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July 22, 2010

The Greatest Generation?

Note: Our friends at Care2 asked if I would participate in a series of posts by people who were named to the New Leaders Council's  "40 Under 40" list last month. Here's my contribution:

I'm honored to be included in the New Leader Council's "40 under 40," especially as I look at the other 39 in my cohort. If this is an all-star team, it's got some serious heavy-hitters -- people who are already making big differences in everything from education to government to the environment. And though I'm a little close to the upper end of the age cutoff myself, I think it's good to remind ourselves that this generation has, in many ways, risen to meet challenges and harness opportunities that previous generations could scarcely have imagined -- from climate change to the Internet.

We've all heard the phrase "The Greatest Generation" to describe the Americans who lived through the Great Depression and then went on to win World War II. Since I came to the Sierra Club three months ago, I've been conscious of the great generation of environmental leaders who preceded me here and transformed what started as a local hiking and mountaineering society into our country's largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. It can be a little intimidating to know you've got David Brower's old job. Years before he won the battle to save Dinosaur National Monument, the guy trained WWII mountaineering soldiers and earned a Bronze Star in action in Italy.

And yet, I don't really buy the idea that any single generation has a lock on greatness. Look around and you'll find great people doing amazing things in every generation. Take 11-year-old Olivia Bouler. Olivia decided to raise money for the pelicans and other birds affected by the BP oil disaster by promising to send one of her own bird drawings to people who donated to wildlife recovery efforts. Result? She's raised thousands of dollars, has a Facebook page with more than 25,000 fans, and had a $25,000 donation made in her honor by AOL to the Audubon Society. I hereby nominate her for inclusion in "40 under 20." Way under 20.

Here's the thing: Olivia started with little more than a simple but pure sense of justice – she had a deep concern about the Gulf birds that she knew would suffer. But she then followed up with creativity and a focused sense of purpose. When her first idea didn't work out (selling drawings through Audubon to raise money), she adapted and came up with a new strategy. Last but not least, she worked hard -- making hundreds of drawings for supporters.

If you ask me, that's a basic recipe for success in any grassroots campaign. What I'm grappling with now, though, is how to scale the kind of passion, focus, and energy that you find in people like Olivia Bouler and in countless Sierra Club volunteers to a national organization that has more than a million members and supporters. I haven't got it all figured out just yet, but I've only been on the job a few months.

President Obama has a far more daunting set of problems to face, but when it comes to energy policy I think he has a similar challenge. At heart, most Americans want to do what's right for their country and for the planet. In the aftermath of the disaster in the Gulf, they've realized that ending our dependence on oil is important on both counts. President Obama, of course, has known this for a long time -- but the disaster has made the price for delaying painfully real. The president's job now is to challenge and inspire Americans to embrace the goal of moving beyond oil so that we can work together to solve our energy and climate crisis.

We can do it -- free our country from the grip of oil -- in just twenty years, a single generation. No, let me put that a different way: We must do it in a single generation, because that's all the time we have. What's more, we must bring to bear the same ingenuity, heart, and single-mindedness that 11-year-old Olivia Bouler brought to her campaign. And although we have a generation to do it, we'll need Americans from all generations, all political persuasions, and every walk of life. 

I take back what I said about there being no single greatest generation. If all of us -- from innocent-but-inspired children to battle-scarred-but-wiser veterans -- can rise to this challenge, then these next twenty years will be the greatest of all: The generation when people of all ages came together to save the world.


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