Our Guest Editor: Clear-eyed but Positive Outlook on Affecting Climate

While planning this article, India was experiencing a severe heat wave with temperatures reaching 115 degrees Fahrenheit; blinding sandstorms were plaguing Iraq; and, oddly, long-disappeared bodies were surfacing in Arizona’s Lake Mead, due to drought. It’s difficult and overwhelming to keep up with all the disasters, honestly, which is why it was such a joy to work with gerontologist Mick Smyer on this Generations Journal issue, “Aging and the Climate Crisis.”

Self-described as being social, short, and positive, which happens to be how the National Academy of Sciences suggests one speak to children about climate change, it also means Smyer is a sane, thoughtful and sensitive person to partner with on the other end of email.

Smyer has had three careers, spending more than 45 years as a gerontologist, more than 25 years as a Dean or Provost and now Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University and a Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at Babson College, and most recently as a social entrepreneur. Smyer’s latest book, with Daniel Segal and Sara Qualls, is Aging and Mental Health (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell; 2018).

He received the M. Powell Lawton award for Lifetime Contribution from the Society of Clinical Geropsychology of the American Psychological Association and a Lifetime Contribution to the Psychology of Aging award from the Committee of Aging of the American Psychological Association.

Smyer’s main gig currently is as founder and CEO of Growing Greener: Climate Action for a Warming World, a nonprofit that uses psychology and design strategies to move people from anxiety about climate to action. His call to such action came in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina decimated his hometown of New Orleans.

His call to action came in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina decimated his hometown.

For years he has been concerned about the intersection of population aging and climate change, and first tried pitching his ideas to prominent climate scientists. There, he was met not with disdain, but with slight confusion as they hadn’t yet considered the explosive possibilities of this particular combination of factors—a much longer-lived population coinciding with intense changes in climate—and how that might weigh on the planet and on elders.

Meanwhile, Smyer wanted people to not only think of older adults as passive victims to climate upheaval, but as leaders on slowing and fixing it. “As gerontologists, we know that older adults are particularly vulnerable, but we all are,” he adds. “Older adults have time, talent, and motivation to be active partners in responding the climate crisis. Our challenge is how to engage older adults as part of the larger climate movement.”

He hopes this issue of Generations Journal offers examples of how we might reconsider gerontology “business as usual” in an era of climate crisis, from ASA’s policy level to the theoretical concept of longevity and aging, to familiar concepts like aging in place. How do they all connect with climate?

Along the way, he wants readers to absorb the special concerns of communities of color coping with environmental racism and its ongoing health and mental health impacts. And take note of how the issue highlights examples of older adults leading in their circles of influence to take action on climate, ranging from local gatherings to statewide and national efforts.

‘What would it take to move my circles of influence to act on the climate crisis?’

“My own climate journey accelerated six years ago with the birth of our twin grandsons, Bailey and Gus, soon followed by their cousin Teddy (now age 4) and their little brother, Rowan (now age 3). What do they have to do with climate change? Now it’s easy to imagine what the world will be like in 65 short years, when they will be my age,” said Smyer.

Smyer sincerely hopes this issue can spur all readers to ask and answer one simple question: What would it take to move my circles of influence to act on the climate crisis?

The National Academy of Sciences suggests the first step is to focus on people or places we most care about and on a human-scale time frame, and then giving people a concrete next step to take to affect climate change.

“These design principles work for people at any age—we have used them in designing the engagement strategies of Growing Greener for audiences across the lifespan, from elementary school students to participants in Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes,” said Smyer.

“It’s time to use the time, talent and experience of ASA’s readers to mobilize our own circles of influence,” he adds.

That way, “When my grandkids ask, ‘What did you do about climate change?’ I will be able to answer, ‘My best.’ ”

Alison Biggar is ASA's Editorial Director.