Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I am a child of the environmental movement. Most of the adults in my life taught me that the primary challenge of the future was not doing new things, but mitigating the damage done by a civilization that was already more or less finished. The world I was born into was one with virtually no more geographical frontiers to conquer and a standard of living higher than previous generations had ever imagined possible.
I was raised with a focus on curbing the pollution of spaceship earth, worrying about whether continued population growth or nuclear war would make the planet uninhabitable. As a child, I was surrounded by an ideology of conservation rather than exploration. No wonder my boyhood was filled with dreams of becoming an astronaut, most of my imaginative energy focused on outer space. It was hard for me to imagine doing anything truly new here on earth. Cleaning and caring for the earth sounded important, but I hungered to be part of something groundbreaking and daring.
Every generation seeks to leave its mark on the world. Here in the United States, many generations have had the experience of shaping their environment. During the 19th and 20th centuries, men and women saw themselves as conquering the western frontier, founding new cities and building civilization from the ground up. For every person who went West, there was the possibility of actively participating in the creation of a whole new order, both physical and social.
This was a time of growth, enthusiasm and courage. It was also a period of greed, cruelty and genocide. Above all, it was an era in which there was a very real sense that history was going somewhere. Progress was possible. Even if in retrospect we can see that this progress was definitely a mixed blessing, American society had a sense of forward momentum.
By the mid-20th century, however, physical frontiers were largely gone. Civilization had mostly completed its conquest of the planet, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the immoral and unsustainable dynamics that fuel industrial society. Around this time, a variety of movements came together to perfect the progress already achieved. The civil rights movement called for full inclusion in the benefits of civilization, regardless of ancestry. Feminism insisted that women should be full partners in society. As the century wore on, many more movements – from gay rights to anti-abortion activism – sprung up, seeking to optimize the established order.
At the same time, the politics of revolution seemed to vanish. Serious alternatives to global capitalism had been largely discredited by the time I was born. During my first conscious decade, people were writing about how we were living in the end of history. There was nothing left to do, they said, but to enjoy the benefits of a fait accompli civilization.
As a child of this end of history period, it can be challenging to locate a sense of historical agency. In so many ways, everything seems done, or at least so out of control that trying to change things won’t have much effect. It seems like every week, I read another attack piece on my generation. We are accused of being infantile, irresponsible, narcissistic. While of course I react negatively to these kinds of blanket condemnations of my generation, no doubt there’s some truth to the criticism. My generation is different.
We are the ones who have been told from infancy that our job is to change the world, when the reality is that the world has no intention of being changed. In this historical era, one that is so doggedly resistant to revolutionary change, how are we to regain (or find for the first time) our sense of agency? How can we come to feel that we are capable of making a real difference in the world, not just cosmetic adjustments – personal choices about what products to consume or what causes to support as quasi fashion statements?
I don’t have easy answers for these questions. The present is a time of great confusion and frustration. Though unforeseen events could change all this tomorrow, it’s hard to know what those events might be. What does it look like to live in hope, preparing ourselves for the revolutionary times ahead that today seem so impossible?