Rocking chairs on a porch

"Today's older people are not your parent's grandparents," writes McKibben ahead of a national day of action on March 21, 2023.

(Photo: Mint Images / iStock Images)

Youth Climate Activists Finally Have Some Backup—Though We May Be Sitting Down.

Older people like me have decided not to go quietly. We're calling it the Rocking Chair Rebellion. It's one small sign of a promising new trend and we hope you'll join us.

On Tuesday, March 21, I’ll be sitting in a rocking chair in Washington, DC. Which doesn’t sound particularly daring, except that the rocking chair—and 50 more like it—will be blocking the doors of a Chase bank branch, part of a nationwide day of action largely orchestrated by a group called Third Act which draws it members from people over 60. We're calling it the Rocking Chair Rebellion, and it's one small sign of a promising new trend: older climate activists, ready to back up young leaders.

Young people have been at the heart of the climate movement, as I know better than most. When we started in 2008, the first global grassroots climate campaign initially consisted of 40-something me, and seven college kids. We launched the fossil fuel divestment campaign—and then watched as tens of thousands of students on campuses around the world helped turn it into the largest anti-corporate campaign ever, with $40 trillion worth of endowments and portfolios pulling out of coal, gas, or oil. Many of those divestment activists, when they graduated, wanted to keep going and so they formed the Sunrise Movement, which brought us the idea of Green New Deal—and hence, albeit in shrunken form, the reality of the Inflation Reduction Act. And meanwhile, Greta Thunberg and her thousands of peers around the world’s high schools and junior highs were mobilizing many millions of their fellow teenagers for action.

"Everyone in our age cohort knew you could foul the air and the water; none of us imagined you could melt the polar ice caps."

This all makes sense—young people are going to have to live their whole lives on a climate-challenged world, while I will be dead before it really reaches its worst. And young people are intelligent, energetic idealists; of course they’re out front.

But I listened to too many people say: "It's up to the next generation to solve this problem." Which seems both ignoble and impractical. For all that undeniable intelligence and idealism, even the most engaged young people lack the structural power to make change by themselves. Whereas older people have structural power by the boatload. We all vote, so the political impact of the 70 million Americans over 60 is much magnified. And we ended up—fairly or not—with something like 70 percent of the country's financial assets, so we can put some pressure on banks.

Theoretically, older people are supposed to become more conservative—and to help make that theory true, we have an entire cable network in this country, Rupert Murdoch's FOX News, whose entire business model boils down to 'Scare Old People.'

But today's older people are not your parent's grandparents. If you're in your 60s or 70s or 80s now, your first act was in that period of great social and political liberation that saw the apex of the civil rights movement, the first Earth Day, the birth of women's liberation, and so on. Look at the laws that a retrograde Supreme Court targeted last summer: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Clean Air Act of 1970, Roe v Wade of 1973. These laws governed our whole lives; if we were being conservative, that's what we'd be conserving.

Everyone in our age cohort knew you could foul the air and the water; none of us imagined you could melt the polar ice caps. And none of us imagined that if you could melt the polar ice caps, the powers that be would do so little to respond. That's why, after just a year, Third Act has many tens of thousands of members, and working groups scattered across the country. On Tuesday they'll be coordinating a hundred demonstrations all across the continent. Besides the rocking chairs in DC, there will be papier mache orcas eating credit cards in Seattle, and giant scissors slicing credit cards in New York. Senior citizens from a retirement community in suburban Boston will march behind a bagpiper to the local Chase branch to deliver letters telling them to stop funding fossil fuel expansion.

In fact, banks have particular reason to listen to older people, because so much of the money in the vault belongs to them. And because we're hard to outwait. Youth climate organizers have only a decade or so before they’re on to the next stage of their lives. Sixty year-old climate activists are likely to have twice that long or more—and we've often got lots of free time. Chase and Citi and Wells-Fargo and Bank of America should be worried: we’re not going anywhere any time soon. We’ll just keep rocking on.

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