Youth Ecological Revolt – ARCHIVED

By Frank Rotering | December 21, 2015

NOTE: The post below was written at an early stage and may not fully reflect my current thought.  It is included on this website for completeness only.  My current posts are here.

This is the last in a series of three posts that explore the plight of the young with respect to the ecological crisis. In my first post I characterized the crisis as overshoot, which refers to the concurrent violation of multiple environmental impact limits. I said that the rational response is rapid impact reduction, which entails the drastic curtailment of economic activities and sharp increases in ecological efficiencies. I also noted that, because the old have refused to act on this basis, the quality of life for the young will soon be severely degraded, and premature deaths are a looming possibility.

In my second post I stated that a key reason for this refusal is the massive diversionary effect of the environmental movement, the progressive movement, and ecological economics. All three reject the systemic change required for rapid impact reduction. This rejection is facilitated by two erroneous claims: that government holds political power and that economic growth is the result of policy decisions. Power is in fact held by the capitalist class, and growth is an inherent attribute of a capitalist economy.

In this post I offer my proposal for a youth ecological revolt, which is intended to spur the old into decisive action. I place particular emphasis on the capitalist class, which must use its economic control and political power to fundamentally restructure the economy.


Strategic Approach

The aim of the youth ecological revolt is to break a deadly impasse: although the young are strongly motivated to resolve the ecological crisis, they lack the economic and political capacity to do so; conversely, the old have the capacity, but lack the necessary motivation. The revolt's strategic approach is thus to combine the motivations of the young with the capacities of the old in order to achieve rapid impact reduction. This means that the young are seen as the instigators, and the old as the agents, of systemic change and rapid impact reduction.

The young were chosen as the instigators primarily because they will suffer intensely from ecological decline, but there are other reasons as well. They typically have more energy and initiative than the old, they have been less exposed to the pervasive propaganda that props up today's destructive economies, they are adept at modern communication technologies, and most are not yet burdened with family responsibilities. It appears that the young are the only social force that can shake the old out of their comfortable slumber in time to prevent ecological disaster.

A critical point is that the revolt is based not on the young opposing the old, but on the young pressuring the old. The fact that the old have ecologically forsaken the young provides the latter with a powerful incentive to spur the old into action. However, using this abandonment as a pretext for denouncing or otherwise attacking the old would be unproductive. Time is far too short for spite or revenge.

The young must exert at least two forms of pressure. The first targets the old as a whole. Because most have lived high-quality lives at the expense of the environment, they have a profound moral obligation to ensure a sustainable future for those who follow. They should therefore be urged to assist the young in compelling the capitalist class to take effective action. This applies with particular force to those who are close to the ruling circles and can thus influence this class directly.

The second form of pressure targets the capitalist class itself. The core idea is to induce its rational elements to embrace the contractionary position, sideline their ecocidal counterparts, and assert economic and political dominance over the class as a whole. This implies that the worldview and composition of this class must be significantly altered through a process of internal struggle. The main tasks of the revolt are to apply intense pressure so that this struggle takes place, and to vigorously support the rational elements when they identify themselves in response to this pressure. The intended outcome is that the current ruling class is transformed into a contractionary ruling class that implements rapid impact reduction.

Aside from the internal struggle itself, the main problem for rational capitalists will be the lack of theoretical support for a contractionary economy. Capitalism arose through an organic social process that lasted for several centuries, with theory formalizing this process as it proceeded. A contractionary economy will by contrast be a sudden historical imposition, made necessary by the existential urgency of the ecological crisis. The theory that underpins such an economy must therefore be consciously developed before rapid impact reduction can be initiated.

I have made a start on this theoretical development,[1] but much remains to be done. This means that other thinkers must join the effort - and possibly start over if I have made significant errors. The obstacle here is that the capitalist class has severely restricted independent thought over the past few decades, particularly for academics. Therefore, a high priority for the revolt is to compel the capitalist class to loosen their restrictions on non-conforming thought. In a previous post I offered some suggestions on how this could be achieved.

The most important strategic consideration for the young is to avoid being diverted from the ultimate objective: rapid impact reduction. If there is any confusion about a strategic idea, the question should be asked: is it conducive to this objective, or not? If the latter, the idea should almost certainly be rejected.

Let me now turn to the various methods that can be used by the young to exert the required pressure. These fall into two categories: persuasion and actions. Persuasion refers to logical or moral arguments that are intended to alter the perspective of the ruling capitalists. Actions are concrete initiatives designed for broad political impact. Because many of the young are in school, the suggested actions are divided into those that apply to the young generally and to students specifically.


Perhaps the most effective way to alter the capitalist worldview is to dispel the illusion that business requires capitalism.[2] Business - meaning private production and exchange for profit - has been part of human economies for millennia, and will undoubtedly be an important feature of future economies. Capitalism, on the other hand, is an expansionary form of business that has existed for only a few hundred years and is now obsolete due to ecological constraints. This illusion is a holdover from the Cold War, when socialism's state control was seen as a mortal threat to business interests. A contractionary economy will not be socialist, but rather a mix of private enterprise and a level of state control that ensures sustainability. This level will vary between countries depending on history and social context.

Four other arguments can be used to pressure the capitalist class. The first relates to its responsibilities as society's ruling class. Such groups have historically enjoyed the prerogatives of power and privilege, but have also assumed the responsibility of rational social guidance. The ruling capitalists clearly enjoy their prerogatives, but the ecological crisis reveals that they have failed to provide rational guidance. This failure can be used to shame those individuals who possess ethical awareness and therefore have some sense of their social and historical obligations.

The second argument is an extension of the first, but is based on self-interest. If the capitalist class does not soon initiate rapid impact reduction, it will lose its grip on power - likely within decades. A business-as-usual trajectory will inevitably collide with tipping points that precipitate ecological collapse. The result will be a degree of social chaos that precludes the exercise of coherent, class-based power. Even in the absence of this worst-case scenario, deep social divisions will before long undermine capitalist rule. In particular, a populace that has moved from affluence to suffering could launch the political revolution that is impossible today. Briefly stated, the capitalist class not only has a responsibility for sound social guidance, it is compelled to provide this in order to maintain its current social dominance.

The third argument is based partly on self-interest and partly on ethics and principles. It compares the material wealth that will flow into capitalist coffers in an expansionary and a contractionary economy. In the first case the flow will be copious but short-lived, whereas in the second it will be more modest but of indefinite duration. If capitalists care for their children and grandchildren, or if they have a strong attachment to the natural world, they might choose the contractionary alternative despite the loss of wealth. If they have libertarian principles and suspect that continued expansion will undercut free markets and individual liberties, they could make the same choice on this basis.

Finally, the young could point out that that the transition to a contractionary economy is an unavoidable adjustment to altered environmental circumstances. Most capitalists understand that living organisms must evolve in order to survive in the natural world, and that corporations must continually modify their behavior in order to survive in the business world. Those who reject the contractionary shift can thus be portrayed not as staunch defenders of the prevailing order, but as backward individuals who lack Darwinian fitness and must therefore be culled from the capitalist herd by natural selection.

What persuasion cannot achieve, concrete actions possibly can. Because the suggestions below relate to the lives of the young, I will from this point adopt a more personal style and address them directly.

General Actions

Youth Climate Shame ProtestPROTEST ECOCIDE: In a previous post I said that a politician's insistence on continued economic growth should have propelled you into the streets in outraged protest. This reaction should become the standard response to ecocidal statements and actions. A prime example is the Paris conference on climate change, which failed to address overshoot and limited climate action to government promises that ensure catastrophic warming. You should hit the streets and proclaim your unyielding opposition to such murderous travesties.

OFFER FINANCIAL SUPPORT: Unless you are unemployed or scraping by in a low-paying job, you could support the revolt financially. Many initiatives will require supplies, facilities, and legal or other professional advice. If you presently donate to a progressive organization, consider shifting this money to the youth revolt as the opportunities arise.

EXERT INFLUENCE: If you have advanced to a position where you can affect important decisions, try to steer these in the contractionary direction. Persuade your colleagues to do likewise.

CATEGORIZE YOUR EMPLOYER: As noted above, a key aspect of the revolt is to strongly support rational capitalists when they self-identify in response to youth pressure. If you are in a position to observe your employer's reactions, convey this information to revolt leaders. This will greatly assist them in their strategic planning.

Student Actions

Youth Out of the ClassroomWhatever you may have been told, the primary purpose of your education is to prepare you for a profit-generating role in an expanding capitalist economy. Every time you plunk your butt into a classroom seat - whether in high school, college, or university - you are acquiescing in this narrow, ecocidal aim. As a student, probably your most effective revolt action is to withhold your classroom cooperation and to insist that your education be directed towards a contractionary future.

This stance is completely rational because there is no long-term expansionary future. Given the realities of environmental decline, most of your working life will be spent in a world of either economic contraction or ecological devastation. The prospect of a successful career in a world of exuberant capitalist growth is a deceit you should contemptuously dismiss. To forcefully convey these views to the old generally and to the capitalist class specifically, consider the following actions:

STRIKE: Leave the classroom and refuse to return until the administration has taken meaningful steps towards a contractionary education. This includes full acknowledgment of the ecological facts, an environmentally honest curriculum, retrained teachers, and instructional methods that encourage independent thought instead of rote learning and successful test-taking.

CHALLENGE TEACHERS: Climate scientist Kevin Anderson has publicly expressed his disgust with analysts who turn a blind eye to climate numbers that are cooked to produce "politically palatable outcomes"[3]. You should follow his lead and boldly challenge teachers who present misleading environmental information or offer ecologically fraudulent advice.

DISRUPT EVENTS: To turn up the heat, disrupt school assemblies or sports events with banners, loud chants, walkouts, etc. Ensure that you also distribute a well-formulated message so that the disruption cannot be easily dismissed as an immature outburst.

DISTRIBUTE LEAFLETS: In conjunction with an event disruption or in isolation, distribute leaflets that explain the essentials of the youth ecological revolt or provide other critical information. If I'm dating myself because leaflets are no longer used for this purpose, use text messages and social media instead.

EXPLOIT THE STUDENT PRESS: If you there is a student newspaper at your school, fully utilize it to publish articles that explain the ecological crisis and the roles students can play in pushing for systemic change and rapid impact reduction.

FORM STUDENT ALLIANCES: Build bridges to other students and student organizations in order to spread the word about the revolt and to increase its influence and effectiveness. In the past, workers were urged to unite because they had nothing to lose but their chains; today, students should unite because they have nothing to lose but their prospective suffering.

Lifestyle Choices

Sustainable LifestyleIt must be candidly acknowledged that participation in the youth ecological revolt could imperil your education and career, and may also compromise your personal relationships. Such dangers are inherent in any heroic project, but this does not make them any easier to bear. The following lifestyle suggestions are intended to minimize your pain.

DON'T HAVE CHILDREN: A child born in a rich country has a massive lifetime ecological footprint, so remaining childless is a significant contribution to sustainability. Raising children is also expensive, exhausting, time-consuming, and sometimes highly stressful. All these could detract from your quality of life and your effectiveness as a revolt participant. If you nevertheless want to raise a child, consider doing so jointly with other individuals or couples. You could make this part of the revolt by pushing for legal changes that formalize such arrangements in order to decrease population as part of rapid impact reduction.

LOWER YOUR STANDARDS: Many of your yearnings for a home, vacations, electronic toys, and other stuff have been implanted by corporate marketing hucksters. To a large degree you can consciously reject these desires and seek satisfaction in a more modest lifestyle. I made this adjustment early in life and was able to earn a reasonable living while leaving sufficient time for theoretical development. The same can be said for the level of education to which you should aspire. My own view is that a well-chosen undergraduate degree is sufficient for all but the most specialized purposes.

LIVE COMMUNALLY: This follows logically from shared parenthood and lowered standards. For example, six adults could share a house or apartment and cooperatively raise two or three children.   Such non-traditional family structures seem to me inevitable in a post-expansionary world.

REDEFINE PERSONAL SUCCESS: As noted above, a long-term expansionary future is ecologically impossible, so setting your career path or financial goals on this basis is a mistake. You should assume economic contraction and declining social standards regarding wealth, income, and possessions, and plan your life on this basis.

START A BUSINESS: This protects you from employer retribution for your revolt activities, and it demonstrates to the world that contractionary commitments are compatible with business ownership. If the enterprise is run jointly by a communal household, the burdens of running a small business can be equitably shared.

Refuse the "Great Refusal" !

My central message is that the young must wake up to their perilous future and confront the old about their persistent inaction with regard to systemic change and rapid impact reduction. My hope is that a critical mass of the vulnerable young will soon reject this deeply immoral passivity and adopt a militant posture of existential rebellion.


Before and After DroughtLet me end this series where I began - with the visit from a young environmentalist who gave me the youth perspective on ecological decline. Although we argued about several issues, we strongly agreed that only his generation can initiate a solution to the ecological crisis. The old have indispensable roles, as noted, but the young must trigger the process. If you have any heroism in your veins, now is the time to demonstrate this by organizing or joining the youth ecological revolt.





[1] This refers to the Economics of Needs and Limits (ENL). An overview of this analytical framework is here. My book on the topic is here.

[2] This issue is addressed in The Three Most Dangerous Illusions.

[3] See the YouTube video, Kevin Anderson - Delivering on 2°C: evolution or revolution? The quote is at 24:45. Unfortunately Anderson ends his talk by dismissing systemic change. His cryptic comments on the topic begin at 51:10.