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THE GREAT DIVIDE
World peace and love for all humankind? Jamming
the machine and
refusing to work for The Man? Have
of Baby Boomer activism seen their day? To hear one unimpressed
observer tell it, the Boomers got more than
a few things wrong. And to pick up the pieces,
a new brand of activism is emerging. Its
proponents are more likely to be endorsing
environmentally friendly widgets than championing
a global movement. Meet the activists of
the much- maligned "x" generation.
Less spiritual than practical, Xers worldwide
are quietly getting things done - from within
the system. Where Boomers moralize, Xers
listen. Where Boomers dream, Xers measure.
Here the power shift begins. "
By Shawn Blore
IIT HAPPENED sometime in the '90s. The Baby
Boom generation - that large, rich
born in the years of euphoria following
- took up the reins of power, only
the initiative taken from their grasp.
change was now in the hands of a new
the 'aimless,' 'valueless,' 'slacker'
most commonly known as 'X.'
It would be hard to argue against the
that the Boomers in power have been
- if not total - disappointment, particularly
on the environmental front. This is,
all, the generation that coined the
'environmentalist' (even if they didn't
environmentalism), the post-war demographic
whose self-image still rests on remembered
days of youthful protest.
And what can they show from their time
office? In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder's
coalition appears to be furiously backing
away from its environmental promises,
the Green party leading the retreat.
but one example, the promise to ban
power has become an 'undertaking' not
build any more nuclear power plants,
the caveat 'unless it proves expedient'
or less understood. In the UK, Tony
sole ecological project is the environment
section of the Millennium Dome theme
so scant is Blair's environmental record
that many activists are now openly
whether things weren't better under
And then there's Bill Clinton.
Through eight years in office Clinton
been the perfect Republican. Unfortunately,
the weakening and/or attempted gutting
the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act,
Species Act and Marine Mammal Protections
Act is not exactly what was expected
the first of the '6os 'radicals' to
Much was once expected in the environmental
field from Clinton's likely successor,
Al Gore. After all, the final chapter
Gore's 1992 book Earth in the Balance,
calls for a Global Marshall Plan, a
effort to rebuild and protect environmental
capital and systems world wide. The
Gore has gotten to power, however,
he mentions the green Marshall Plan,
the word 'environment.'
It's not that Boomer politicians lack
demographic weight to back up their
According to the most recent data,
born from 1943-1959 (the Baby Boom
represent approximately 24 percent
population in the US, 26 percent of
in Canada, and 23 percent in the UK.
these countries, the figures ensure
Boomers' concerns rise immediately
top of the heap. The problem, quite
is that '60s style activism no longer
- for the '60s generation or for the
Fortunately, a new kind of activism
taking shape over the '90s, together
a new kind of activist. Where old activism
called for revolution, the new activism
incremental change. Where old activism
on the spiritual, the new activism
materialist. Where old activists abhorred
technology, new activists love hi-tech
of all kinds, and look to numbers for
salvation. Where old activism's ideal
Arcadian, new activists give their
devotion and love to cities.
And then there's the final cleavage
- though subject to as many exceptions
any other general rule - between the
activism and old: old activists are
Boomers. New Activists come from Generation-X.
MEET THE XERS
THOUGH IT'S A MATTER of on-going debate,
in many ways a two-decade definition
Xer (1960-1980) makes the most sense.
fits with the traditional definition
generation as a 20-year time-slice.
importantly, individuals born during
two decades share some common features
set them apart from previous generations.
First off is the feeling of entitlement.
Boomers have it, Xers don't: Boomers
up in a era when to ask a thing of
- subsidized housing, cheap education,
and culture grants - was to receive
be damned. The Xer experience is one
user fees, and self-reliance. Given
any form of sustainable society will
significantly reduced levels of personal
consumption, Xers - with their early
of scarcity - would seem to have a
Secondly and far more importantly,
grew up during the last decades of
era, when nature was still endlessly
and even the sky (or at least the moon)
not a limit. Thanks to the shocks provided
by the publication of Silent Spring,
'73 oil embargo, and the onset of the
crisis, Xers came of age with an ingrained
awareness of the earth as a limited
This awareness was not, of course,
to turn all Xers into activists. But
those who did join the battle, enough
to follow a different approach - urban,
technocratic -that they constitute
and an important Gen-X grouping: a
I've labeled the ecoGeeks. I met my
one in the mid-9Os, when my adopted
of Vancouver decided to build a new
A sustainable neighborhood, located
80-acre ex-industrial site on the southeast
shore of False Creek, a saltwater lagoon
that laps at the centre of the city.
the project almost immediately ran
what was this 'sustainability'? Almost
decade after the Brundtland Report
the phrase sustainable development'
the world's lexicon, nobody in a position
of authority - at least in Vancouver
say exactly what the term meant at
In the absence of any meaningful definition,
city hall substituted a predictable
for high rise residential condos and
it forth for rubber stamp approval.
funny thing happened at the council
After the city's assorted high-priced
rose to say they had no idea what sustainability
was, the Gen-Xers - members of a loose
called the False Creek Working Group
to the public microphones, and one-by-one
began to speak.
It was an impressive display. Where
of experts and several hundred thousand
worth of hired help had been unable
passel of ecoGeeks provided a definition
of their own, complete with working
for waste reduction, water reduction,
systems. To their credit, the Boomer-dominated
council voted to put the entire project
hold until this definition of sustainability
could be brought to bear. I set out
out more about these Xers - my contemporaries
who apparently knew so much.
The first thing that impressed me was
education. Most had a master's degree,
were working on one. But then that
of the entire Xer generation. Most
university from the mid-8os to early
just as the boom times looked set to
Graduating into a world with limited
most ecoGeeks went back for more schooling,
picking up advanced degrees in environmental
engineering, economics, or natural
planning. Others went for urban planning
degrees or pioneered their way through
burgeoning new faculties of environmental
studies. 'Slacker' label aside, the
amassed a record of educational achievement
surpassing any other in recorded history.
By 1996, more than half of those 25-34
university degrees. Fifteen percent
training. Both levels are nearly double
of the previous generation.
Indeed, it was partly in deference
expertise that 32-year-old Mark Holland
a certified ecoGeek with a master's
in urban planning and a bachelor's
in landscape architecture - found his
into civic bureaucracy. Though officially
a lowly minion in the planning department
at Vancouver City Hail, his real role
both more interesting and more important.
"I'm a kind of informational virus,"
A propaganda agent, to use older terminology.
His task is to expose the older, more
members of the civic bureaucracy to
ideas about urban sustainability as
and as intensively as possible. Holland's
hope is that after he moves on - Xers
don't stay long at any one job -his
about sustainability will have worked
way in to become a permanent part of
bureaucratic DNA. Again, it's a typical
approach. Where the Boom generation
to the streets demanding change, ecoGeeks
are more likely to be found beavering
on the inside.
Azzah Jeena, for example, is fighting
warming from a cubicle in Ottawa. Twenty-seven
years old with a degree in economics
another in environmental studies, Jeena
up the Partners for Climate Protection
program at the Canadian Federation
(FCM). Her job is to help the approximately
5,000 FCM member cities reduce their
gas emissions. Her approach is two-track:
municipal politicians are first asked
commit to reducing their city's emissions
by a specific target - usually 20 percent
- within six years of signing on to
Then, because so many good resolutions
the moment a bureaucrat says it can't
done, Jeena brings in experts from
fields who can talk to a city's technical
staff in their own language.
"Engineers only listen to other
says Jeena. "Don't ask me why,
the way it works. So I try to set up
where the engineers can trade information."
It's a highly effective technique.
quiet competence and pragmatic, successful
measures - hallmarks of the ecoGeek
- tend to garner very little glory,
less press. Indeed, in the boomer-dominated
media, particularly in the early '90s,
was common to castigate Xers for their
of ambition and their inability to
or even dream big. A more acute reading
have suggested instead that Xers early
developed a sophisticated ability to
between significant progress (such
as a new
law or even bylaw) and sound and fury
as the increasingly ritualized acts
Even when they do opt for sound and
Xers often show a sophistication that
- raised on simple slogans and easy
- just don't get Media coverage of
World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial
summit in Seattle was a case in point
See TAKING ON THE WTO next
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