Boomers’ last chance?

I’ve spent some time in the heartland lately, attending to the ceremonies associate with my father-in-law’s death, and also to my wife’s grief. My father-in-law had the kind of life, and death, we all dream about: He died suddenly after a good, long, and full life.

I had great respect for my father-in-law, and I think the feeling was mutual. Unlike most adults, we readily engaged in long discussions about important issues. My father-in-law was part of Tom Brokaw’s eponymous Greatest Generation, and he will long serve as a role model for me as a result of his humility, work ethic, and sense of responsibility. We disagreed about peak oil and its consequences for the U.S. economy, but not about global climate change and the imminent extinction of Homo sapiens. He was always willing to discuss these and other important topics at length. In his youth, his family struggled through the Great Depression and he served with distinction in the Pacific during Oil War II. (I could not fault him for believing, as a patriotic 18-year-old, the government’s version of the “Day of Infamy.” As a result, and because of my great respect for him, I always called it “World War II” in his presence.)
As testimony to my father-in-law’s influence on the family, his grandchildren came from all over the world to attend his funeral. There are 15 of them, and they all showed up, coming from as far as Alaska and Thailand on short notice. Like their grandfather, the grandkids (who range in age from 19 to 32) were willing and quite able to engage in wonderfully serious discussions about the collapse of civilization and the extinction of humanity. The only people in attendance unwilling to discuss the most important events in human history were the siblings and spouses of my wife. Ah, the irony: these Baby Boomers are the biggest contributors to the twin crises we face.
The conversations with the “grandkids” reminded me of Richard Heinberg’s latest book, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. This is a wonderful collection of essays, much more dire than Heinberg’s three books about peak oil. One of the things I didn’t like about Heinberg’s previous works was his overwhelming optimism about the human response to declining supplies of energy. But this book focuses on more than oil — essentially all the stuff that matters to civilization will decline this century. Heinberg faces up to the monster crises we are facing, on p. 172, the final page of an essay titled “Boomers’ Last Chance?”:
“In the decades ahead we will be going through hell. That is an awful thing to contemplate, but the only alternative to accepting the fact is to live in denial until the reality is inescapable and our room for maneuvering is even more restricted than it has already become. What we must do now is lay the groundwork for collective survival. We must build lifeboats, or support the younger lifeboat-builders among us. If we do this, there will be local centers of self-reliance around which a new culture of sustainability can begin to coalesce. Maybe people who are around decades from now will then be able to contemplate the creation of ecotopia — let us hope so.”
“That is not the grandiose project we imagined for ourselves back in the 1960s and ’70s. We thought that we ourselves would usher in the New Age, but that possibility is extinguished. We Boomers have stolen much from future generations; the main question remaining is, can we now give them back at least the possibility that they might build the world we once dreamed of?”
In addition to teaching courses and delivering numerous public addresses on the human response to the twin crises of oil depletion and runaway greenhouse (including three addresses in the coming three weeks), I’m trying to build one of the lifeboats envisioned by Heinberg. We started working on the mud hut long before Heinberg put together this set of essays, and I’m inspired to imagine Heinberg recognizes this project as a source of hope. I think he’s wrong about our prospects as a species — I suspect we have a few decades to go, not the millions of years he envisions — but that’s a minor quibble.
My father-in-law didn’t agree with my assessment of the U.S. economy. Personally, I’m glad his rich life did not include our descent into the Greatest Depression. I’m equally glad his grandchildren are willing to engage in the discussion and face their reality. Together, the two generations are inspiring to this guilt-racked Baby Boomer.