It’s Not Working Now

By Andrew Miller


In 2019 the town of Stonington, on Deer Isle, Maine, initiated a study designed to identify and protect municipally-owned infrastructure—roads, sewer lines, pumping plants—from high water caused by climate-induced coastal flooding. The project was funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and will be completed in 2021. The town will then assess options and determine the cost of making their infrastructure more resilient to coastal flooding.

I was gratified and surprised that the locals were serious about global climate change. Deer Isle has a high percentage of older people, many of whom are quite conservative. I’m at the leading edge of the boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and know that many of us are climate skeptics, even deniers. According to a recent study by Gallup, Inc., 56% of those 55 and older were concerned about global warming, compared to 70% of 18- to 34-year-olds. Only 55% of the older generation considered global warming to be human-induced, whereas 75% of young people did. Finally, 31% of those over 55 believed the news media understated the problem, compared to 48% of younger Americans.

“According to a recent study by Gallup, Inc., 56% of those 55 and older were concerned about global warming, compared to 70% of 18- to 34-year-olds. Only 55% of the older generation considered global warming to be human-induced, whereas 75% of young people did.”

Gallup briefly discussed these age-related differences. They suggested that older people assume they won’t be alive when effects of climate change become serious, hence didn’t worry much about it. Gallup also felt that younger people tend to be Democrats and likely to adopt their party’s view. In addition, they understood the subject since they had studied it recently. Their view is corroborated by a poll taken by the Pew Research Center, which indicated that young people lean democratic, although they often become more conservative with age.

These explanations seem weak, especially the last one. Although standards for teaching global climate change exist, nationwide there is considerable variation on how this subject is taught. Maine was one of 36 states that accept these standards, which assert that certain human activities increase air temperatures which will disrupt ecosystems and make the planet less hospitable. The remaining 14 states either insist that anthropogenic climate change is scientifically controversial, is only a possibility, or fail to mention it at all. A “Teach the Controversy” movement is growing among some politicians which could further affect how teachers present this subject.

I’ve never heard anyone admit they weren’t concerned about climate change because of their age, although some may have. Older people sometimes use age as an excuse to avoid mundane chores such as shingling the roof, purchasing a new car, or improving their diet. They do worry about some issues more than the young, especially those that relate to their health and safety, and their children’s welfare.

To find out more about Stonington’s plan for protecting their infrastructure, I contacted Henry Teverow, Economic Development Director, who oversees the project. We met for a beer at the Harbor Café, located on Main Street and within easy walking distance of the commercial fishing dock. Henry is a millennial, less than half my age.

Henry explained that protecting Stonington’s commercial fishing docks from high water is critically important. At least 1,000 of the island’s 3,000 permanent residents are directly or indirectly linked to lobstering. Later I learned that each year from 2015 to 2019, ex-vessel value of lobsters taken from the port of Stonington exceeded 50 million dollars. Cool water is necessary for this species. Because of rapid ice melt in the Arctic, the Gulf of Maine, from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, is warming faster than 99% of the rest of the ocean. Lobsters are one of many marine species that are moving north along the Atlantic coast in response to increasing water temperatures. Within 40 or 50 years, lobster populations will center off Canada and will no longer be the mainstay of the economy of coastal towns such as Stonington.

We agreed that global climate change can be a contentious topic. But Henry also noted that everyone on Deer Isle knows that low-lying roads flood when an astronomical high tide coincides with a fierce nor’easter. At least once a year, seawater flows into the first floor of the fire station, located near the water’s edge. The 0.5-mile causeway, the only land route on and off the island, is sometimes impassable. When Deer Isle residents, regardless of political affiliation or age, hear about flooding problems in coastal cities such as Miami or New Orleans, they are anxious to prepare for effects of climate change. 

I grumbled to Henry that older folks had gone soft on the most critical environmental issue of the 21st century—climate change. This bothered me; I’ve always been proud to be a boomer. My generation protested an unpopular war, questioned existing religious dogma and sexual mores, and demanded more relevant educational curricula. We pushed for civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation, and legislation to protect the environment. 

What happened?

Henry offered an explanation. One that Gallup didn’t mention. 

“You boomers were always skeptical of authoritative figures and experts.” He added that we were “do it yourselfers,” trusted our judgment and weren’t afraid to tackle difficult tasks. I thought about Whole Earth Catalogue, Mother Earth News, the Foxfire Magazine and book series. Most millennials might consider these publications irrelevant in our tech-savvy, social media-dominated society—if they’ve even heard of them. But in the sixties and seventies, many of us treated these publications with an almost religious reverence. Whole Earth Catalogue, first produced in 1968 by Stuart Brand, emphasized education, ecological awareness, and socially just activities. It didn’t sell products but reviewed them and provided vendor’s names so they could be ordered. Mother Earth News, started in 1970, published articles on farming, hunting, health care, alternative energy, and ham radio. Foxfire Magazine was started in 1966 by students at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, Georgia, and included interviews with local people on Appalachian history, crafts, and farming practices. Twelve Foxfire books, assembled from previous articles, were published between 1972 and 2004. Most boomers did not “take to the woods,” but lots of us fantasized about changing our lives, even in small ways. These were our formative years, and that philosophy stayed with us.

Henry took a sip of beer and continued. “Millennials are specialists, not generalists. If something needs to be done beyond our ability, we call an expert.” He set his beer down. “And, when a scientist discusses the causes and consequences of climate change, we listen.”

That stung a bit, but I had to agree. 

Henry’s hypothesis about my generation’s attitude had nothing to do with age, political party, or education. He identified an issue that Gallup didn’t mention. My cohort was born into a conservative time, a period of relative stability after two World Wars and the Great Depression. During those years, America changed dramatically, fueled by microprocessors, the interstate highway system, birth control pills, and television. As youngsters, we were at the cusp of exponential technological growth, much of it related to communication and the ability to process large amounts of information. We believed the future held endless possibilities and all problems were solvable. Our parents’ and grandparents’ ideas were outmoded. We rebelled. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” had more to do with attitude than with age. 

We questioned authority and brought about needed social, cultural, and legislative changes. But we didn’t take up new causes. While society ultimately benefited, protesters were in the streets for themselves. The “Me Generation” was angry about what they didn’t want (being sent to Vietnam) and what they did want (civil and social rights, a clean environment). Possibly this rebelliousness helped to bring about the current inequitable distribution of wages, taxes, health care, and educational opportunities. 

Maybe I shouldn’t be so smug about being a boomer. It’s our outmoded behavior that’s delaying action on global climate change. And it’s our children and grandchildren who will suffer. 

What worked then, isn’t working now.