Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

Senior Citizen signClimate of Apathy Among Older Adults

by Julie at ProgressiveKid

When it comes to climate change action, I’ve noticed a withering trend among my older relatives, friends, and acquaintances, the ones in their sixties and up. Amazing baby boomer activists and visionaries notwithstanding, generally speaking older folks are ignoring climate change. It’s not that they haven’t heard of global warming or that they don’t care about it. A few have even seen “An Inconvenient Truth” and expressed awareness and concern. It’s more that they are not responding to global warming with much conviction, if at all.

The Giver-Uppers, Procrastinators, Willfully Ignorant, and Skeptics

These older folks appear to fall into one of four categories:

1. the giver-uppers, who say they are too old to change;

2. the procrastinators, who say they will change but don’t;

3. the willfully ignorant, who overlook the wealth of readily available information at their fingertips; and

4. the skeptics, who question the merit of changing or even the existence of global warming and/or planetary distress.

Incandescent Lights Are On, But Nobody’s Home

Take the example of fluorescent light bulbs. One older couple shrugged off the idea, saying it was great that my family had switched but it was too late for them to make the change. Another older family member—an otherwise well-informed and environmentally concerned person—thought it was necessary to replace lamps and light fixtures to install fluorescent bulbs. A few older boomers told me they were worried that the quality of the lighting would be poor. Several repeatedly resolved to switch but still haven’t. And two others pointed to the “debate” about the benefits versus drawbacks of fluorescents. To all of these concerns, I have explained the following: today’s fluorescents work in any standard light fixture, they use one-quarter the amount of energy and last 8-10 times longer than incandescents (which will soon be outlawed in many places), there is no real debate about their credibility, they provide high-quality light, and there is ample information about how to properly dispose of them, since they contain small amounts of mercury.

Yet in spite of these explanations, my parents, in-laws, and some older friends still have not made the change to fluorescents. There are other basic things many of them continue to resist doing, such as turning off lights in unoccupied rooms, bringing reusable bags to the store, using nontoxic cleaners, buying organic food, composting, or even in some cases consistently recycling. These are fairly easy but significant steps toward reducing one’s carbon output and living a more Earth-aware life. Though change is slow for many of us, many more of my younger family and friends are doing these things than older ones, for whom even basic steps are apparently daunting hurdles.

Change Is the Only Constant

What is the issue, I’ve asked myself. Conventional wisdom says that change is harder as we age, but research indicates otherwise. A study by Dr. Nicholas L. Danigelis, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Vermont, of 46,510 Americans since 1972 found old people were generally faster at changing than younger people were. In examining social attitudes, Dr. Danigelis found that both the old and young became more tolerant over time but that “the old people did so at a much quicker pace.” He concluded that “change among older individuals is more the rule rather than the exception, and it’s change that’s not always in the conservative direction.”

In keeping with the findings of the study, the older people in my circle have, in fact, changed a lot in recent years. They have moved, traveled, made new friends, lost loved ones, begun new relationships, and taken up new interests, activities, and even careers. Change may be harder as we age, but it is a necessary and defining characteristic of all stages of life. The adage “change is the only constant” is particularly true for the young and the old, whose bodies, minds, and routines are ever-shifting territory.

Denial Is Bad for Your Health

If rigidity isn’t the reason for climate change apathy among the old, what is? Apparently there is something about climate change that is making it harder for older people to respond to—or, more to the point, easier to ignore. I can’t help but conclude that many older people believe they won’t live long enough to see the real effects of climate change. For this reason they feel they have the “luxury” of not thinking about it or taking action against it. Ironically, older people are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and have already been hit hard with increased rates of injury, illness, and death in places where there have been storms and/or disease outbreaks. Data compiled for the UK conference in March 2008 “Growing Old in a Changing Climate” indicates that older people are more vulnerable to flooding, heat exposure, heart attacks, and disease (including a predicted rise in salmonella) associated with higher temperatures.

The Consumer Generation

The lack of involvement of older people in climate change action is particularly disheartening considering that they are at least in some countries the segment of the population with the largest carbon footprint. A 2007 analysis of UK residents showed that baby boomers emit over 16 percent more carbon dioxide than any other age group. Chances are good the same trend holds true in other European and North American countries as well. Baby boomers are after all the consumer generation, which contributed enormously to propelling the Earth forward on its current climate crash course. There is no changing history, but accountability should not be dismissed. Baby boomers have a responsibility to younger generations in the same way that industrialized nations owe a debt to the rest of the world for growing their societies and economies at the expense of everyone’s planet.

Get Involved: Do It for Your Kids and GrandKids!

In addition to their increased vulnerability to global warming, as well as their disproportionately greater contribution to the problem, older adults have other compelling reasons for working to reduce the causes and effects of climate change: their kids and grandkids. These are the people who will carry on their memory, their values, and their genes—the people they love and sacrificed for. These people need the older generation to set a better example, model responsible living, and demonstrate a commitment to the fundamental good things about life: family and friends, a connection with nature and the nature in ourselves, learning, and community involvement.

The isolation of older adults can only compound their lack of involvement in climate change work. Our youth-obsessed and workaholic culture, as well as the self-imposed relocation of many older people, must contribute to feelings of irrelevancy and powerlessness. The fact that many older adults live in communities or assisted-living situations consisting mainly or exclusively of people in their own age group certainly makes it even easier for them to tune out the problems of the larger world. Yet as compared with the young, older people generally also have more time to help and expertise to share. For retired people with know-how, time, and energy to spare, I can’t think of more pressing or rewarding work to do than rescuing our planet from disaster. As a legacy, taking the lead in helping civilization contend with the worst challenge it has ever faced seems like a winner.

Despite deafness, declining vision, and weak back legs, my 16-year-old golden retriever hasn’t slowed down one bit when it comes to devising ingenious new ways to steal food—and always with a smile on her face. As she can attest, old dogs can learn new tricks, especially if their lives depend on it.\


Julie Hall is the author of
A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids: Understanding Climate Change and What You Can Do About it and the founder of the green online store ProgressiveKid.

© 2008 ProgressiveKid

Image by Eugene Peretz, 2007, Creative Commons license

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