Today, 54 years after the shooting of JFK, we reflect back on the painful loss that still feels as deep as the despair and loss of hope many of us have been feeling over the outcome of last year’s election. There is disbelief that this could have happened, a deep fear for what it means to our future, and a grasp for answers on how to move forward.
On that cold November day in 1963, we could find no answers, but only painful questions. The best response my young friends and I could think of was to pile in my old Jeep and drive to DC to immerse ourselves in and share the grief. We slowly walked toward the White House and quietly sat on the grass with so many thousands of others. We cried. We fitfully slept and exchanged hugs with strangers. Eventually the sun rose on a new reality that the president who sparked the imagination of our generation was dead.
As I reflect back on that traumatic day and attempt to put it in context with the despair many of us of all ages are again feeling, I am beginning to see some hopeful parallels. This event, and the later tragic killings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, was the spark that finally jarred the baby boomer generation out of complacency and fired much of the student activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Facing the reality that the system we were part of did not have the answers, we young ones finally found our answer in direct action.
54 years have now passed since that tragic day, and the baby boomer generation is now old. While we created change, many of the issues we railed against are still with us, and have been joined by new and even more troublesome ones. The world’s population has grown from 3 billion to 7.5 billion, environmental degradation has led to climate change, plant and animal species are steeply declining, and we are in a seemingly unending cycle of conflicts.
In spite of this, I think back on last year’s election and the wonderful people I met volunteering there and am gratified to realize that many in our generation still maintain a burning passion for environmental protections, human rights, and social justice. We can use our experience and act as elders and mentors to help spark a new generation of activists, and share with them as we work together to complete what we started in our youth.
The 2016 election was, without question, an unmistakable wake-up call. It hurts to see everything we struggled for being systematically undone. There is a temptation to just give up and enjoy our retirement. But those of us who have lived through so many decades of challenges since that dark day in 1963 know we can’t just sit back and leave this mess for our children and grandchildren to deal with. The resources we’ve amassed in our lifetimes won’t be of value to future generations if we don’t leave our kids and grandkids a livable environment and an effectively functioning and compassionate society.
It’s important for our generation to invest our time and money to support political, social, and environmental actions right now, rather than hope for a paltry interest rate in some mega-bank that could care less about our shared future.
Preserving capital in the form of money is certainly important, but when looked at from a broader perspective, we need to consider what forms of capital will have real long-term value for us and for future generations. Most importantly: A benign climate with clean air, normal rainfall and temperature patterns, and stable sea levels, along with a rich natural environment, fresh water, productive farmland producing healthy food, and beautiful and unspoiled natural areas. Other important capital includes commonly shared American values, like the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution and bill of rights, the integrity of our courts, our embrace of human rights and diversity, and the rule of law.
These are the types of capital that are priceless, and once they’re gone we won’t be able to purchase them with our savings or retirement accounts, no matter how much money we save. The only way we can accomplish the things that will lead to a sustainable and secure future is by investing in taking action right now, and supporting the young activists and organizations who are working to get our country back on a sane and progressive path.
The clock is ticking, and we need to act quickly to prevent any further erosion of our social and environmental laws. The good news? Solutions are possible if we target our energy and resources into electing a new and progressive slate of local, state, and national leaders who understand the environmental and social issues, and toward concrete policy solutions at city halls and state capitols across the country.
When my generation fought in the sixties, it was youth working mostly alone to change the system, while handling resistance from our elders. But today, the energy of young activists can be supported by the wisdom and the resources of my elder activist generation. We can provide funding. We can network. We can encourage and support youth through inevitable setbacks. We have the connections and the resources that can be mobilized into a bigger coalition than we saw on the original Earth Day in 1970. I felt the energy of this partnership first hand in June at the March for Science in San Francisco. The crowd was every bit as large as that on our first Earth Day — a blend of young and old, marching and singing and dancing together. More than once I was stopped by a group of young people and thanked for being there, as an elder, to support them.
Imagine the sense of purpose we elders could again attain if we as a generation made a commitment to identify and support a cadre of smart and energetic youth who were dedicated to taking back this country, and united behind concrete policies to save the United States and planet Earth.
What a difference we could make if just 1000 of us funded the hiring of 10 full-time activists to swing districts, or supported 30 or 40 paid internships who helped us elect environmentally and socially progressive candidates in the 2018 election? I’m working with an organization called Public Interest Action (PIA) whose mission fits this purpose. PIA is dedicated to partnering grassroots activists with candidates for local and state-level positions who share our social and environmental values, and can help this dream of young activists united with elders come to fruition.
It’s hard to start again, for we’ve been here before. I urge each of us of the 1960s activist generation to rededicate ourselves to the values we care about, use the skills we’ve learned, the resources we’ve gathered, and the time we now have as we retire to help the younger generations. Let’s act as real elders, and tackle the issues we all face in the decades ahead. What better legacy in memory of JFK than to ensure the habitability of this incredibly beautiful planet?
Bruce Justin Miller was director of the University of Hawaii’s Office of Sustainability. He received the Department of Commerce Environmental Hero Award in 1999 and in his student days was coordinator of the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. He is currently working on sustainability planning and is on the board of Public Interest Action (PIA).