Climate change has emerged as an important issue for the younger generation; that is, Gen Z (born between 1981 and 1996) and Millennials (born between 1997 and 2012). Public opinion polls suggest that these cohorts are more worried about climate change and more supportive of climate policies. Youth groups have been active in the Friday for Future demonstrations. Across the world, young plaintiffs are suing governments for what they perceive as relative lethargy on climate issues. Young activists are disturbing sporting events, stopping traffic at major highways, and vandalizing museums – all with the objective of focusing media attention on climate issues.
But who is to be blamed for the climate crisis? Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old New Zealand parliamentarian, responded with “OK boomer” after an older parliamentarian interrupted her speech on the Zero Carbon bill. She said: “Mr. Speaker, how many world leaders, for how many decades have seen and known what is coming but have decided that it is more politically expedient to keep it behind closed doors. My generation and the generations after me do not have that luxury.”
The BBC notes, “In internet parlance, “OK boomer” is a derogatory phrase used primarily by the next generations to show their indignation towards older people deemed indifferent to their concerns. It is used widely on platforms like Twitter and TikTok.”
The criticism that the older generation allowed fossil fuels to dominate the economy is fair. Indeed, Inter-generation inequity is now an important part of climate policy discourse. Yet, it is not clear if the younger generation is any different especially when it comes to carbon-frugal lifestyles. The massive youth response to Taylor Swift’s Eras tour is noteworthy on this count.
Taylor Swift and the Celebration of Conspicuous Consumption
Taylor Swift is perhaps the most well-known singer and songwriter of contemporary times. She is popular, particularly among the younger generation. Swift has embarked on the Eras tour, with 131 shows across 5 continents. Tickets to her concerts are (very) expensive, with substantial resale markets. Along with concert tickets, Swift sells a range of merchandise on her website from clothing to jewelry.
Her concerts are important economic events for any city because they attract thousands of fans. Her recent Seattle concerts attracted fans from Oregon, Idaho, and even Canada. A report entitled, “It’s simple Taylornomics: When Taylor Swift comes to town, Swifties go on a spending spree” noted that “Her fans have been filling hotels, packing restaurants and crowding bars during Swift’s 20-city Eras Tour in the U.S. … Fans who did get tickets spent hundreds of dollars on outfits for the show, hiring designers to recreate looks Swift wore on the red carpet or in music videos. At the concerts, they traded beaded friendship bracelets that spelled out song titles.”
Her concerts are multi-day events. In addition to filling Seattle’s Lumen Field with 70K capacity on two successive evenings, Seattle saw a host of Taylor Swift parties, including tailgate parties. As per a recent report, “A Taylor Swift concert in downtown Seattle last weekend shook the ground so hard, it registered signals on a nearby seismometer roughly equivalent to a magnitude 2.3 earthquake.”
And the Swift craze is not limited to the United States. “Swift isn’t performing in New Zealand, but Air New Zealand experienced a “Swift surge”—people rushing to book flights to Australia, where Swift will perform in February. The airline had to add 14 more flights to accommodate 3,000 more people … Some of the flights are getting a special Swiftie flight number: NZ1989, after Swift’s fifth album.”
Does the Climate Impact of Concerts Enter the Equation?
We are delighted that the younger generation is having fun. After depressing COVID lockdowns, this is a welcome change. But much of the entertainment seems carbon-intensive and we find this “consumption as salvation” approach to be disturbing (apart from the moral issue surrounding conspicuous consumption: who can really afford to purchase Swift concert tickets and paraphernalia, especially in Seattle with burgeoning homeless population?).
This raises questions such as whether the climate ethic of the younger generation is any different from that of boomers. Instead of “ok boomers” type of performative environmentalism, it is time to ask the tough question: how to confront our carbon-intensive lifestyles.
Some might claim that climate problems are structural and suggest any talk about personal responsibility constitutes “soft denial.” We beg to differ. Individuals have a choice when it comes to entertainment. Why is the younger generation gravitating towards celebrities with very high carbon footprints who flaunt their consumption-oriented lifestyle? Consumption divas such as Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian have among the highest number of Instagram followers (397 million and 363 million respectively). Greta Thunberg, in contrast, has only 15 million followers. What does this reveal about the climate priorities of the younger generation?
Kylie Jenner shot into fame when she flew from Camarillo to Van Nuys because this trip took only three minutes as opposed to a 45-minute drive. “Three days after the quick flight, the reality star, 24, posted a black-and-white photo of her and Scott, 31, posing in front of their private jets “you wanna take mine or yours ?” she boldly captioned the Instagram post.”
While Taylor Swift does not flaunt her jets, she is on the top of the celebrity list in terms of carbon emissions from traveling in private planes. On July 29, Yard, which tracks celebrities private plane use noted: “Taylor Swift might be today’s pop princess, but Yard’s research found that Miss Swift is the biggest celebrity CO2e polluter of this year so far…. Her total flight emissions for the year come in at 8,293.54 tonnes.” For reference, as per the World Bank, in 2020, the average global per capita carbon emission was 4.3 tons. This means Swift’s private jet footprint alone was 1,928 times the global average. Or, more conservatively, it was 637 times the U.S. per capita carbon emissions of 13 tons.
So, the question is, where is the outrage about conspicuous carbon emissions? Why no criticism of Swift? We did not find any climate-related protests at the Seattle event, let alone the disruptive protests that took place at the Wimbledon, and the British Open.
Or think of more humble issues such as friendship bracelets. Seattle stores ran out of beads as Swifties scrambled to buy them for friendship bracelets. Now imagine if Swift were to make a climate statement by promoting beads made from recycled plastics that has been removed from oceans. Yes, this would not solve the climate problem but would at least nudge Swifties to think about climate-friendly actions to demonstrate their love for Swift’s music. Broadly, without “ok boomer” type of finger pointing, we need to reflect whether current carbon intensive lifestyles are sustainable and whether younger generation should create icons of individuals with egregious climate records.
It is convenient to think that global problems will be solved once electricity is generated from renewables and electric cars replace the internal combustion engine. To generate electricity and move it to consumption centers, massive new transmission infrastructure will need to be created. To make EVs, mining on an unprecedented scale for copper, lithium cobalt, and nickel will need to be undertaken, whether on land, or on oceans floors. And the new mining and electricity demands will need to be balanced alongside a rising global population and rapidly disappearing biodiversity.
The reality is that energy transition might solve the emissions problem, but it will create several others. Eventually, societies will need to confront the elephant in the room: over-consumption, an issue raised in the 1970s by the Limits to Growth debate. This is a very uncomfortable and politically difficult conversation. But as the astounding response to Taylor Swift’s Eras tour suggests, even the most climate-concerned generations are not willing to connect overconsumption with the climate crisis.