Our Youth are Terrified… So What!

French translation

I recently watched a Brussels policy panel discussion where a young activist expressed how terrified she was about climate change and the loss of biodiversity, how she was ready to break the law to get people to act and felt that she was morally right in her actions. We are in world where the destructive actions of radical militant activists are legitimised by this fear for the future.

Without judging the legitimacy of her evident calamity and the wider phenomenon now known as eco-anxiety, I had to say to myself: “So what! The youth have always been terrified”. Fear fades with time when idealism hits a wall of reality and experience tends to ease anxiety.

Every generation of young people were terrified over something and frustrated that the older generation did not get it. Now that I am part of that older generation and, as I apparently do not get it, please allow me to be offensive, grumpy and generalising (since that seems to be the social norm now). What crises did each young generation amplify?

  • My parent’s generation was terrified about the Vietnam war, arms races, inflation and over-population. Like today’s “Birth-Strike” generation, the outspoken Boomers declared that the world was not fit to bring a child into it (eventually, most did).
  • My sub-generation (the unfashionable back-end of the Baby Boom born in the early 1960s) was terrified of AIDS, a pending Ice Age, the hole in the ozone layer and a nuclear holocaust. I’ve referred to us as Generation AIDS, learning the virtue of precaution just as we had come of age.
  • Generation X was the first to grow up in the Risk Society and was terrified of chemicals, GMOs, pesticides, cancers and apocalyptic infertility from endocrine disruption, vaccines, pollution and global famines.
  • Millennials were terrified of their governments, globalisation and big industry destroying the planet. They were the first to grow up in a post-trust world where the Internet was undermining the authority of our traditional institutions.
  • Gen Z has awoken and has integrated the millennial terror into the threat of a cataclysmic climate crisis that will imminently destroy the planet.

These terrors have shaped the narratives, the public dialogue and the political discourse of each generation. As generations mature, these terrors fade into the background as other fears and other voices take their place. I have written often on what is known as an “Armageddon complex” – an end of days worldview that puts our fears into perspective and orders our behaviour (a vengeful God, a nuclear war, a population bomb and global famine, an infertility crisis, a pandemic and a climate catastrophe with a biodiversity collapse). Each Armageddon threat is perceived as more sophisticated and more apocalyptic than the last. During my young days of terror, the green movement was emerging and we developed plastics to help save the environment (reducing deforestation, animal products and heavy metals). How clever we were.

A man who has not been a socialist before 25 has no heart. If he remains one after 25 he has no head.
King Oscar II of Sweden

Each Armageddon threat has been massively overblown and humans, somehow, were able to muddle through largely unscathed. One thing doomsayers have underestimated since the time of Malthus is the power of humanity (the ingenuity of its innovators and entrepreneurs) to solve the problems that are keeping the young awake at night.

This Time, It’s Different!

The youth are so convinced of their convictions (and how those in my generation don’t get it). So was I, frankly, some forty years ago when I was marching against the policies of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and P. W. Botha. But this time it is different. This time the youth are speaking and, for some reason, we not only have to listen, we have to bow down and let them lead.

What has changed in our living memory to have us now faced with this challenge from an emerging generation too impatient and too terrified to work with others to find solutions? How did their idealism become policy diktats? Some would want to say: This time the climate crisis is real. But every generation had no doubt about their crises (and tended to amplify the threats to demand action). There are many factors at play in this shift in influence.

Communications revolutions
In the 1970s we still had a telephone attached to the wall (where it had been for 50 years). Now the youth have their mobile megaphones in their pockets, their own networks and their own reality they have chosen to believe. The Internet changed how news was created and disseminated. Social media changed how we used and misused this information. (I am still working on trying to understand how AI will influence the next generation’s capacity for analytical thought.) So if one young person has an idea, within seconds thousands of followers are repeating it. My generation never had such a tool in the 1970s so we had to trust our experts, mainstream media and governments as issues took months or years to emerge. (Before the “OK Boomer” chant is recited, the younger generations should be reminded that my generation gave them these technologies.) With fast-moving social networks of activated youths, issues could easily be abused by manipulative operators (as we saw with Extinction Rebellion).

This terrified youth has the ability to filter out dissenting views and calming voices, staying enveloped within their echo-chambers of fear. Listening is optional and highly over-rated when a tribe provides the self-contained answers. Cults used to have to live in compounds; now they have web pages. When I showed up at the recent anti-glyphosate, anti-industry “impact screening” of Into the Weeds, I had landed on another planet where people could not imagine who would want to keep a “universally condemned” substance like glyphosate on the market. I munched my popcorn quietly out of fear for my personal safety but even if I had tried to speak, to present the farmers’ position and the role it plays in sustainable agriculture, no one would have listened. Terror is defined by its threat (and I was a threat).

Loss of a Scientific Authority
The scientific world has changed. Until the 1980s, the scientific community had a circle of expertise and a rigorous process to verify and validate claims, determine the best technologies and promote the best practises. Now, with an abundance of publication options, a lack of strong institutional authorities and the infiltration of stakeholder interest groups (from industry to NGOs to tort law firms), people can speak about “the science” and have it mean whatever they want. With the expanded availability of sophisticated chromatographs and spectrometers, it is not very difficult to find a lab technician somewhere willing to detect whatever evidence is needed to support their ideology and campaign. And as we become more technologically dependent, we also find an increase in scientific illiteracy (a fear-monger’s utopia where soft minds don’t need hard facts).

Weak Leadership
Couple all of this with a decline in the quality of leadership in most Western countries and we can see how, this time, the latest youth terror is having a greater impact on public policy. Europe’s present political generation is defined by the increase of careerists graduating from university with public policy degrees and entering directly into government jobs (eg, regulators having no practical experience in the real world), using participatory consultation tools like citizen panels, relying on the precautionary principle and focusing on legacy idealism (over pragmatism and Realpolitik). They do not have the capacity to manage risks and, rather, have assured their risk-averse populations they can be kept 100% safe. The post-Cold-War peace dividend had shielded these leaders from the harsh economic consequences of their incompetence but by the time COVID-19 had ravaged the West, it was clear that we no longer had a leadership that could govern effectively.

What Terrifies Old People?

The world has changed (as it should) but our ability to react to the issues and fears that define each generation has moved in a worrying direction. We are losing our capacity to manage risks and solve problems. This terrifies those like the Risk-Monger who have a living memory of how risks were managed, how social benefits were created and how naïve we, and the generations that followed, had been in the folly of our youth.

We grew up managing our own risks without a Nanny Protectorate over our shoulders. Our consumer products said “Handle with Care” and “Keep out of Reach of Children” and we got it. I don’t recall many Baby Boomers freaking out when we went into COVID-19 lockdown. Those who could, took risk reduction measures to survive any possible viral exposure.

Those who are influencing the youth (somewhere between the Lord of the Flies and Hitler’s Youth) are proposing climate solutions that are totally terrifying. They favour pulling back human activities rather than progressive innovation which, in most cases, will radically worsen the challenges.

  • Shutting down nuclear reactions in Germany has led to a new lease on life for coal-powered generators.
  • Rejecting carbon capture and storage for a renewables-only energy strategy has made energy supply even more vulnerable (again, more coal).
  • In demanding that we pull away from agricultural technologies (even irrigation ponds) and go full organic will decimate food security and destroy the environment.
  • Banning plastics will lead to more energy-hungry, less environmentally-friendly alternatives.

All of these “solutions” express the deindustrialisation mindset of those manipulating the young campaigners. Who will fund the innovators and researchers whom we need to take on the climate mitigation challenges?

My generation remembers famines, economic crises, food scares, energy shortages… so we are terrified when we see our leadership going on about some Green Deal, saying “Yes” to the youth when they demand renewables-based energy policies that leave us vulnerable, agricultural strategies that arbitrarily restrict how farmers can grow food and health policies that handcuff the capacity for scientists to innovate. This terrifies old people like me (but not the young).

Now I am not advocating shutting the young up but we need to consider their ideas within a larger context. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Anthony Fauci said that during the pandemic, it was the responsibility of the regulators to consider the health authorities’ views within the context of many other factors and concerns. This is basic risk management. But our leaders did not consider the larger context and avoided making hard decisions by acting solely on the data from their health experts with no regard for the wider consequences of prolonged lockdowns. And now with the EU Green Deal, the European Commission has no regard for the wider consequences of deindustrialisation and forcing through unsustainable agricultural practises. The youth march and our leaders habitually bow. This terrifies old people like me (but not the young).

I believe my present terror was caused by the shift in the European regulatory approach (hazard-based, precautionary, citizen consultation-driven…). In a recent interview, I was asked what I would do if I were dictator-for-a-day in Brussels. My answer was that I would launch a White Paper on Risk Management. The present uncertainty management approach is weak, leaves Europeans unprotected and unable to manage risks. But it gives our youth everything that they demand.

I wonder what they will be demanding from our complicit leaders next…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Jarratt says:

    Another thought provoking essay, bringing to mind the aphorism that experience is something you get just after you needed it. Efforts to contradict the “end is nigh” cultists appear feeble and ineffectual, and some evidence supports the conclusion that malicious state actors are behind the relentless propaganda. Why do politicians pander to the fearful and neurotic? One explanation could be the climate catastrophists and their fellow traveller radical activists are members of a faith based cult, and faith is not susceptible to reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RiskMonger says:

      Thanks Mark – there is indeed the point that government is a further step in NGO activist career paths. NGOs are basically flat organisations so there is limited opportunity for growth for ambitious ideologues (except to take their campaigns into government). One further reason why leadership is so weak today.


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