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Culture

‘The Millennials Who Elected Trudeau Can Also Boot Him Out’

A Q&A with Geoff Dembicki, author of ‘Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change.’

By Christopher Cheung 1 Sep 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung is a reporter and page editor at The Tyee. You can find his stories here and follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

The title of Geoff Dembicki’s new book asks a question you probably think about more and more often with each dark headline you read these days: Are We Screwed?

Journalist Dembicki was writing about environment, industry and politics (you might recall his many Tyee stories over the years) when he noticed glimmers of hope when it came to fighting climate change. Sustainability was slowly being embraced. An increasing number of young people began to stand up for values they believed in, whether by making their voices heard or voting with their life choices.

Dembicki realized he was witnessing a cultural shift. Born in 1986, he saw that his generation, the millennials, were being defined as global citizens who cared more about morals than money. They prioritized meaning in their careers, consumption and investments — so much for millennial stereotypes of entitlement and narcissism.

Dembicki chronicled this new movement in his excellent 2014 Tyee series and pieces for publications like the Guardian. Now, he’s expanded his research into his first book! You can get it in many local bookstores, as well as here.

We asked Dembicki why millennials are taking action and how our planet can escape being screwed if we do act.

The Tyee: You’ve been writing about environment, industry and politics for a while. When did you realize that there was a significant movement of millennials rallying against climate change?

Dembicki: Like many people I was always a bit wary about generational labels. How can you make generalizations about millions of people based solely on their age? But Canada’s 2015 election convinced me that there’s value in looking at climate change from an explicitly “millennial” perspective. For nearly 10 years prime minister Stephen Harper tried to turn Canada into an oil and gas superpower. It seemed like everyone my age was terrified about the climate impacts. And then on election night there was an 18 per cent surge in turnout among young voters.

That surge was later credited as a major factor in ending Harper’s reign. It showed me that when voters in their 20s and early 30s organize politically they can change the leadership of an entire country. The results have admittedly been a little mixed. In some ways Justin Trudeau is more progressive than Harper on climate. He’s bringing in a national carbon price, for example, and that’s a big deal internationally. But he’s still approving fossil fuel projects left and right. All I can say is ‘watch out.’ The millennials who elected Trudeau can also boot him out.

Naomi Klein rushed out her latest book on the horror of Trump and what his presidency means for our climate. Your book is very hopeful in comparison about what’s being done and what we can do.

I don’t have any choice but to be hopeful. If we don’t take radical action right now to lower humankind’s carbon emissions, people like the climate scientist James Hansen predict all the world’s coastal cities could flood by 2065 — well within the lifetime of millennials and anyone younger. But to me hope isn’t just about foolish naiveté. It’s an organizing principle. It’s a way to fight back against the politicians and CEOs steering our planet towards catastrophe.

And once you start looking for hope you find it everywhere. The student-led fossil fuel movement has now influenced $5 trillion worth of financial assets. Bernie Sanders got more millennial votes in the 2016 primaries than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. Jeremy Corbyn made unthinkable gains for Britain’s far left in the recent U.K. election because of higher than usual millennial voter turnout. There is an appetite among millennials — and people of all age groups for that matter — for a new society that values the planet and its incredible diversity of cultures more than just profits. People like Trump won because of fear and hatred. And we have to push back against those emotions each step of the way.

In your book, you talk about millennials being “capitalism’s worst nightmare” — they choose careers and investments grounded in ethics, sustainability and meaning. How did this happen?

You could hazard a bunch of guesses. This generation came of age during the Great Recession. They witnessed disastrous wars in the Middle East that seemed to be motivated by oil. But the fact that millennials are questioning capitalism is undeniable. A Harvard survey last year found that a majority of young people want a different economic system. And you see these attitudes having real world economic impacts. The oil and gas industry is having a hard time attracting new millennial workers. And this could potentially block $100 billion worth of new projects.

You mention being wary about generational labels. How mainstream among millennials are these values that are beginning to define their generation? Are there enough millennials to believe in them to bring about change?

No group of people is totally homogenous in their worldview. And with millennials we’re talking about absolutely vast numbers of people, the largest living generation in the world right now! That said, the generational values shifts I’ve identified in the book — a questioning of capitalism, a more global worldview, a dismissal of traditional partisan politics — are significant enough to be observed over and over again by demographic researchers and social scientists.

And more importantly, these shifts in values are creating measurable impacts. The only way you can explain the meteoric rise of far-left political leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn is because they tapped into values held by millions of millennials. And as this generation ages into positions of power we should expect a profound realignment of our political and economic structures. We should expect strong action on climate change, an embrace of the industries of the future and a rejection of last century’s fossil fuels. This realignment is already taking place.

What do you think are the biggest roadblocks to a more sustainable future, and how can they be faced?

My short answer to that is one word: Trump. But what I really mean by that is the cynicism and fear and narrow-sightedness he represents. And though the evidence shows that people my age tend to lean progressive, especially on climate issues, there is an alarming minority of young people who are embracing the far-right ideology of hate and denial. They are the digital vanguard of movements like the “alt-right.” And the future of progressive politics — and of the entire planet — will to some extent depend on our ability to counter their ideology.

You’ve got a nifty guide at the end of your book called “How Not to Screw Up the Climate.” How does an individual do their part and not feel daunted by how society is now?

The simplest thing an individual can do is vote. Vote for politicians who promise bold action on climate change. Regular people ended Harper’s leadership, turned the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders into a contender for president, and brought far-left politics in the U.K. back from the dead. Riding your bike and changing your light bulbs is good. But punishing politicians who build fossil fuel projects and block climate progress is even better. Right now all the incentives for politicians point in the wrong direction. Look at Trudeau for example. He acts like he’s terrified of the oilsands industry. But what he should really be terrified about is screwing over the young voters who got him elected in the first place.

Are We Screwed? is out now, in bookstores and online!  [Tyee]

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