Youth will save the planet, according to the elite narrative about global warming. It was young voters who were “asking the tough questions” and holding “Democrats’ feet to the fire” at last week’s Democratic climate-change pontificon, reported the New York Times. A high school student challenged Julian Castro about his previous support for fracking and demanded to know why “should we trust you . . . to transition our economy to renewables?” Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar was grilled by a Columbia University student about her possible fealty to the beef and dairy industries. A Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University berated Joe Biden for allowing a natural gas company executive to host a fundraiser for him; fossil-fuel companies are committing “crimes against humanity,” announced this shoo-in for a prestigious professorship.

The claim about youth’s transformative commitment to radical environmental change is—based on informal observation—bunk. The cardinal rule when it comes to environmental virtue-signaling is that people give up what they’re willing to give up. Young people are no different. If being environmentally sound required sacrificing anything that a self-described environmental warrior actually valued, the conversation would quickly change to a different topic. One’s own habits are necessary; it’s everyone else’s that need to change.

This always-unreached threshold for environmental sacrifice is particularly notable on the part of celebrity Greens, with their fortress-like SUVs, multiple residences, and massive carbon footprints—whether it’s the cavalcade of yachts and private jets that brought such luminaries as Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Zuckerberg, and Katy Perry to Google’s three-day climate-change summit in Sicily this July; environmental crusaders Prince Harry and Meghan Markle jetting off to Elton John’s French estate; or Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter’s “quick day trip” to Los Angeles from New York just ahead of the CNN climate-change debate. A police caravan drives New York City mayor Bill de Blasio 11 miles from his mayoral mansion in Manhattan to his favorite gym in Brooklyn. “Everyone in their own life has to change their own habits to start protecting the earth,” he has intoned, but taking the subway is not one of those changes appropriate for him.

Most young people have not yet reached such a flamboyant level of energy use, but if they could, they undoubtedly would, with as little sense of anachronism as that of Al Gore in his energy-guzzling mansion. These are the consumers who keep football fields of computer servers buzzing round the clock to support their social media habits. If being green meant turning off one’s phone for 22 hours a day or foregoing the latest smartphone upgrade, the reasons why such sacrifices are not required would spout from every Gen Z-er and millennial’s lips. Students from the University of California, Irvine, constantly run their air-conditioners in the apartment complex where I spend summers, regardless of how cool the temperature outside is. They drive with their windows sealed and the car AC on, no matter how fresh the day (this is the new driving norm for almost everyone now). The meteoric rise of food-delivery apps, producing torrents of plastic and paper waste and a constant circulation of cars and electric bikes, has been fueled by young people’s demand for convenience and instant gratification. Cooking is apparently unthinkable. At best, one buys precut and washed food in the inevitable plastic containers. A daily Starbucks habit is deemed consistent with railing against environmentally destructive corporate greed.

New York’s tap water is among the purest in the world. Yet a young neighbor of mine in New York, like progressives throughout the city, receives towering deliveries of bottled water, entailing huge energy outlays to package and transport, not to mention generating flotillas of discarded plastic. The swim team members in my gym turn on their showers in the locker room, then walk away or do nothing other than chat as water gushes down the drain. Uber drivers in college towns report that students regularly call a car to get to class, rather than walk or ride a bike.

If the younger generations have any nonpolitical interest in nature, they keep it well hidden. Instagram holds more fascination than forest mosses and lichens; like most air travelers today, the young fly with their seat windows down to reduce the glare on their screens, indifferent to the startling revelations below about geology and topology that John Ruskin and Leonardo da Vinci would have killed to observe.

In short, the young rely on galaxies of goodies beyond count, whose production requires resources, nature-altering infrastructure, and dependable energy systems. The latest environmental crusades—whether banning fracking or plastic straws—are as gossamer bubbles atop this rushing torrent of manufactured consumables.

The children’s crusade for gun control is another alleged example of the purity of spirit of the young. But anti-gun youth crusaders are prepared to give up guns because, in almost all cases, they have none. Similarly, student protesters—whom we are supposed to admire for heroically skipping classes to agitate around their latest grievance—place little value on those classes and suffer no consequences for missing them.

An awareness of one’s own consumption and an attempt to conserve and to eliminate waste are worthy practices. But so is a zeal-tempering humility that should deflate any moral righteousness around such marginal efforts and that recognizes the fantastically un-natural prosperity—the product of Western capitalist enterprise and the rule of law—that underwrites environmental playacting.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next