The Greta and Attenborough Story
Why our survival depends on what the young and old have to say, and always has done
Last month, the US Treasury Chief told youth climate activist Greta Thunberg to go away and study economics before telling investors to divest from fossil fuels. The implication is that teenagers have nothing to add to complex social issues and areas of expertise such as the economy. Which, if you didn’t already agree with Greta, seems fair enough, right? We don’t allow teenagers to vote, after all. It would seem a little contradictory to listen to them on important matters about how the country should be run.
And yet, I do agree with much of what Greta has to say. This is perhaps not surprising, as she spends most of her time giving voice to the scientific findings and policy implications put forward by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What is unusual about Greta Thunberg is that, unlike the proclamations of the IPCC, people listen to her. Greta is saying what many of us feel, but no politician is willing to say: that we need to do something about climate change and we need to do it now.
The aim of this article is not to convince you about the urgency of climate change — I hope that you are convinced of that already. Instead, I want to show how our survival depends on what the young and old have to say — not just now, but always.
The story of Greta Thunberg is a striking example of how adolescents can be a compelling force for social change. We live in a society obsessed by work and productivity. It is intelligent, hard-working businessmen and politicians that demand our respect, not young people who have too much time on their hands. But this focus ignores the fact that our social realities are incredibly complex — no-one really knows how do it, and there are many improvements to be made.
In our attempts to organise society, humans use one cultural technology above all else: social norms. Norms and values coordinate people’s behaviour in ways that make cooperation possible on a group scale. Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning work on the commons, for example, shows how groups create a system of social norms to ensure that everyone uses only their fair share of common resources. Without these norms in place, the commons will quickly be exploited by group members and eventually run out. Social norms are what the economist Christina Bicchieri calls the “grammar of society” — the laws, rules, regulations and expectations that help groups survive.
More recently, we have come to understand that our social norms must strike a balance: between what Michele Gelfand has labeled ‘tightness’ and ‘looseness’. Different groups and societies tend to fall on either end of the tight-loose spectrum. ‘Tight’ groups have a greater emphasis on social order and conformity, whereas looser groups have greater levels of openness and diversity. The key point of Gelfand’s work is that ‘tightness’ is an adaptive response to threat — rules and regulations that help groups coordinate in fixed ways that avoid chaos and conflict. In contrast, ‘looseness’ is an adaptive response to change — being flexible and creative in the face of new challenges and opportunities. Without having to deal with imminent threats and disasters, societies can afford to be a bit more loose — to break some of the old rules and create some news ones.
The second key point we need to understand is the speed of social change. Groups do not go from being ‘tight’ to ‘loose’ (or vice versa) overnight. From the World Values Survey, we know that liberal values in Western nations emerged over several generations — from the Industrial Revolution onwards. Obsessed as we are by election cycles, and as hard as may be to see beyond them, real social progress seems to happen on a generational timescale.
Why is this? One explanation has to do with how our psychology changes over the lifespan. We are born with flexible brains, full of connectivity. But, from the age of 5 onwards, the connections in our brains start to get pruned — if we don’t use them, we lose them. This process continues with the development of our prefrontal cortex — the executive control centre of the brain. By the time of middle-age, our prefrontal cortex has all but taken over. As effective adults, we navigate the world via the complex network of beliefs and expectations we learned in our childhood.
This is why adolescents are key to our long-term survival. Unlike adults, teenagers are more likely to focus on the social changes required to deal with new challenges and opportunities, such as the threat of climate change. As effective adults, we have not grown up with these challenges — we know little about the range of possibilities available to deal with them. In contrast, as the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has shown, adolescents perform much better than adults in tasks that involve social creativity — generating new ideas to solve complex social problems. Greta Thunberg may not be an expert in all the policies and technologies required to effectively deal with climate change. But she is well aware of the range of possibilities we have to choose from.
Middle-aged adults may dismiss the outcries of teenagers as idealistic or naive, but older adults may not be so quick. This is the final twist in our story of psychological change over the lifespan. In the later stages of our lives, the prefrontal cortex begins to loosen its grip. Life after middle-age is no longer designed to act effectively on what we already know. Instead, our brains rewire themselves to pass on the most important things we have learned to others. Humans are quite unique in this respect. Unlike other primates, we have another stage of life, from 50–70 years of age. The only other mammals that have post-menopausal females are killer whales. The primary reason for this, according to evolutionary biologists, is for older group members to pass on crucial information. The take home is that our ageing brains have been designed for complex systems of social learning. Culture requires grandparents.
What people like David Attenborough can offer people like Greta Thunberg is perspective. The middle-aged adults may tell Greta to go away and learn “how the real world works”. But older adults can confirm the need for the real world to change — to look beyond our current social norms and focus on what matters for future generations. This alliance between old and young has helped us adapt to the numerous challenges and opportunities we have faced so far in our young-yet-ancient history. It is what will get us out of our current crisis, if only we let it.
There is, of course, a role for all the middle-aged adults to play in this creative dynamic — a crucial one, in fact. We need new rules and regulations to deal with the social and environmental challenges of our time, such as climate change. We would do well to listen to the young and old in this respect. But, we also need strong, established social structures to put these new rules to use. As Gelfand notes, “we need ‘looseness’ to create new ideas, but we need ‘tightness’ to implement them.”
Our story of psychological development, therefore, needs a third character — someone to join Greta and David in their alliance; someone who is willing to listen and find effective ways of making their ideas a reality. Until that person steps up, how our story ends will remain uncertain.