I am in an informal online discussion with other people my age--college classmates of mine, in fact. Thanks to our head alumnus, we began having weekly zooms during the pandemic, and this has led to some email exchanges. One person is a major climate activist, and in a recent exchange, several people suggested that the nation and the world simply had to adopt a new lifestyle involving the use of fewer resources--including much less meat--for us all to survive the threat of climate change. The tone of the discussion reminded me of discussions 50-60 years ago, and it set me thinking.
As I wrote at the end of American Tragedy, we entered college at a moment of supreme self-confidence among our national leadership and the faculty and (small) administration of our university. I think we shared that self-confidence. I also think that to some extent, we had all earned it. The New Deal and postwar America had created a remarkably wealthy and remarkably egalitarian society. That affected almost everyone. Despite segregation, data shows clearly that the lives of black as well as white Americans had improved a lot from the 1940s to the md-1960s--in fact black incomes and home ownership rates were rising more rapidly than white ones (albeit from a lower starting point.) The top marginal tax rates had just been cut from 91 percent to about 70 percent--still almost twice as much as what they are now, and with fewer loopholes. Segregation had just been officially outlawed and the Voting Rights Act passed at almost exactly the moment that we reached Cambridge. Medicare had just passed as well. The fear of nuclear war had greatly receded in the three years since the missile crisis. Women, of course, faced massive workplace discrimination, and society did not accept gay people--that was work that remained to be done.
Unfortunately, in the best Aristotelian manner, our parents' generation showed their tragic flaw at this moment of great triumph by undertaking the Vietnam War. Now some rebellion against the world they had created was inevitable, and had already begun at Berkeley a year earlier, before Vietnam had really gotten going. Their world was characterized by uniformity and regimentation in many ways--starting with dress and personal appearance--and we Boomers were already beginning to contest those aspects. I believe, though, that Vietnam opened the gates for something much bigger: permission to believe that everything our parents told us was false, and that their society was rotten at the core. I don't think that a majority of us believed that, but the most vocal members of our class certainly did, and they increasingly set the tone as the decade wore on. And that kind of root-and-branch criticism of our civilization and our intellectual traditions took root in academia, where it has blossomed now for five decades and become institutionalized.
Where did our extraordinary self-confidence come from? Here I would like to throw something else in the mix. The French psychologist Piaget in the 1970s said some interesting things about adolescent intellectual development. I quote from a work of his, Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence(1955).
"In contrast [to children], the adolescent is able to analyze his own thinking and construct theories. The fact that these theories are oversimplified, awkward, and usually contain very little originality is beside the point. From the functional standpoint, his systems are significant in that they furnish the cognitive and evaluative bases for the assumption of adult roles. . . .Consider a group of students between 14-15 years and the baccalaureat [the exam French lycee students take at 18.] Most of them have political or social theories and want to reform the world; they have their own ways of explaining all of the present day turmoil in collective life Others have literary or aesthetic theories and place their reading or their experiences of beauty on a scale of values which is projected onto a system. Some go through religious crises and reflect on the problem of faith, thus moving toward a universal system--a system valid for all. Philosophical speculation carries away a minority, and for any true intellectual, adolescence is the metaphysical age par excellence, an age whose dangerous seduction is forgotten only with difficulty at the adult level."
I'll stop there. For the record, the controversial Jordan Peterson made this point in an online panel discussion that I watched, and I was moved to track down what Piaget said myself. Peterson hadn't misrepresented it. I think, first, that that describes very well what so many of our contemporaries went through in the late 1960s. They decided that they understood what was wrong with society and what needed to be done to fix it better than anyone ever had. But in addition, I think that that spirit, for better or for worse--and some may feel it's for better--is still very much alive, and it is at least as popular on campuses today as it was in our time.
To be specific, some of us suggest that we can save ourselves and the planet only by radically changing our lifestyle, including what we eat, and of course, how we produce and use energy. Some people have felt this for a long time. One refers to one of her kids who is in fact doing this in real life, and there are contemporaries of mine in my extended family who made the same decision decades ago. So did my wife, in another life---she and her first husband were Arizona homesteaders for about 15 years, practicing maximum self-sufficiency. And they may be right about the consequences of continuing as we are. What disturbs me, however, is the feeling, which I get from some posts, that this is so obviously true that there is no real option except to accept it and act on it. That was also how we came to see ending the Vietnam War. But it didn't work, because, as Steve Kelman '70 pointed out in Push Comes to Shove, most of the country didn't agree with us. The older generation ended the war in its own way at its own pace. And the idea of cutting back fossil fuel use has still not become a consensus. Even the Inflation Reduction Act, while promoting clean energy, also promoted more fossil fuel production, not less. That was the price of getting it through our divided Congress. The Republicans are going to try to continue that trend in exchange for approving a debt ceiling increase.
Nor is this all. Climate change is a worldwide problem, and most of the people in the world--in what we used to call the third world--want more energy, and more meat, not less. John Kenneth Galbraith, one of my heroes from our parents' generation, often said that because he grew up on a farm, he knew that most people who grew up on farms wanted to escape from them. I'm not sure that that has changed much around the world. The western educated elite cannot expect the world to accept its political views as gospel--it has enough trouble getting them accepted at home.
It may be that climate change will destroy our civilization as we have known it. It also may be that in one way or another, we will adjust to it and learn to live with it in ways that preserve most of our civilization. As an historian, however, I doubt that we will peacefully make some massive changes in global lifestyles that will lower CO 2 levels from what they are now. That would require a degree of worldwide coercion that I don't think is even possible. A return to agricultural society in which we eat mostly plants could happen, I think, only after a catastrophic collapse of industrial society that left the relatively few survivors no choice.
Yes, our generation was smart--we went through a great educational system and we had a lot of time to think as kids. That did not, however, give us the power to decide what was right for everyone, much less to impose our views. One of us has spoken many times about the disconnect between our intellectual elite and ordinary people--a disconnect which many elections (starting with 1972!) have confirmed. I do wish that today's journalists and historians could spend more time on how things are, or were, and less on how they "obviously" ought to be. Today's college students are urged to "imagine" a better world than has ever existed on many fronts--gender, race, energy use, and more. Perhaps they need more respect for what has been and what is.