Mary Dejevsky

Don’t blame boomers for destroying the planet

Don't blame boomers for destroying the planet
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A new charge has been added to the long list of ways in which we baby-boomers have supposedly blighted the prospects of the millennials. Along with our reluctance to downsize (despite the lack of decent retirement homes), the gold-plated pensions in our bank accounts (hollow laughter to that), and the future bequests we are squandering (less on cruises than on extortionate 'social care'), is now this: 'we' trashed 'their' planet.

At least as infuriating as the charge itself is how many of my fellow boomers go along with it. This is in spite of recent research, from King’s College London, showing that older people are just as concerned about climate change as the young. It also ignores the reality of what we have actually done to look after the planet. Making no effort whatever to set the record straight, too many of those my age roll over apologetically and concede that, yes indeed, 'nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa'.

But it isn’t true. And it is beyond time that we boomers started to defend ourselves on the environment front.

Take air quality. Many British cities, starting with London, are paying new attention to improving air quality, whether it is by discouraging the use of petrol or diesel fuelled cars, encouraging walking and cycling, or introducing – often unpopular – low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). For this, we have boomers to thank.

Foreign visitors to London of a certain vintage are sometimes puzzled to find dazzlingly white stone buildings in place of the blackened edifices familiar from the photos and travel guides of yore. Some are even disappointed not to experience a single fog-bound day during their stay. In fact, one of the last lethal pea-soupers in London was in 1962. It lasted five days and is estimated to have cost 700 lives. Ten years before that was the Great Smog of London, which may have left as many as 12,000 dead. Something had to be done – and it was.

The air quality in London and other British cities is still not good enough – largely because of traffic fumes and the fashion for supposedly eco-friendly wood-burning stoves. But even two decades ago, a parliamentary report from 2002 found there had been a more than 90 per cent fall in average smoke and sulphur dioxide emissions.

Remember, Tate Modern and the soon-to-be completed Battersea development used to be actual power stations. Note, too, the gas-holders you still see around UK cities, which have either been repurposed or abandoned. I remember, as will many others, the days when sacks of coal were delivered to every house in every street, and then the transfer of district after district to 'smokeless' fuels.

It was us boomers who started the switch to hybrid and electric vehicles, along with the introduction in some cities of eco-friendly trams – all calculated to reduce air pollution; all doing just that. One of the biggest breakthroughs in less polluting fuels came not with the introduction of E10 petrol this year, but with the arrival of lead-free petrol in 1989, with leaded petrol – damaging to children’s brain development – finally phased out in 2000 (as the millennials were just coming of age). There is still a way to go, but a lot of the heavy-lifting has been done.

My generation can claim credit for something else, too, which has barely been noticed, let alone applauded. Acre upon acre of UK city housing has been massively improved – OK, 'gentrified', if you must – on our watch. We didn’t sit around moaning that we couldn’t afford to buy a family house right off. We borrowed and improved and extended. We put in indoor loos, then modern bathrooms. We extended kitchens and converted lofts, installed insulation and then central heating – with a beneficial effect on health overall. Without that, dear millennials, you would still be taking turns for the tin bath in front of a coal fire on a Friday night.

The 1950s saw the designation of the first National Parks: the Peak District, the Lake District and Snowdonia. There are now 15, across England, Scotland and Wales, following a spate of new designations in the early 2000s. Amid all the alarm about the rainforest in other parts of the world, guess what has been happening to tree cover in the UK? According to Forestry England, the area of woodland has doubled over the past century – yes, doubled – with over a billion trees planted. It is fine for the Government to talk about plans for another billion to meet climate targets, but the record of the past 50 years is nothing to be ashamed of.

When did the UK designate its first conservation areas? In the second half of the 1960s. Again, this is early boomer territory. By 2017, the number of conservation areas had reached almost 10,000 – and measures included protection for trees when new development was planned.

Who introduced recycling? If you leave out the enforced recycling of the Second World War, it was us, the boomers, again starting in the 1960s in an effort that was given new impetus with the Household Waste Recycling Act of 2003. By 2016, more than 40 per cent of household waste in the UK was being recycled. Yes, we can do better. But without our efforts, none of this would have happened at all.

And it was we, by the way, who also took the first steps towards making our well-known wanderlust sustainable. OK, we democratised foreign travel, with cheaper flights to more places than anyone might have dreamt of in the past, learning in the process how other people do things. But was that such a bad thing? Do millennials seriously believe that travel should be the exclusive preserve of the rich? Perhaps they do – after all, they haven’t had that much to say about the carbon emissions clocked up by the private jets and the mega-yachts of the super-rich even as they parrot their commitment to greenery – but good luck in defending that view in a democracy.

And last, but not least, I would note the burgeoning departments of climate science across UK universities. For better or worse, it was us boomers who conjured them into existence. Without them, and their international collaboration, the millennials would simply not have the arguments they are now using to demand the huge resources and massive lifestyle changes they say are needed to offset the supposed negligence of their parents.

You can say this is a parochial audit. A balance-sheet for eco-action in one country, when the problem by its very nature transcends borders. But, short of demanding compulsory birth control worldwide and halting the advance of China and India, mid-industrialisation, I am not sure how much more my generation could have done.

Maybe better housing, cleaner water, cleaner air, national parks, afforestation, urban conservation and the rest were not enough. But we tried our best, given the knowledge we had, to be responsible stewards. Dear millennials, on behalf of the boomers, I plead Not Guilty. We did not trash your planet – or ours.

Written byMary Dejevsky

Mary Dejevsky is a writer, broadcaster, and former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington.

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