaps furniture, that nifty BBQ for their backyard they’ve coveted for so long. Perhaps they take out a loan, buy themself a nicer car, remodel their house… In short, their living standard unquestionably improves.

But does that really make them better off? No: all that debt comes due eventually. That’s where we’re at: that improved standard of living comes at the price of spending more than we make—last year, we had expended the resources Earth supplies us with on July 28, after which every bit of further consumption was borrowed against the future. Currently, we’re spending 1.8 times what we earn. That’s the magic behind our prosperity.

That’s not to blame the boomers, or anyone in particular, really. Boomers bought in when the buying was good; not much anyone would’ve done differently. It’s just getting harder to dig that deep, and we’re beginning to feel the mountain of debt looming; so naturally, we’re looking back wistfully to a time when interest rates were low and money was cheap, and enviously at those who profited from that.

The trouble is that this sort of argument is then used to glamorize the system that facilitates this exploitation. Look at how good we have it, so it can’t be all that bad! But it absolutely can. Unfortunately, we’re likely too late in noticing that.

Except that outside of the prosperous, industrialized 36 nations mentioned, increased standards of living usually mean climbing out of miserable abject poverty, not attaining “that nifty BBQ for their backyard they’ve coveted for so long”. Materialism actually looks pretty damn good to people who are only just now getting enough to eat that their children aren’t stunted by inches.

This is a wild over-generalization, even morso than generalizing blame based on age cohort.

Any Millennial or Gen-Z would argue that Boomers “living standard” was much better than theirs in at least one context. A Boomer could get and keep a full time job that paid enough to buy a house, buy 2 cars, take vacations, allow their wife to stay home and take care of kids, send their kids to college without debt and comfortably retire at 65 all with only a high school education. A Gen-Z can’t even do one of those things on a single income without an advanced degree, in most places a Gen-Z needs 2 jobs just to survive on their own without a college degree. They certainly aren’t buying a house.

The reason for this disparity has A LOT to do with the choices that Boomers made politically and economically over the last 40 years. Even those on the left-side of the political spectrum have been really slow to acknowledge the damage done by fiscal policies, deregulation and the relentless attacks on organized labor.

There are plenty of other examples where life is not better today than it was in say 1970. The air is cleaner, child life expectancy has gone up, but so has depression, gun violence, allergies, autism, abortion bans, wealth disparity, incarceration rates and more.

Stop cherry picking and own it.

This is a bogus argument. Generalizations are useful concepts; you may have used one a time or two. The fact that a generation is not a homogenous monolith does not render moot every criticism of said generation. You’re trying to give the worst of the generation a pass by noting that some of the generation might have been on the right side of things. Guess what, majority rules in terms of policy. And let’s face it, some of those tree huggers in the 60s and 70s talked a big game but didn’t really put their money where their mouth is.

You might say, “hey Gen-Z is no great shakes. Plenty of those influencers are driving Range Rovers and denying science too” You’d be right, but again they aren’t the majority, and they don’t invalidate the general trends in the opposite direction. Even if they did…they weren’t alive when the decisions that were made that accelerated us to this catastrophe. They haven’t been voting age long enough to fix anything. They don’t hold any political power, they aren’t CEOs or major stock holders of any companies and really the only power they have had was to gripe on social media and finger point. Even if this generation turns out to be pure unadulterated evil, they simply cannot be as culpable as the Boomers for anything. Blame compounds over time just like interest.

This is a really US-centric view. Worldwide, conditions are miles better than they were 20, 30, 40, etc., years ago.

Not really, it’s more of a developed nations view.

I’m pretty sure no one bemoaning how the Boomers have wrecked the planet are pointing the finger at 70 year olds in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s frankly off-topic and further trying to deflect.

What do Baby Boomers (or any cohort) have to do with the rise in autism, for example?

The problem is everyone takes this personal because talking about “boomers”, or “millennials” make it seem personal. But that isn’t really what is happing.
A more accurate statement about the boomer issue would be: The world economic and political system in the post WWII decade create a situation of seeming continuous growth in primarily the the U.S. which spread to other developed countries as the post war rebuilding and defense spending drove economies in ways that were not sustainable, but came to feel normal to the those growing up in that period. Most of the negative attitudes attributed to boomers can be linked to that, one way or another.
Similarly, many of millennial tropes can be linked to the economic and political situation of their time.

Rather than attacking a generation, we should be looking at the systems that formed that generation and what is helpful and harmful about them. Things like constant growth capitalism and neoliberalism are not the fault of any specific person, but if we link complaints about these systems to these semi-arbitrary age groups it can only make people defensive. A certain segment of the U.S. political spectrum has been weaponizing this for years.

True, but on the other hand, this abject poverty generally is the result of just that exploitation propping up the wealth in the prosperous nations. It’s not like this poverty is just the natural state of things alleviated by the saving grace of capitalism.

This is just wrong on so many levels.
In the previous thread I linked to a C-span video from 1985 where Carl Sagan testified in congress about climate change and the need to stop burning fossil fuels now i.e. 1985. In 2006 the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth came out. The background for that:

As was also noted in that thread, boomers were not in a big position of power in the early 80’s, so maybe we shouldn’t blame “Boomers for wrecking the planet.” But the knowledge was there. A number of media outlets have reported that Big Oil certainly was aware of what’s happening. The vast majority might not have been aware of the full scope until after 2000 (I certainly wasn’t), but people in charge was. And did nothing.

Boomers didn’t wreck the planet, but they were certainly first in line to benefit from it. It’s arguably the greediest generation ever. And not only in the U.S. but in all the OECD countries.

This follow up has a lot of deflecting and misdirection, not to mention the retconning of the previous thread. Had you been a regular poster in GD, you’d’ve been pitted by now.

This is grossly ignoring that there was an “if” there, the work that we have then is to help and pressure all governments, specially the developing ones, to leapfrog the polluting old fashion ways to develop.

This is important to notice: if past polluting developments are taking into consideration, there should be then more wildly polluted rivers, lead in gasoline, all rivers and lakes full of algae thanks to phosphates. More acid rain, less of the ozone layer… the point here is that it is not safe to assume that development = more pollution. Even on the matter of releasing CO2 there have been developments regarding a decoupling of that idea that more energy = more pollution.

The ways to make those External costs, coming from past ways of doing things, to be more clear; have been made thanks to regulations or new rules. Or in essence, it depends on the leadership one votes into power too…

Quite a few people make the case that yes, extreme physical poverty was the natural state of things that was alleviated by the saving grace of “capitalism”, or rather the industrial revolution. To claim that the entire global economic system is nothing but a looting machine is, well I cannot find the words without violating board guidelines.

Sure, take any generation and you can rightfully blame it for any number of things, and you can praise it for any number of other things.

If, for example, you switched Gen Z with Boomers, do you believe Gen Z would do any better with the issues Boomers failed at?

The answer is: it depends. It depends on what age they were switched. If Gen Z switched with Boomers at, say, age 21, then yes, the Gen Z-Boomers would have done much better with many of the issues original-Boomers failed at (and done much worse with some issues original-Boomers are praised for). This is because Gen Z were raised in a more socially enlightened environment than Boomers were. Likewise, they were raised in a more entitled environment than Boomers were. Social enlightenment and entitlement are just 2 of many factors that can effect good or bad behavior.

On the other hand, if Gen Z and Boomers were switched at birth, then there would not be any statistical difference whatsoever in the manner that they handled any an all issues. Why would there be?

Given that there is no significant genetic difference between generations, then the only difference of importance is environmental. You are simply a product of your environment. It’s an old adage, but it’s true. There would be no proportional difference between Gen Z do-gooders, and Boomer do-gooders vs. Gen-Z bad-doers and Boomer bad-doers in any time period, with any issue.

Don’t confuse this with individual accountability, however. Everyone is accountable for their own actions, good, or bad. But, as an aggregate whole, there are no inter-generational differences.

So, knock yourself out and blame any given generation for specific failures, and praise any given generation for specific successes. But, don’t lump together and blame or praise the individuals within any generation. Blame, or praise the period of time in which they lived (i.e. their environment), unless you can cite genetic differences between generations (which you cannot). Your generation would do no better, or no worse than any other generation with anything.

Until genetic engineering becomes widespread, you don’t have a case for blaming individuals within any generation for its failures. Humans (not generations) do a lot of good, but let’s face it, we mostly suck.

Cats, on the other paw, always do the right thing. They have survival of the fittest down to a science. :cat2:

Yeah, I’m not sure that ‘and then the West exported it’s superior civilized ways to all the world to lift its peoples out of their natural state of abject poverty’ is as much of a winning argument as you seem to think it is…

This isn’t actually true. You might fairly say that the general public didn’t know much about climate change, but the scientific consensus was there. Very few scientists were saying anything about global cooling, and those who were were talking about timespans far longer than those associated with global warming.

Boomers worked 44 hour weeks. Two cars was not the norm, and the cars of the time were crap. Women worked at home because without fast food, packaged dinners, microwaves, and a bunch of other labor-saving devices, taking care of a home was a full time job. Also, they tended to have more kids. Medical care was cheaper because we didn’t have the cures and interventions we have now.

The myth of the idyllic boomer life is a product of TV and boomer nostalgia. Living standards have never been higher than they have been in the gen-z era.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding. You appear, in most of the OP, to be arguing that nothing useful can be done about climate change and we shouldn’t even try. If that’s not actually the argument, you need to be aware that it looks that way. You might just be trying to point out that accomplishing anything useful was and is difficult because people of multiple generations make arguments of that sort; but it comes across as reading that those arguments are being made by Cecil Adams.

As to the bit I quoted above, if it actually is your claim and not just a description of political problems involved:

Do you think that the “developing world” will keep getting more industrialized and middle-class if they’re underwater and/or parched with drought?

Or is your claim that sea level change leading to submersion of the coastlines a large amount of the human population lives along isn’t actually likely to happen, increased storm damage isn’t likely to happen, increased drought/flood alternation in areas that rely on snowpack to even out water flow through the year isn’t likely to happen? These things are happening now. The more the icepacks and snowpacks melt, the worse they’re going to be.

Or is your claim that we can’t stop it anyway, but somehow even more people will still manage to all have lots more of nice things?

If the claim is just that we can’t blame the current mess entirely on one generation, yes, of course that’s true.

No it doesn’t. What he said was that what is actually being done right now is useless, not that there is no way to do it. He was quite clear.

And it’s hard to argue with that. Politicians are good at grand gestures like the Kyoto Treaty (which almost every signatory broke when it came down to making hard choices), or the Paris agreement. Useless gestures to placate their constituents. In the meantime, the only thing that actually reduced CO2 was the lockdowns, and Germany, which was the darling of the climate movement, is now mining coal and opening new coal plants.

Climate change won’t be solved or the needle even moved while we fritter around with unworkable plans that drive up energy costs while China, Russia, India and their satellites build out as much coal and gas as they can. All we are doing is shifting wealth and manufacturing to the worst countries in the world.

We’ll know we are doing something about climate change when A) we stop closing down nuclear plants, B) we start BUILDING more nuclear plants, C) we stop shutting down the gas we need to make wind and solar functional, and D) work to DECREASE the cost of new energy so that it no longer makes financial sense to open new coal plants and China comes along voluntarily to stay competitive.

Until then, Cecil is right. ‘Climate Change’ policy as it exists today is a failure, and if we keep going down this path we’ll wreck the global economy, probably start another war or two, and climate change will keep on going. It’s been 30 years, and we haven’t begun to make a dent even though Europe is now an energy mess and a war started in Ukraine in part because Putin had leverage over Europe.