In a recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, I referenced data from Harvard’s Institute of Politics showing that only 20 percent of my generation trusts the federal government, the lowest percentage in the past five years. I argued that the fossil fuel divestment movement, which aims to create new political space, can help restore the lost faith of young and old alike in our political system.
John Avlon, editor of the Daily Beast and a panelist on the show that evening, reacted aggressively, denying even my premise: “There’s a generation that was engaged and is now apathetic…but if they decide, then, [that] they’d rather change the world by being a slacktivist rather than going out and voting, they’re not only undermining our democracy—they are going to compound the problems we’ve got right now.”
Avlon grossly misinterprets the reality of my generation, today’s youth activism and what I said. We may be disillusioned, but we are not apathetic. We are engaged and determined to take action in thousands of new ways. We are not waiting on the sidelines for a miracle, and we are not giving up on the power of our vote—in fact we’re saving it.
The fact is that data from the Pew Research Center shows that “adults of all ages have become less attached to political and religious institutions in the past decade, but millennials are at the leading edge of this social phenomenon.” And understandably so: my peers and I grew up watching Clinton’s impeachment hearings. We came of age during eights years of Bush-Cheney, witnesses to the politics of fear and destruction. Climate denial has percolated throughout society as the planet hurdles towards an unprecedented state of emergency. We were hopeful when we elected Barack Obama. But he has turned out to be the change that we can’t believe in.
This picture of disaffiliation is complicated by a strong drive toward activism. millennials are more optimistic about the future than any other generation. Half of us are political “independents,” but we vote heavily for liberal policies and candidates and believe in an activist government. Another report from Telefónica supports these findings: 40 percent of millennials believe that we can make a global difference. While we may be skeptical of traditional institutions we use new technologies to create alternative networks and communities through which we mobilize political action. As I said on Real Time, our new forms of engagement are aimed at taking back democracy and restoring it to government of, by, and for the people.
The most urgent and significant example is the fossil fuel divestment movement. My generation understands that the world is on the brink of irreversible climate catastrophe and that our futures are at the frontlines of this crisis. Fossil fuel companies control 2,795 gigatons of carbon reserves—five times more than is safe to burn if the world is stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming—the UN-declared reddest of red lines. The world has already warmed .8 degrees Celsius since 1880, and this has contributed to the hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, floods that already wreck havoc on our planet. Two degrees warming will change our planet but not destroy it. But if we do nothing, the Earth will warm 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 and become uninhabitable.
This climate crisis is the defining issue of my generation, and we are determined to alter the course of our indifferent government. Students nationwide are pioneering the fossil fuel divestment movement because we will not watch today’s leaders gamble with our futures. Our movement has two goals: first, we are stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry and highlighting its profoundly anti-social behavior, thereby weakening its political influence. Simultaneously, we are building a broad inclusive grassroots climate movement. Just about everyone in the US is part of an institution that has something to divest—from an alma mater’s endowment to a state pension fund. So we are creating the foundation for something big and bold. Already there are around 400 divestment campaigns on campuses in the US alone, and 50,000 students joined the People’s Climate March in New York City.
A movement like this can hold politicians accountable to their constituents, calling on them to stand up for federal action on climate change. This movement can also use its networks to mobilize Americans during election seasons. We can put out the call to vote for candidates that are paying attention to climate issues and pledging to push for climate legislation.
The divestment movement also represents a fundamental rethinking of modern society. At this unprecedented moment in human history, we must question the systems that created the climate crisis in the first place. We are not aiming to merely tweak society. This isn’t about engineering our way out of a problem. We are creating a new system of values that revolutionizes how we interact with the Earth and with each other.
So when it comes to our political system, the divestment movement refuses to continue banging on the doors of a political system captured by a rogue industry that insists on putting its profits above the future of the planet and all its inhabitants. Instead, we are creating a movement that reveals the corruption of this process. We are not forsaking our vote, but we see that we must address the fossil fuel industry in order to restore the value and power of our vote.
My generation has the courage to turn disillusionment into hope. Even though our politicians and business leaders have failed us, we know that there is too much at stake to give up. We believe in all of our futures, and we refuse to lose heart. We really do believe in the possibility of a better world.
We are the change to believe in.