When recalling the demographic cohort known to the world as “generation z,” I’m reminded of the deathless words of one elder observer of their ilk, “They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.” Now, there’s no reason why you should know, or even begin to suspect, that those are the words of Aristotle, uttered in the 4th century BC. It sounds so familiar, does it not? The elder generation’s dismissive disparagement of youth is, therefore, nothing new, and is yet another example of how the history we have failed to learn from continues to be that which we are doomed to repeat.
One thing we older people have a tendency to forget is that we do not own wisdom. Sometimes, in our pitiful jealousy, we insist that wisdom cannot exist outside the context of experience. While that is often true, it isn’t always true. I think, for example, of the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. The context of our failure to act as a generation forced them to grow up too soon and tell us of those failures. We ignored and belittled them because of their youth when we should have listened. The context in which they were compelled to speak was our legacy to them. We should have listened. We owed them that much. We didn’t listen. Or we pretended to listen but acted as though we hadn’t, which is worse.
We are making the same mistake with climate science activist Greta Thunberg who spoke before the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday. This is more than a tired exemplar of the old cliche, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Thunberg is a child with wisdom and we are failing to heed her because she is a child. That is a silly, irresponsible excuse. When adults pick on a child who is trying to rescue their world from certain destruction, I see only cowardice, cowardice as a product of impotence, fear and denial, smugly wrapped in adult condescension. We owe her our attention and instead she gets our contempt. Not everyone is contemptuous, of course, but enough are to disgrace us all.
“You have stolen my dreams, and my childhood, with your empty words … We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?” When are we, the adults in charge, going to stop making speeches and start taking action that matters? Any gesture short of such action is hollow. Greta Thunberg is right, how dare we?
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.