Many older adults care about the legacy they leave for their descendants. Yet today’s elders are unintentionally leaving a legacy of a future climate that will not enhance the lives of future generations. Exactly the reverse, and the Earth will not be like the one they inherited from their ancestors. Our generation can be said to have made a mess of things for future generations. How can older adults work to build a better climate legacy? This question has become a guiding one for me and other elders as we apply our time and expertise to building a better future climate.
legacy, future climate, Baby Boomers
As I neared retirement from a career as a management consultant, I wondered what I would do next. I had gardening and travel plans, but these were clearly not enough. Was I leaving any legacy? Then a friend, who was also retiring from a consulting career, spoke to me about working on climate change. Specifically, he introduced me to a new organization called Elders Climate Action (ECA).
What attracted me to ECA were two things: the traditional value of elders in a society, and the idea of the climate as our generation’s legacy. As elders, with backgrounds in many different professions as well as the wisdom of lived experience, I thought we could offer something different to the community of climate activists. More important to me was the concept of legacy. ECA’s chapter in Massachusetts (which I joined) specifically lists as its mission protecting “the future well-being of our grandchildren and future generations.”
I have found that this mission shapes my actions for the climate. Specifically, I am less motivated by efforts to mitigate current/expected impacts of climate change, but rather by those actions that will make a real difference in the climate for future generations.
My initial motivations to become an elder climate activist were further shaped by my then 16-year-old granddaughter, who joined me in a 2016 climate march in Washington. After the march, she said: “Please tell me that there is anything hopeful regarding the climate in the future because I am going to be living with the repercussions and I’m scared!”
Her question clarified my focus. I began to look for the ways my actions could contribute to the work of others and leave a better legacy for her. I began to work on advocating for certain legislation that, if enacted, could make a significant difference over time. I hoped I might answer her question someday by knowing that, while the climate in which she lives may not be the climate in which I grew up, we are no longer on the path to more environmental degradation than we once were. We can begin to measure improvements. Specifically, we have begun to bend the curve of greenhouse gas emissions. Just maybe there will be reason to expect an improving future climate by the time she is my age.
‘I began to look for the ways my actions could contribute to the work of others that would leave a better legacy for her.’
The group of local activists I joined represent retirees and others who recognize that the fight for a greener world will require all of our skills, experience, and wisdom. As engineers and scientists, teachers, doctors, mothers, and fathers, we all had valuable skills to bring to the movement to protect life on this planet.
Looking back on my experience and then talking with other members of ECA, I realized that there are various benefits, both given and received, in being a climate activist. These include opportunities for continued personal growth and learning, for applying skills and experience gained over a lifetime, for taking actions to build a more hopeful legacy, while being a role model for future generations. Together, these benefits give me many reasons to get up and face each day and continue to fight for a better climate. I suspected that other elders in ECA had similar experiences, so I interviewed six other ECA members on these and similar topics. I have combined their observations with some of my own across four main themes.
As elders, it is important that we keep learning to remain engaged in life and relevant. Several members first found ECA as they were attending educational programs intended for older adults in the community. I heard comments from one member of ECA about how hard it was to find a variety of things to do during retirement as most groups had a single focus (e.g., folk dancing.) But in becoming a climate activist, she learned a lot about the climate and the environment, about lobbying and how bills got made and negotiated. “Lobbying was hard to do, but I got to see results with the passage of a bill I had worked on,” she said.
Another member explained that life-long learning keeps him engaged in the world. Working on climate concerns gave him a whole new set of topics to learn, from the environment to how legislation gets passed. It also helped him to maintain a range of existing skills and experience, from research and writing to public health.
Sometimes we bring a unique insight to a problem that has nothing to do with our work history but provides a perspective from our personal history. For example, I can recall the simpler, less-polluting ways in which previous generations lived. Those memories give me insights into ways we can resolve some intractable problems. My grandparents lived well but generated very little trash of any kind. There was no plastic then, just paper, tin cans, and glass jars. Glass was reused, tin cans rusted to nothing, and paper was burned. Worn-out clothes were up-cycled into hooked rugs. Also, I grew up in a suburban town in an era before school buses and walked to school from the earliest grades. When I share stories like these with younger people today, I get funny looks. Yet from these stories come ideas for greener living.
Climate activism is one way to apply our hard-earned skills and experience in retirement.
In talking with others in ECA, however, I found that my memories of how grandparents approached household challenges in different ways were not common. Fortunately, some of us don’t have so far back to look for examples of inspiring actions. One ECA member cited the example of her father, who advocated bringing the community together to work collaboratively using all their various skills. This created a passion for community organizing in his daughter, who is now applying those lessons to ECA’s work.
Using Competencies Gained Over a Lifetime
ECA members come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We have developed skills and experience that we know have been valuable, and climate activism is one way to apply some of this in retirement. Scientists, doctors, and engineers have helped us with the science of climate solutions. Teachers have helped us explain these understandings to others. Mothers have helped us speak to the heart and not just the heads of our audiences. One member had been a union organizer and a teacher. He brought these skills to his work as a climate activist and lobbyist.
Building a More Hopeful Legacy While Being a Role Model
Finally, as elders, we naturally have a concern for our legacy. One part of our legacy is the climate we leave to coming generations. Unfortunately, we are leaving a world with many fewer species, with more extreme storms, more heatwaves, fires, and threats to our survival as a species. Previous generations left us with a much healthier climate than the one we are leaving to those who follow us. And our generation has been slow to act.
Building a better legacy can mean passing important climate legislation. Many ECA members have been drawn to our work on lobbying for state and federal climate bills. Over the past several years we participated in a successful campaign to pass the state’s new climate legislation mandating net zero by 2050, plus various interim targets. Building a legacy also can mean setting an example for others. One interviewee mentioned the value he got from being a role model for the next generation. Another said that through her example her kids have learned to be better consumers, preferring used over new items, when they can get them. Other members have been early adopters of heat pumps and electric vehicles. At least one interviewee mentioned downsizing her home partly to shrink her carbon footprint.
Another interviewee suggested the importance of our ability to do the work for the next generation, who today are busy earning a living and raising their children. As one interviewee said, “I am moved by the global, existential crisis we face. How could I not be involved? If we don’t address this world, what am I leaving behind?”
Our actions may create a legacy of climate action that offers signs of an improving climate. Perhaps our grandchildren will find our efforts to be a source of inspiration as they struggle with the more extreme climate conditions they will have to face. If they can begin to see the possibility of progress, then perhaps they will find that hope my granddaughter requested.
I want to thank the following members of the Massachusetts chapter of ECA for sharing their experiences as I prepared this article: Maiyim Baron, Seth Evans, Tina Grosowski, Betty Krikorian, Margie Lee, Roger Luckmann, and Grady McGonagill. They and other chapter members have been a great source of inspiration and support to me as I “retired” into climate activism.
Rick Lent, PhD, is a member of the leadership team of the Massachusetts chapter of Elders Climate Action. He retired from his consulting practice in 2017 to spend more time on local and state efforts to address climate change. Prior to that he spent 25 years facilitating challenging conversations for such organizations as the World Food Programme, USAID, UNICEF, and the International Red Cross.