Return to Magazine Features
By Shawn Blore

Photos by Lorne Bridgman

World peace and love for all humankind? Jamming the machine and refusing to work for The Man? Have the pillars 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 demographic born in the years of euphoria following WWII - took up the reins of power, only to find the initiative taken from their grasp. Progressive change was now in the hands of a new demographic: the 'aimless,' 'valueless,' 'slacker' generation most commonly known as 'X.'

It would be hard to argue against the conclusion that the Boomers in power have been a deep - if not total - disappointment, particularly on the environmental front. This is, after all, the generation that coined the word 'environmentalist' (even if they didn't invent environmentalism), the post-war demographic whose self-image still rests on remembered days of youthful protest.

And what can they show from their time in office? In Germany, Gerhard Schroeder's 'red-green' coalition appears to be furiously backing away from its environmental promises, with the Green party leading the retreat. To take but one example, the promise to ban nuclear power has become an 'undertaking' not to build any more nuclear power plants, with the caveat 'unless it proves expedient' more or less understood. In the UK, Tony Blair's sole ecological project is the environment section of the Millennium Dome theme park; so scant is Blair's environmental record that many activists are now openly wondering whether things weren't better under the Conservatives. And then there's Bill Clinton.

Through eight years in office Clinton has been the perfect Republican. Unfortunately, the weakening and/or attempted gutting of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protections Act is not exactly what was expected from the first of the '6os 'radicals' to take power.

Much was once expected in the environmental field from Clinton's likely successor, Vice-President Al Gore. After all, the final chapter in Gore's 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Gore calls for a Global Marshall Plan, a US-led effort to rebuild and protect environmental capital and systems world wide. The closer Gore has gotten to power, however, the less he mentions the green Marshall Plan, or even the word 'environment.'

It's not that Boomer politicians lack the demographic weight to back up their aims. According to the most recent data, those born from 1943-1959 (the Baby Boom years) represent approximately 24 percent of the population in the US, 26 percent of the population in Canada, and 23 percent in the UK. In all these countries, the figures ensure that Boomers' concerns rise immediately to the top of the heap. The problem, quite simply, is that '60s style activism no longer works - for the '60s generation or for the rest of society.

Fortunately, a new kind of activism has been taking shape over the '90s, together with a new kind of activist. Where old activism called for revolution, the new activism stresses incremental change. Where old activism focused on the spiritual, the new activism is deeply materialist. Where old activists abhorred technology, new activists love hi-tech gadgets of all kinds, and look to numbers for their salvation. Where old activism's ideal was Arcadian, new activists give their energy, devotion and love to cities.

And then there's the final cleavage point - though subject to as many exceptions as any other general rule - between the new activism and old: old activists are mainly Boomers. New Activists come from Generation-X.


THOUGH IT'S A MATTER of on-going debate, in many ways a two-decade definition of an Xer (1960-1980) makes the most sense. It fits with the traditional definition of a generation as a 20-year time-slice. More importantly, individuals born during these two decades share some common features that set them apart from previous generations.

First off is the feeling of entitlement. Boomers have it, Xers don't: Boomers grew up in a era when to ask a thing of government - subsidized housing, cheap education, arts and culture grants - was to receive it, deficit be damned. The Xer experience is one of cutbacks, user fees, and self-reliance. Given that any form of sustainable society will require significantly reduced levels of personal consumption, Xers - with their early experience of scarcity - would seem to have a head start.

Secondly and far more importantly, Boomers grew up during the last decades of the frontier era, when nature was still endlessly bountiful and even the sky (or at least the moon) was not a limit. Thanks to the shocks provided by the publication of Silent Spring, the '73 oil embargo, and the onset of the extinction crisis, Xers came of age with an ingrained awareness of the earth as a limited and fragile place.

This awareness was not, of course, enough to turn all Xers into activists. But among those who did join the battle, enough chose to follow a different approach - urban, materialist, technocratic -that they constitute a new and an important Gen-X grouping: a tribe I've labeled the ecoGeeks. I met my first one in the mid-9Os, when my adopted city of Vancouver decided to build a new neighborhood.

A sustainable neighborhood, located on an 80-acre ex-industrial site on the southeast shore of False Creek, a saltwater lagoon that laps at the centre of the city. Unfortunately, the project almost immediately ran into problems: what was this 'sustainability'? Almost a decade after the Brundtland Report had put the phrase sustainable development' into the world's lexicon, nobody in a position of authority - at least in Vancouver - could say exactly what the term meant at the urban level.

In the absence of any meaningful definition, city hall substituted a predictable plan for high rise residential condos and brought it forth for rubber stamp approval. But a funny thing happened at the council meeting. After the city's assorted high-priced help rose to say they had no idea what sustainability was, the Gen-Xers - members of a loose coalition called the False Creek Working Group -went to the public microphones, and one-by-one began to speak.

It was an impressive display. Where a staff of experts and several hundred thousand dollars worth of hired help had been unable to, this passel of ecoGeeks provided a definition of their own, complete with working examples for waste reduction, water reduction, sewer systems. To their credit, the Boomer-dominated council voted to put the entire project on hold until this definition of sustainability could be brought to bear. I set out to find out more about these Xers - my contemporaries who apparently knew so much.

The first thing that impressed me was their education. Most had a master's degree, or were working on one. But then that is typical of the entire Xer generation. Most went to university from the mid-8os to early '905, just as the boom times looked set to end. Graduating into a world with limited opportunities, most ecoGeeks went back for more schooling, picking up advanced degrees in environmental engineering, economics, or natural resource planning. Others went for urban planning degrees or pioneered their way through the burgeoning new faculties of environmental studies. 'Slacker' label aside, the X-generation amassed a record of educational achievement surpassing any other in recorded history. By 1996, more than half of those 25-34 had university degrees. Fifteen percent had graduate training. Both levels are nearly double that of the previous generation.

Indeed, it was partly in deference to this expertise that 32-year-old Mark Holland - a certified ecoGeek with a master's degree in urban planning and a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture - found his way into civic bureaucracy. Though officially a lowly minion in the planning department at Vancouver City Hail, his real role is both more interesting and more important.

"I'm a kind of informational virus," explains Holland.

A propaganda agent, to use older terminology. His task is to expose the older, more powerful members of the civic bureaucracy to current ideas about urban sustainability as often and as intensively as possible. Holland's hope is that after he moves on - Xers typically don't stay long at any one job -his ideas about sustainability will have worked their way in to become a permanent part of the bureaucratic DNA. Again, it's a typical ecoGeek approach. Where the Boom generation took to the streets demanding change, ecoGeeks are more likely to be found beavering away on the inside.

Azzah Jeena, for example, is fighting global warming from a cubicle in Ottawa. Twenty-seven years old with a degree in economics and another in environmental studies, Jeena heads up the Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program at the Canadian Federation of Municipalities (FCM). Her job is to help the approximately 5,000 FCM member cities reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Her approach is two-track: municipal politicians are first asked to commit to reducing their city's emissions by a specific target - usually 20 percent - within six years of signing on to the program. Then, because so many good resolutions die the moment a bureaucrat says it can't be done, Jeena brings in experts from the appropriate fields who can talk to a city's technical staff in their own language.

"Engineers only listen to other engineers," says Jeena. "Don't ask me why, but that's the way it works. So I try to set up workshops where the engineers can trade information."

It's a highly effective technique. Unfortunately, quiet competence and pragmatic, successful measures - hallmarks of the ecoGeek approach - tend to garner very little glory, and even less press. Indeed, in the boomer-dominated media, particularly in the early '90s, it was common to castigate Xers for their lack of ambition and their inability to think or even dream big. A more acute reading would have suggested instead that Xers early on developed a sophisticated ability to discriminate between significant progress (such as a new law or even bylaw) and sound and fury -such as the increasingly ritualized acts of formal street protest

Even when they do opt for sound and fury, Xers often show a sophistication that Boomers - raised on simple slogans and easy dichotomies - just don't get Media coverage of the '999 World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial summit in Seattle was a case in point


Continue >>

<< Back to Magazine Features