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The Greatest Generation 2.0?

Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation” and he was right.

They were born in the horrific shadow of World War I only to see their parents and families devastated by the Great Depression. They had already experienced plenty of hardship when war came to Europe and Asia again in the late 1930s; the world had done them few favors. Nor had they planted the seeds of that war; they had been children or not yet born as appeasement and rearmament became a vicious spiral. No matter: it fell to them to save the world.

And it was far from inevitable. The metastasizing conflict seemed far away and, to many Americans, irrelevant. Our mighty ocean borders seemed impenetrable, international communication was slow, and travel was expensive and taxing for all but the wealthy. Let the rest of the world solve its own problems, we thought, we have enough of our own here at home. The same apathy and argument slowly played out at the national level: FDR’s dithering globalism versus Charles Lindbergh’s “America First” isolationism. Hitler was already astride Western Europe and bombing a starving England. Still we dithered, our armed forces in tatters, our factories still making automobiles and washing machines.


Associated Press

Then suddenly the far-off conflict came to us: Pearl Harbor. The Greatest Generation put down their books and plows; they won the war and then won the peace. They laid the groundwork for decades of economic growth, rising living standards, and greater equality — in short, the American Dream.

That American Dream is threadbare to the young people of today. Their world is constant war abroad and near-daily mass shootings at home, the Great Recession’s theft of job security, and student debt and housing costs’ theft of financial security. Like those coming of age in the 1930s, the world has done them few favors.

Like the fascism and aggression that spawned WWII, this generation’s defining threat — climate change — is not their creation. Nevertheless, it will afflict every aspect of their lives. And, acknowledged or not, the threat has come home: massive storms, melting glaciers, and dying oceans and forests. Apathy and argument are somehow still rampant in the US even as the threat is agonizingly clear. Drowning cities, parched agriculture, and rampant wildfires. Today’s generation sees their inheritance — and the dithering of preceding generations (including mine) — for what it is.

No matter. As in WWII, the rest of us can and must do all we are able. But as in WWII, it falls to this new generation to save the world.

The Greatest Generation 2.0? For everyone’s sake, I dearly hope so.


Lincoln Bleveans is a 25-year veteran of the global electric power industry. He is currently an executive at a progressive, vertically integrated municipal electric and water utility in Southern California. He is a frequent speaker and writer on energy, sustainability, resilience, and leadership and tweets regularly @bleveans. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, or other group or individual.

Lincoln Bleveans's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 2, 2019 2:17 pm GMT

There's definitely plenty of signs that the current generations are embracing the fight against climate change, but there's definitely still too much push back (whether from within or the legacy of the older generations). Comparing the fight to wartime mobilization is certainly appropriate, because that's the scale of action that's needed-- but time will tell if the long-term commitment and willingness to sacrifice when it's needed is there. Those were the defining characteristics of the Greatest Generation, so hopefully those traits carry over to this battle as well!

Lincoln Bleveans's picture
Lincoln Bleveans on Dec 2, 2019 4:12 pm GMT

That is my dearest hope, Matt.  The parallels are pretty striking to me but strong analogies don't automatically translate into effective action!  But hopefully we as a society can reframe the battle -- this piece is my first attempt at that -- as a 'World War 3', this time all of us against a common peril.

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