Why our parents’ generation isn’t to blame for the climate crisis

“Older generations didn’t do enough.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Or felt that way? As the climate crisis continues to make headlines, I’ve noticed that there’s consistently intergenerational blame directly at people who come before us. On its surface, it makes sense to assign blame to older generations. They came into power during a time when emissions could have halted and climate action could have been the most impactful, yet the movement never manifested, and even failed against corporate influence (influence held by the same older generations, I should add).

However, there is a problem with the lack of specificity in saying “older generations” and assigning blame in an ageist manner. If we want to be precise, we shouldn’t say “older generations didn’t do enough”. We should say “leaders in large-scale corporations like the fossil fuel sectors have created a global environmental injustice that contributed to the ecological crisis we’re living in today” … and a lot of them are old.

Why does shifting language matter?

Eco-rage is among the many valid climate emotions I’ve written about. Your emotions are valid, but they are not facts – they’re based on our subjective knowledge and experiences. Our anger in the environmental movement knows no limit and the pain is deeply held. We must be careful in how we direct it. We can shift our language away from ageist generalizations (“your generation is to blame”) toward more specific targets (“generational wealth, and the oil institutions it is held within, are to blame”). This paints a clearer picture of who has contributed the greatest to the climate crisis. The people in power, most specifically in the United States and the Global North, are frequently responsible for creating or lobbying for policies that contribute to the mass degradation of ecosystems and B/I/POC communities.

While many of them do belong to the Boomer, Gen X, and Millenial generations, what happens when we equate this elite class to ‘We, The People’”? It’s not in my interest to absolve our parents’ generation of any wrongdoing. Rather, I seek to take an intersectional approach to environmentalism and discussions like this. Are older generations of Indigenous people to blame for the climate crisis? What about older generations in Black communities to blame for the climate crisis? Or are elderly, impoverished Americans to blame for the climate crisis? When we use generalizations like “older generations are to blame”, we ignore the racial, social, and economic contexts. In one of my posts, I talked about how just the wealthiest 10% of people in the world are responsible forover twice as much of the emissions of 3.5 billion people.

The climate crisis is largely tied to wealth, not age. From Oxfam. Featured in my recent blog post, “Does your carbon footprint matter? Kind of”.

The truth is…

There is some truth to the generalization. In our civilization, as you grow older you can participate in the economic machinery and you are expected to. We consume in a system that’s leading to environmental destruction and the degradation of our communities for our survival and for our pleasure. The degree to which age influences climate impacts is tied to economic status. Research from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research highlights that as Americans grow older, our average emissions increase. However, as we grow richer, our emissions also increase. This emissions curve mapped out in America stands true because our country and our corporations are responsible for much of the pollution in the world, but it does not reflect the reality of many countries in the Global South.

This reminds us again that it is not a generational issue, but a capitalistic one. How else could you have the equivalent amount of emissions as a car in your first years alive?

Chart showing metric tons of CO2 emissions based on age for Americans.
Chart mapping typical emissions habits in America, by Emilio Zagheni from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.

I’ve often had to examine my preconceived notions founded in a colonized education system and question them. In this case, my emotions and education told me that I should be angry at older generations for leaving us with this world. However, with a climate justice informed approach, an important distinction is made that helps me more effectively build collective power.

“Well, we all have an environmental impact…” Yes, that is true. We do contribute in some way. However, we know in fact that many low-income communities contribute the least to climate change. There is a myth often that BIPOC communities don’t care about climate change. The truth is that many of our families hold harmonious relationships with the land. My parents grew up on farms in Mexico. They have so much wisdom, yet their wisdom and education were instantly devalued when they came to the United States. In conversations and panels, I express that this is an intergenerational movement and recognize that our parents aren’t the ones who directly created this crisis. To devalue the history of grassroots activism taught by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color is to ignore well-established history.

Systemic change is one of the most powerful tools we cultivate from community-based frameworks. Being specific in our language, emotions, and work reframes issues in a more precise light.

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