John Humphrys - Saving the Planet: Who’s More Virtuous, the Young or the Old?

November 05, 2021, 5:07 PM UTC

This crisis of global warming has ignited or re-ignited many conflicts between human beings. There are the increasing tensions between the developing and developed worlds; between those doomed to be on the frontline of catastrophe when sea levels rise and those huddling on higher ground; between refugees from devastated countries and those who want to pull up the drawbridge against immigrants. One of the most head-on conflicts is between the young and the old. But how helpful is it to see the old as the villains and the young as the virtuous?

The simplest account of this conflict can be expressed bluntly: it’s the old who got us into this mess – by definition, the young couldn’t have – yet it’s the young who are going to be the main victims because it is they who will have to live with the consequences. What’s more, it’s the young who are throwing themselves into actually doing something about it while the old are dragging their feet. On this view, Greta Thunberg must be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This basic idea informs the front-runner explanation for the impending ‘failure’ of Cop 26. It will fail because it’s the older generation that’s in charge of sorting things out and the older generation has shown itself time and again inadequate to the task. And it’s inadequate because it’s selfish, concerned only with its own narrow interests and cynically exploiting the fact that its members will be dead before Armageddon strikes. Our more elderly leaders have often claimed success, of course, but that’s because they are liars as well being selfish. At the very best, any success they lay claim to is bound to be partial and way below what’s really necessary to save the planet. That’s why we are all proceeding towards hell in a carbon-fuelled handcart.

That, at least, is the crude version of the ‘young’ critique of the old. It’s one shared by many who are themselves knocking on a bit. It reminds me of the sixteen-year-old William Hague’s speech to the Conservative Party in 1977 when he berated his Tory elders for not being zealous enough in fighting socialism – it’s all right for you lot, he said: most of you won’t be around in thirty years’ time, but I will!

But there’s always been something deeply dodgy about this simplistic argument with regard to tackling climate change. It says the elderly are selfish, burying their heads in the sand while the young are selflessly virtuous. And it’s not just there are plenty of older people in the forefront of trying to save the planet, from the ninety-five-year-old David Attenborough down to the retired vicars misguidedly glueing themselves to the M25.

The basic flaw in the case is that it ignores the fact that most ‘old’ people have children and grandchildren. Indeed I remember one retired solicitor who’d been arrested sitting himself down in Oxford Circus or somewhere during one of the early XR protests, telling an interviewer he was doing it because otherwise ‘I couldn’t look my grandchildren in the face’.

If you want to know how much their children and grandchildren figure in the views of older people about what should or shouldn’t be done, ask any politician who’s toyed with the idea of raising inheritance tax. Or ask yourself this question: have you ever heard a grandparent say: ‘I know that the three long-haul foreign holidays we’re planning for next year will help make the planet uninhabitable for my grandchildren and their grandchildren, but who cares…’? Have you ever suspected that a grandparent was even thinking this, even if they weren’t saying it?

On the other side of the ledger there is plenty of evidence that young people ‘compromise’ their highly vocalised principles in order to live what they consider acceptable lives. That’s in spite of all the justified outrage of the young about the fine mess their forebears have got them into and for all their zeal in embracing measures to deal with it, from becoming vegan, to taking up cycling, and even to foregoing having children of their own And how could that not be the case unless we have bred a completely new and barely recognisable strain of homo sapiens?

Take, for example, the issue of trainers. There are reckoned to be 25 billion pairs made every year, mostly from several forms of plastic made with fossil fuels that can’t be recycled. They create more than half the carbon emissions of the entire aviation industry. Yet few self respecting young people would dare be seen without the very latest trendy version.

Nor without the latest fashion in tops or dresses or jeans that come at the opposite end of the price scale. They might be made by workers on starvation wages in the sweat shops of the far east but no matter. They are hoovered up – often to be worn once and then cast aside. The cheaper they are the better. Again, the cost to the environment is huge.

This is not to condemn the young as hypocrites any more than it is to claim that the older generation has been unfairly judged with regard to its responsibility for the crisis. It’s simply pointing out that the old and the young share a problem rather than claiming that one group is uniquely selfish in handling it, the other uniquely virtuous. And that problem can be simply defined: it’s ‘how do we live virtuously?’

Lest you fear I’m heading off into ‘Thought for the Day’ territory, let me spell out in a bit more detail what I’m getting at. How to live a good life has been a central question of moral philosophy going back at least as far as Aristotle. What is new in the predicament in which we find ourselves today (young and old) is that for the first time in history we are confronted by the realisation that our decisions as to whether we should act virtuously or not have global consequences. There was a time when each of us addressed the question of how we should live virtuously in the context of the impact on those among whom we immediately lived, or maybe in the context of the injunctions of whatever god it is we happened to believe in. Now, for the first time, how we choose to live has global implications, determining whether people in the future will even have the luxury of such a choice or whether we will have destroyed the habitat essential to their living at all.

Previously, living ‘virtuously’ was largely a local matter. What was taken to be virtuous was determined by the customs and beliefs of those among whom we lived. And it was our locality that regulated us: if we lived virtuously by local standards we could expect esteem and respect; if we didn’t, we could expect shame, estrangement, even being flung off a hilltop. Living virtuously was a sort of locally self-regulating system.

But now the effects of our decisions are felt remotely. So remotely, in fact, that until quite recently we hadn’t the slightest idea that what seemed like our uncontroversial choices about how to live could have impacts so far away, and that those impacts could be so devastating. We can’t ignore it now. But we don’t have the equivalents of local virtue-regulation that kept us on the straight and narrow before to keep us there now. So now we have to make these decisions on our own.

Living virtuously involves sacrifice. It means foregoing what we would otherwise want. That’s easier when systems of virtue-regulation are requiring everyone to make the same sacrifice: if I’m not allowed to steal my neighbour’s wife, the sacrifice is made easier because nor is my neighbour. Involuntary sacrifice is always the easiest sort.

Next week we shall once again be marking the annual remembrance of all those who sacrificed themselves in two world wars. Of course among those sacrifices were many cases of individual, voluntary sacrifice. But the whole population had to engage in sacrifice, even if it was seldom the ultimate one. When Churchill predicted that history would deem this period of war ‘their finest hour’, the ‘they’ referred to everyone, because we were all in it together.

Today, however, when the sacrifice necessary to tackle climate change is not imposed but is essentially left to each of us to decide whether we are prepared to make it or not, there’s not likely to be any talk of ‘their finest hour’. More probably, we shall be judged to have failed by our own standards, and to have done so because we are human.

History shows that only a very few, highly exceptional people have lived their lives solely according to the answer they gave to the question off how to live virtuously. And those who were single-minded enough to do so, who were prepared to abstain from so much of what the rest of us thought essential to living, were generally seen as oddballs, eccentrics, even mentally deranged. Most people, history shows, compromise. Whatever we may believe a virtuous life might consist in, we water down the tenets in order to live with the grain of the norms of society around us.

Conformity with those norms is driven by any number of factors: our wish to belong, our wish to be loved, our wish not to stand out, even perhaps our fear of being regarded as vain, self-righteous virtue-signallers because of our apparent insistence on being virtuous. And this tendency towards conformity with our peers is as true for the young as it is for the old. For the young, that conformity today may consist just as much of having the right trainers as it is about being properly outraged about climate change.

What’s more it’s these habitual norms, far more than the supposed unique selfishness of the old, that constrains the making of progress on climate change, especially in democratic societies. Democratically-elected governments cannot force us to be virtuous. The central principle of democratic politics is followership: ‘I’m their leader – I must follow them!” Or to put it more prosaically, political leaders, even on an issue as urgent as global warming, are constrained by what their voters will allow them to do. It’s a point apparently ignored by those who glue themselves to motorways or who wag admonishing fingers at politicians they think are failing in their duty.

If we want to give politicians more space within which they can take political risks on behalf of tackling global warming, then we have to close the gap between the virtuous way to live at a time of climate crisis and the way of living we habitually adopt just to rub along unobtrusively with our neighbours. Put another way, we have to find a way to re-introduce local regulation of virtue into a world in which the impact of our behaving ‘wickedly’ is felt remotely. Shaming was how it used to be done locally and shame something we need to reintroduce as a force for good. If it becomes shameful to get unnecessarily on to a plane or buy a ghastly SUV, then people will soon stop doing it.

The young are good at shaming the old for their lapses of virtue. But they are not exempt from such lapses themselves. It’s not about whether the young are more or less virtuous than the old. It’s about how all of us, young and old, find a way of making the norms by which we live, and by which we get along with each other, run in parallel with, rather than cut against, behaving virtuously with regard to tackling global warming.

What’s your view?