Stereotypes. Our brains are hardwired to jump to conclusions about situations and people based on our prior experience, regardless of how genuinely applicable that experience is. It’s a survival trait that’s helped our species avoid danger by assuming that the rustling of leaves in the woods means a predator lurking. Sometimes it’s useful — but it can get us into trouble when we assume that people will always fit a stereotype.
Take the stereotype of the spoiled, bratty, overpaid sports star. Maybe some sports stars do fit this stereotype — but then there’s Damian Lillard, former Weber State Wildcat now playing basketball for the Portland Trail Blazers. His long-standing work to help students succeed in high schools in Portland, Oregon, was recently recognized by the NBA. Spoiled and bratty couldn’t be less accurate descriptions.
Or how about the airheaded, self-important Hollywood movie star? Again, maybe some movie stars do fit this stereotype, but not actor Mark Ruffalo. He serves on the board of The Solutions Project, a seriously science-based effort, co-founded by Stanford University engineer Mark Jacobson, to move the U.S. more quickly toward renewable energy sources. Mark Ruffalo also regularly shows up, without turning the spotlight onto himself, at events for environmental causes.
And then there are young people, beset by stereotypes as much as anybody. As a Weber State University professor, it is my great privilege to spend most of my working hours in their company, and these students blow the stereotypes attached to their generation out of the water. They are among the most motivated, organized, smart, passionate and committed people I’ve ever met. The stereotype of their generation suggests that young people are obsessed with their phones and social media, with posting selfies on Instagram, they’re narcissistic and hypersensitive. In my experience, this couldn’t be more wrong. They are busy fighting for our future, mine (and yours) as well as theirs, by demanding action to address the clear and present dangers of climate change.
Those dangers are getting harder and harder to ignore. Research shows that tropical storms, like Hurricane Dorian, are getting stronger, that heat waves are getting worse, and that wildfire seasons in the western U.S. are getting longer and more severe — largely because of the global warming that comes from increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases, caused by burning fossil fuels. If we leave this problem to fester, the climate changes we’re already experiencing, and which are already causing loss of life and property, will compound.
It would be easy to ignore climate change, to hope that someone else will solve the problem, and that everything is going to be OK if we just ignore it. But, far from burying their heads in the sand, on Friday, Sept. 20, young people organized, showed up, and spoke at Youth Climate Strike events all around the world. Some estimates put the total participants at about 4 million people, young and not-so-young combined, but mostly young people.
These young climate activists are demanding that policymakers take the climate emergency seriously. In the words of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish girl who has inspired this global movement, the Youth Climate Strikers insist that politicians “act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”
Weber State faculty played a small role. Several of us organized a climate teach-in on the morning of Friday, Sept. 20, for people who didn’t feel sufficiently informed about the climate emergency or weren’t comfortable with joining the Youth Climate Strike event in downtown Ogden. Weber State itself defies stereotypes in this area, leading out in front of other, better recognized universities in our state by implementing energy efficiency and water conservation measures, and a renewable energy portfolio, that has us on track to be carbon neutral by 2040 or sooner.
But for all the great work my colleagues are doing, Sept. 20 did not belong to us older folks. It was students and recent graduates from Weber State University and Da Vinci Academy who really shone. Defying heavy rain and cold weather, they organized and spoke in Ogden and Salt Lake City and delivered a message that they will not allow our political leaders to ignore: We need meaningful action on climate change, and fast. The narcissistic selfie generation? Not in my book.