Monday, November 11, 2019

Okay, Boomer

Blue-winged Teal

Today is my birthday. Usually in anticipation of a new age, I like to focus on cool elements of the number itself. For example, 67 is a prime number, so last year I could say I was in my prime, but now, at 68, I won’t be able to say that again until I turn 71. Meanwhile, 68 is the largest known number to be the sum of exactly two primes in exactly two different ways: it's the sum of both  7 + 61 and 31 + 37. All higher numbers that have been checked are the sum of three or more pairs of primes.

To please my sense of whimsy, 68 is called a “happy number,” which means that if you repeatedly square its digits and add them up, you eventually get 1. That is, when you square and add the digits of 68 (6² + 8² = 36 + 64) you get 100; squaring those digits and adding them up you get  1² + 0² + 0²,  which equals 1. It would be nice to think that means that this year will be a happy one.

Looking at 68 in a less numerical way, in the restaurant industry, 68 is sometimes used as a code meaning to put something on the menu; that's the opposite of 86-ing something, which means to take it off the menu.

Blue-winged Teal

The 68th bird on my lifelist was a lovely little duck, the Blue-winged Teal. I saw my first when I was taking my first ornithology class the summer I started birding. That ornithology class has been the source of my annual birthday birds ever since I turned 41, a trend that will continue for the rest of my life unless I beat my family's genetic odds and manage to reach 91.

I was born in 1951, at the peak of the Baby Boom era, and it’s amusing and weird to be turning 68 at the exact moment when “Okay, boomer” is peaking as a meme meant to somehow shame us old people in a new and trendy way simply for being our age.

The reason “Okay, boomer” went viral last week was that the New Zealand Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick was giving a speech in favor of stricter carbon emissions standards when she was rudely interrupted by a representative of the National Party, which refuses to acknowledge the damage climate change is already doing, much less the catastrophic damage it will continue to do, exacerbated specifically because so many people in power in New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere have for so long ignored science. Swarbrick was in the middle of her speech and justifiably wanted a quick way to shut him up so she could finish. I just wish there was a clever word summing up people who deny science and twist information to promote short-sighted, selfish goals rather than one that insults a whole generation.

In the years when Russ and I were twenty-something students, we lived in several apartments and always took painstaking care to leave each one cleaner and in better shape when we moved out than it was when we moved in. That seemed a simple matter of right and wrong—the Golden Rule. It's a rule that people of all ages follow, but also a rule that people of all ages violate. People our exact age left some of our new apartments a horrible mess for us.

Blue Jay

Following the Golden Rule to ensure that our air, water, and land are clean for future generations, and protecting our natural resources for the future, would seem to be no-brainers. I’ve always talked about how Blue Jays planted oak forests after glaciation—collecting and burying fertile acorns wherever melting glaciers gave them an opening. The jays may not have thought this through—they simply cache away food stores that they themselves might want. So their providing for future generations may have been done without thought—a literal no-brainer. 

Arguably, we humans have more brain power than birds, but some used those brains to fight tooth and nail against the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts back in the 1970s and to weaken them since their passage. Propaganda campaigns to make people think that climate change is controversial among scientists are promoted by the same energy companies that are gearing up to take advantage as polar ice melts. Selling advertising to them is how millennial Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire. In a world where profit trumps everything, intelligence at any age is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When Greta Thunberg did her big tour, the photos that most moved me depicted the 16-year-old girl and 84-year-old Jane Goodall together. These two people so far apart in age are both dedicating their lives to making this planet better for the future. Is Thunberg doing it for the selfish reason that she herself will be living well into that future? Is Goodall's concern about the future somehow more selfless because she doesn't have more than a decade or two left in her own life? Nope. Both of these people are following the Golden Rule, treating the planet, its creatures, and future people as they'd like to be treated, and going so much above and beyond the call of duty makes them both heroes. Which generation they each belong to is irrelevant.

Dividing people into arbitrary age categories fosters distrust and squanders our energy as we look for scapegoats rather than for real-world solutions. As species disappear, oceans rise, and pollution grows apace, we must resist this divide-and-conquer strategy and start planting our acorns together, as Blue Jays do. It's a no-brainer.

Blue Jay