I was born in 1970. That makes me a textbook Generation X poster boy. My parents were honeymooning in Italy during Apollo XI’s landing on the Moon. I was born during the time Sticky Fingers was being recorded, Jimmy Hendrix and François Mauriac died, and the Vietnam War escalated.
There are plenty of memes claiming we were the last generation to ride bikes without helmets, in the back of cars without seat belts, and our parents would let us roam wild until dinner time. Some of those things definitely resonate. I do remember eating lead paint peeling from the heating radiator in the stairwell as a tiny kid. My mom would ring a bell from the porch on weekends to tell us to come home for dinner. And I bought my first bike helmet myself in the 90s.
However, we were also the first generation of kids being told the planet was in trouble. One of the first disconnects with our parents’ lifestyle was HIV. We had to practice safe sex and regularly get tested. We watched some friends getting diagnosed with AIDS. And we were told the Earth’s ice caps were starting to melt.
What could we do about it? Not much, really. We could bitch at our dads who thought getting a diesel-powered wagon was more environmentally friendly — yes, that was a thing in Europe. We voted for some Green Party candidates who eventually compromised with social democrats if they got lucky enough to get any political sway. In the U.S., some Gen-Xers went vegetarian. Or even vegan, back when the meat analogs still tasted like shit. The Clinton administration banned CFCs and the ozone layer was saved. Yay.
Social justice for us white folks wasn’t even on our radar. We thought having a couple of black friends and listening to hip hop was getting us woke enough, back when woke wasn’t even a word. We felt noble enough thinking about the planet, we didn’t even think about the everyday of our friends of color who just had to get through the day without getting pulled over for some bullshit reason.
We recycled. We collected trash in forests and on beaches on Earth Day. We taught our kids about not littering. We told our parents about carbon footprints. We bought organically certified produce. We boycotted Nestle brands. We sold our Jeeps and bought Subarus.
And still, the planet went to shit. Look, we explained. The people in charge are still as old as our parents. They are still shrugging off this whole climate change thing, and that’s when they actually believe it’s happening. Their generation only believed in threats they could see with their own eyes: communists, hippies, immigrants, union leaders, corrupt politicians, Japanese conglomerates, ants, their neighbors’ dog. Global warming? Those scientists were just alarmists. The planet survived the Industrial Revolution and atmospheric nuclear tests from five major countries. It was going to be fine.
Now Gen-Xers are middle-aged. Some of us are even grandparents. We’ve dealt with multiple recessions on top of the AIDS pandemic, which honestly made us well-prepared for the Covid shitshow. But the planet is still going to shit and we didn’t do much about it. So those of us crazy enough to raise kids have tried to make them care about the environment. Let’s be honest though — those kiddos are usually smart enough to see that this isn’t a choice. They have to give a shit. They watch hurricanes and megadroughts and mass migration and wildfires on TV — and that’s when they don’t experience them first-hand —, so they know this is part of life. It’s not an option. Earth is in trouble because of humanity and they know it.
So, to Millennials and Gen-Zs and whichever youth will come after: we’re sorry. We tried — but not hard enough. Don’t be like us. Fight. Inspire us. You could be the first generation in ages who actually motivates their elders to do something about the future. Don’t give up.