An Open Letter to Breakthrough Generation

“If Millennial-led groups automatically adopt the old fights of environmental Boomers, the next few decades of climate policy could be doomed to look a lot like the last few.”

That’s how The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer closed his recent article on the Sunrise Movement, acceding to the pressure from green groups to remove carbon capture from their Green New Deal proposal. Obviously, I find that move distressing, since excluding carbon capture (and nuclear, and large hydroelectric, and more technologies that aren’t wind and solar) makes the lift of deep decarbonization nigh impossible.

But beyond that, Meyer’s line resonated with me. It states quite succinctly the central ethos of Breakthrough Generation.

Breakthrough Generation is the Breakthrough Institute’s youth research fellowship. Every summer, 5-10 recent college graduates and grad students join our research staff for the summer studying energy systems, food and agriculture, conservation, human development, technological innovation, urbanism, and more. Their diverse, sharp perspectives, analytical skills, and energy form an essential part of Breakthrough’s research every year. I’ve had the privilege of running the program for 7 years now and it’s one of the best things I do in life.

But Breakthrough Generation was also founded on the Kuhn-ian insight that paradigm shifts are a, well, generational affair. Human societies won't solve 21st-century environmental problems using the same thinking that solved 20th-century problems. We need new solutions, new technologies, new politics. Millennials and the generations that follow us should be equipped with an appreciation of history, philosophy, and science, but also a new perspective and a new set of ideas to tackle today’s challenges.

That’s the core mission of Breakthrough Generation. What feels different every year is that more and more Millennials (and not a few Gen Z-ers) are getting more and more influence. Robinson Meyer, a Millennial, implored Sunrise Movement, itself a Millennial-led organization, to reconsider their ways. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Dan Crenshaw, and scores of other Millennial legislators now hold the levers of power. Many of the founders and executives I meet here in Silicon Valley are Millennials. Indeed, Jesse Jenkins, a Millennial and one of the founders of Breakthrough Generation, was just published in The New York Times making the case for an energy vision beyond 100% wind and solar.

The particulars of a post-Boomer vision of the future are up for discussion. I would not expect, nor even hope, that all young people share the precise ideas of the Breakthrough Institute. Breakthrough Generation was founded to create a new environmental politics. And like the larger set of tools we hope to bring to confront climate change, biodiversity loss, food production, and other environmental challenges, that politics will be diverse. That politics will be contested. But it should not mirror the disputes and divisions of previous generations. That way lies paralysis.

There is nothing innately special about being a Millennial. We can be as misguided and mistaken as any humans. But we weren’t raised in the same world as our parents, and we don’t have to accept the same restrictions they put on themselves. We don’t have to do as we’re told when our elders tell us to share in their technophobia, their polarization, their paralysis.

So if you are a Millennial, or Gen X-er, or a Boomer who’s tired of Boomer politics, or just a person who doesn’t go in on all this generationalism but imagines a better future, I would ask of you: don’t do as you're told. Recognize your voice and your power. And recognize that while our parents and grandparents bequeathed us a world better than any that came before it, they also left us their problems, and we don’t need to limit ourselves to their tools to solve them.

Applications to the Breakthrough Generation Fellowship are due on February 12, 2019.