The Millennial Environmental Voice: We Can’t Hear You Now

Posted on June 8, 2017 by Linda Benfield

The United States’ environmental agenda shifted abruptly with the election. Instead of implementing greenhouse gas initiatives, bolstering incentives for renewable energy projects, and fine-tuning various air, water and waste standards, we are suddenly discussing the future of the Endangered Species Act, debating withdrawal from the Paris Accord, filing away the Clean Power Plan, and considering the limits of science in regulatory decision-making.

Through all the discord, angst and celebration of the changed focus of environmental regulation, the Millennials have yet to assert their generational voice. Born between 1981 and 1996, these citizens are 21-36 years old. In 2015, they became the largest share of the American workforce at 33%, and there are estimates that Millennials will make up 50% of the American workforce by 2020. With those numbers, and their age, they have the potential to significantly impact elections for the next 35 years.

But who are they, and how will they impact the environmental agenda?  Only 50% of Millennials voted in the 2016 election – the worst turnout of any voting-age generation, and a decrease in their voting participation from the 2012 election. The tropes for this generation peg them as “socially conscious,” and willing to deeply engage in causes they believe in. However, empirical “time-lapse” research comparing responses from different generations at the same point in the responders’ lives, actually indicates that Millennials are no more altruistic than previous generations, and no more determined to seek meaning in their work and lives or do work that is worthwhile to society. This generation also faces different economic and social challenges than their parents did, and it is not clear how that perspective will translate to addressing environmental challenges.  

In the last 50 years, we have fundamentally changed the environmental “baseline.” Millennials never experienced burning rivers, and they didn’t grow up underneath the Denver “Brown Cloud.” The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and 40 C.F.R. are their baseline - and that is a different perspective than their Baby Boomer parents had when they were fighting against tangible environmental degradation. The Millennials can fundamentally impact our election results – if they vote. And until they vote, we won’t know what the environmental voice of this powerful generation sounds like. 

Comments (1) -

Mark Bogush United States
6/13/2017 11:19:00 AM #

  We are suddenly facing new challenges to our Nation’s environmental agenda, but hastily targeting Millennials as a voiceless generation, pertaining to any issue, should be stepped with caution. Millennials are on pace to comprise the largest percentage of the workforce in years to come, are different in many ways to previous generations, and did not turn out in numbers previously seen in election seasons; however merely focusing on these statistics is not predictor of Millennials interest or willingness to participate on environmental issues. Most electors are single issue voters regardless of generational class, perhaps extremely exemplified in our most recent presidential election. Voting, as a subset of legal treatise, presents a multitude of issues, any one of which could cast a shadow on single characterizations of voter persuasion or methodology.
  All this to say voting is still an integral part of American society, but should not be the only factor in any great cause. Examples such as the People’s Climate March, which occurred on April 29, 2017, greatly show Millennials willingness to promote their environmental agenda in collaboration with other generations not necessarily focused on voting. Current litigation, modeled by the case of Our Children’s Trust, shows cross-generational willingness to participate in active environmental reform. Important, also, is the role Millennials play in industry and leadership of our Country in the years to come. “Green” is not limited to a connotation of being environmentally conscience, it should also denote profitability as the way of the future.
  The President’s recent decision to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement will perhaps serve as the additional motivation you feel Millennials need to actively participate in environmental issues, however the need for burning rivers or onset of smog clouds should be issues of the past precisely due to current environmental regulations and protections. Millennials fight pertaining to environmental issues will be the tangible increase in temperatures, onset of sudden, more violent weather patterns, and eventual elimination of resources once abundant throughout our nation and the world. The premise of voting helps in the bleak realism of the future, however there is a plethora of manners in which environmental agenda’s can be pursued, the first of which should be intergenerational cooperation to address a common goal to protect and sustain our environment.

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