Hey Kids, It's the New Duck-and-Cover!
"I miss Saturday-morning cartoons," pronounced my son's friend Miles, sprawled on a battered sofa in the basement lair. "Now we've got Saturday-morning depressing environmental documentaries."
My son Tristan, hunched over his computer, muttered in quasi-verbal agreement.
Now a couple of points may be adduced here. I think we can pass quickly over the first one: the scant likelihood that these young men, who are high-school seniors in the year 2009, actually have any personal memory of having watched a Saturday morning cartoon. Let us grant them a sort of generalized nostalgia for a more innocent time in their lives — a Halcyon era when they had happier things to do than sit around brooding over the fate of the planet.
A more telling point is that these depressing documentaries are self-inflicted: they've lately become my son's recreational viewing pastime of choice. To assist in his recovery from a wisdom-tooth extraction, he rented three of them. Each was more beautifully photographed, more scientifically correct, and more utterly disheartening than the next. As the boys were speaking, the monstrous flat-screen TV showed a stunning aerial shot of mining spoils aglow in bright alien colors, a toxic kaleidoscope. The soundtrack put me in mind of Henryk Górecki or Wojciech Kilar — one of those East European minimalists who make you want to crawl in the bathtub and open a vein.
A third, ancillary point is that, as Yogi Berra would say, it's like déjà vu all over again. When I was a kid, I couldn't get enough of nuclear holocaust. If we'd had videos back then, I would have rented things like Fail Safe and On the Beach.
Youthful angst is nothing new. It can be traced right back through world literature as far as you care to go. The Germans, who gave us the word (along with other useful terms like Weltschmerz, "world-pain"), seem to have found it no less baffling than ourselves. "Was it always thus?" lamented Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). "I can't understand this generation: Only the grown-ups are young, alas! Our youth are already old."
Yes, apparently, it was always thus. And yet it's hard to deny that the young people of today have been dealt a particularly rough hand. Even in my darkest visions of mushroom clouds and flattened cityscapes, I was aware of the possibility that it might not come to pass. Kids today look at a world of melting ice-caps and vanishing forests and creeping desserts — accompanied by a steady chant of, on the one hand, climate-change denialism and, on the other, a bizarre form of Christian nihilism that seems positively eager for the Last Days to happen, like, right now, just to spite that fat blowhard Al Gore. It must feel to my son and his friends like there is no way out at all.
"Oh yeah, it's gonna happen," Tristan said blithely, not bothering to look up from his video game. "Everybody's gonna die in about twenty years. Or at least, a lot of people are. Everyone I know feels that way. They just kind of casually mention it — like, 'What difference does it make?'"
Roll over, Young Werther.
The weird thing, from a Baby Boomer's perspective, is that none of this seems to dampen their spirits. The Beat Generation hung around in dark cafes and read depressing poetry and listened to saxophone solos by doomed junkies. They Howled in protest. These guys listen to boistrous rap music surrounded by electronic playthings in a cottage in the Maine woods in sight of the ocean. Their attitude seems to be, What the heck, we're all doomed — let's party! There is something here that doesn't fit.
I feel like we're missing a big opportunity. All this youthful vigor, this clear-eyed understanding of the scientific issues, this grasp of what's at stake — couldn't we be putting this to some positive use? Couldn't a smart and inspiring young President get this generation fired up to go out and do something? Are we really going to resign ourselves to being filibustered by GOP obstructionists and ridiculed by talk-radio hosts and shammed by corporate shills into just allowing this to happen?
Maybe, maybe not. These boys have got a lot of energy. They're out there right now hacking up fallen limbs and piling up a month's worth of combustible trash to make a bonfire. The woods are ringing with their laughter. Watching them, it is hard not to feel hope.