I am a child of The Sixties. The Sixties, I have always maintained, were the greatest time in the history of the world to be young. It was a period of great social and political change, and young people – teenagers, really – were at the forefront of that change. And at the forefront of our efforts was our music.
Almost every genre of music included songs emphasizing social consciousness and responsibility. At the top of the charts, we heard it echoed from Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Who’ll Stop the Rain”) to Elvis Presley (“In the Ghetto”). Even the artificial television band The Monkees gave us “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” an indictment of complacent suburban life. Unlike John Mayer in 2007, we were not “Waiting on the World to Change.” We went out and changed it.
The Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements were our salient causes, but they fell under the broader category of the quest for justice. The youth of those days were activists, always seeking a change whose time had come. As the Vietnam War ground to its ugly and bitter end, a new cause captured the imagination of the young people who had helped to bring that grotesque war to a close.
That cause was Earth. Protection of the environment took on new urgency, and resulted in the establishment of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and laws identifying and specifying rules for the handling, disposal, and cleanup of hazardous wastes.
It was a tougher sell than civil rights and the war. Civil rights abuses were clearly human injustice, with individuals seen and described. The war had a simple solution: end it. With the environment, though, there were few immediate, measurable, describable effects on humans. True, one could address littering or lead in gasoline, and Earth Day could draw crowds, but the overall picture was nebulous. What was the immediate danger, and what was it that had to be done right away? More importantly to many, dealing with this would cost money.
In addition, the issue was co-opted by some of the biggest offenders. Factories and industrial entities made happy-clappy announcements and flew green “Earth Flags,” but at the same time they underwrote the deceptive campaign of “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Shifting the responsibility to litterbugs instead of addressing corporate polluters left the environmental movement lacking effective focus.
As the 1980s arrived, the kids of the “Baby Bust” – the smaller generation that followed the massive Baby Boom passing through American demographics like a watermelon through a boa constrictor – diverted their efforts to other things.
America had grown tired of seeing government as a positive force. A new president was elected on the promise of getting the government out of the way of business and enterprise by reducing both its size and its funding. The apotheosis of the new twenty-somethings was the money-chasing Alex Keaton of the television sitcom Family Ties. Environmentalists were ridiculed as “tree-huggers,” suggesting simple-minded neo-pagan animists.
The greatest current environmental threat, global warming and the climate change that results from it, has not generated the kind of urgency and commitment that the original environmental issues of the 1960s and 1970s produced. That is because they are hard to measure and explain and do not have easily-demonstrable, immediate effects. In addition, they have spawned an active and powerful opposition which has carefully marketed itself to a target audience.
Those Sixties kids who, like me, became environmental professionals found less cooperation and more derision as our careers played out. After thirty years as an environmental regulator, I retired from government service less optimistic about the effectiveness of my work than when I began.
photo credit – EarthGuardians.org
Then I discovered that there are young people who still display the passion, desire, and commitment that we knew in the old days. It is harder for them, too, in the sense that they are fewer in number and hard pressed by an anti-cooperative national attitude.
One such young activist is Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of Boulder, Colorado. Martinez, who just turned 15, has a vision and a determination that have made him an international spokesperson for climate control and an organizing advocate for youth empowerment. For starters, see the video Kid Warrior to get a sense of Xiuhtezcatl’s commitment.
Starting as a six-year-old, Xuihtezcatl (shu-TEZ-caht) grasped the torch from the preceding generations of environmentalists and has passionately, relentlessly, and fearlessly spread the word about the crisis of climate. Not many today like to take a long view, preferring instead to grab what is available now and let tomorrow take care of itself. “Why should I do anything for posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?” is a line attributed to Groucho Marx, but it could easily be the motto of a couple of generations of today’s adults.
Environmental stewardship is not just a scientific issue. It is a human rights issue as much as the driving topics of Sixties activism were. The destruction of forests and overgrazing leading to desertification, the use of over one-third of the Earth’s surface to provide food for only one species – humans, and the misappropriation and misuse of water resources to exploit the planet’s resources threaten widespread natural calamities. The Smithsonian Institution has catalogued these phenomena here.
“Civilization,” said Will Durant, “exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” In the long run, the Earth is the boss of us. We may change our surroundings, but we cannot change the physical laws of the universe, and eventually those laws will govern all. Or, as a margarine advertisement of the 1970s put it, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has drawn on his indigenous-American heritage to combine the perspective of a youngster with the self-assurance and confidence needed to unite others like him in a worldwide mission, organized and led by young people and sailing on the winds of music.
Like the kids of The Sixties used rock music, Xiuhtezcatl uses rap (as here, with his younger brother Itzcuautli) and infuses it with his message of earth stewardship. He’s been called “the anti-Bieber” in the same sense that message-driven artists of The Sixties were identified by their rejection of meaningless lyrics and hackneyed “my-baby-is-so-hot-but-she-dumped-me” laments.
The drive and passion he has exhibited have resulted in an organization of an international movement of young environmentalists, EarthGuardians , as well as speaking engagements at youth events such as the Bioneers Conference (watch his plenary address here) His efforts have brought widespread appearances, features from major magazines, interviews, recognition, and awards. Xiuhtezcatl has helped bring together a determined and optimistic cohort of young people working around the world to secure their own future in a liveable, sustainable world of cooperation, not exploitation.
We Sixties kids have at times adopted the tired old lines that things were better in the old days and today’s young people have no sense of commitment. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez puts the lie to that. Today’s young people can be just as dedicated and just as passionate as we ever were, and they have many more ways to organize, communicate, and grow.
I am re-energized, renewed, and re-inspired by a fresh faith in the determination and commitment of an upcoming generation of young activists. It’s enough to make me say for the first time in years, “Right on, brother!”
If you liked this post, you may also like these:
https://agoodmantoknow.com/2015/07/05/we-need-you-now/ (an update on Xiuhtezcatl)