Open Letter to Teenagers

SUBHEAD: Start telling the truth – the hard, unpleasant, revolting, exhilarating, depressing, liberating truth. Image above: Teenagers at a Waimea Days event near abandoned sugar mill. Photo by Juan Wilson on 2/26/05. By Dan Allen on 16 December 2009 in Energy Bulletin - (

[Note from the author: As a peak-oil/climate-aware high school Chemistry teacher, every day is a balance between (1) imparting the daily Chemistry lesson in an effective and entertaining manner, (2) telling the kids the hard, scary truth about our civilization’s predicament without crushing their hopes and dreams for a livable future, and (3) offering some ideas about what we could do to help the situation]

Overall, my part-gloomy/part-hopeful message has mixed success with the kids. Some of them couldn’t care less. Some of them don’t want to hear it at all. But some of them respond with a sincere concern. And this sincere concern sometimes even blossoms into constructive thought and concrete action to address our predicament. So I think I’m having at least some net positive effect. Maybe.

Some people have expressed concerns that I “limit them” by telling them such “bad news.” But I don’t think so. I don’t see the point in lying to them about our possible futures. We’ve lied to them, to ourselves, for too long now. And with the apex of our civilization now receding behind us, I think it’s maybe time for everybody to just start telling the truth – the hard, unpleasant, revolting, exhilarating, depressing, liberating truth.

…And then we need to get down to work. …But first the truth.

So I sat down and wrote this. It’s my attempt at telling them the truth. I know it’s a little pretentious to write a letter to “all teenagers,” but how long are we gonna keep lying to them? Enough already.

Hi There, Kids!

Hello, teenagers of America! How are you?! …Hello? Anybody home? …Hey -- Are you ignoring me? …Is that a ‘yes?’ OK. I get it. …You want to be alone? …Right?

Then I’ll leave this letter right here outside your door. You can get it later. You will, right? You’ll read it? OK…I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’

Look, I know it’s just what you wanted – a letter from a middle-aged man telling you all about how your entire world is about to be turned completely upside down. A letter about how your hyper-individualism is a thing of the past; how you’ll never ever again be called a consumer; how you’re about to live a lot closer to the Earth; how you’re about to live closer to your neighbors; how you’re about to live a lot closer to the edge.

Right up your alley, huh? …OK, right. …I’ll…I’ll leave the letter right here. …See ya later. …Bye.

Some Things You’ve Probably Noticed

Now, you guys get a bad rap about being clueless, but I know you’ve noticed a lot of what’s going on.

For one thing, the economy is in the crapper. (Is that a word you guys use?) Maybe you’re having trouble getting a good summer job. Maybe you’re parents are worried about paying for college. Maybe you’re wondering when things are gonna turn around. Yea, a lot of people are worried.

And this war thing – you probably noticed that, huh? A little bit confused by it? Yea, me too. I bet it just sort of seems normal to you, huh? Well it’s not. At least it shouldn’t be. But it’s not your fault. …But you’ll pay for it. We all will.

And you feel a little alienated? Like you’re surrounded by people but you still sort of feel alone? Yea, that’s normal…unfortunately. It shouldn’t be normal, but it is. And it’s getting worse. It didn’t used to be normal. …At least not like it is now.

And this whole climate thing. …Confusing, huh? It’s like everything else – all the adults just sit around and insult each other, and never get anything decided. It’s hard to know who to believe. It sort of makes you want to just tune it out. But you shouldn’t, you know. And pretty soon you won’t even be able to. I’ll talk more about it in a minute.

Some Things You May Not Know Yet

OK, so let’s get down to business here. I’m gonna level with you about some things.

There’s a bunch of stuff -- really important stuff -- that the adults aren’t telling you. But don’t feel insulted, because they’re not even honest with each other about it. A lot of them don’t even know. I’m gonna tell you briefly about it here, but don’t take my word for it – look it up. I mean really look it up. Read books about it. It’s important.

So let’s talk about the oil situation. First of all, we use oil for so many things. Your life would be so completely different without oil. It’s magical stuff. Horrible, magical stuff. And I know you’ve heard about some problems with gasoline and oil – like all the complaints when prices get too high. But the situation’s way worse than that. You’ll hear lots of people say “we’ll never run out of oil” – but that’s only partly right. We haven’t yet pulled all the oil out of the Earth, but pretty soon we’re going to run out of all the oil we can afford to pull out. The oil that’s left is too hard to get at, and it’s in countries that are going to want to keep it for themselves. Pretty soon, we’ll hardly have any oil for us. That’s huge.

But what about the other sources of “fossil” energy – coal, natural gas, nuclear? Yea, more bad news – bad in the energy sense, at least. All these other fossil energy sources that can run out are going to run out. – Not as quickly as oil, maybe, but almost. They’ll run out quickly enough where it’s not worth changing over to them. They’re dead ends. And I’m not even talking here about climate yet – they’re dead ends from an energy perspective. From a climate perspective, they’re pure death.

So you’re saying, ‘What about alternative energy?’ – solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, biofuels, etc. ‘Won’t they save us?’ …No. They won’t. Now don’t get me wrong – this stuff is great, and I think we should push forward with it as much as possible. But you shouldn’t expect them to replace much of the depleting fossil energy sources, because they won’t. The alternatives won’t give us anywhere near the energy required to live our lives like we live now. Not even close. Now again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them – it just means that, even if we do use them, we’re guaranteed to have less energy in the future. And because of that, our lives will be totally different. So completely totally different. Guaranteed.

I’m not sure what to say about the climate. I don’t want to scare you. But I don’t want to lie to you either. So I won’t. I won’t lie to you, I mean. How about this: it’s very bad. I mean, what’s already coming is gonna be very bad. Almost guaranteed. And unavoidable now. Storms and droughts and cities underwater and farms underwater and hungry people. Lots and lots of hungry people. And it won’t be that far in the future. You’ll live it. And there’s a very real chance it could be just utterly horrific. Like totally-different-Earth horrific. Like extinction-of-our-species horrific. I’m not exaggerating. It scares the heck out of me. But I think you should know the truth.

But this climate stuff is a lot like the energy stuff in this way: (1) Both of them are already gonna be real bad. We already screwed up on both. A painful, civilization-killing energy crash is already coming. Climate disasters are already coming. (2) But we might -- might -- have a chance to stop it at ‘real bad’ in both cases and avoid ‘horrific’. But only -- only -- if we start doing the ‘right thing’ now. Right now. We need to start preparing for a low-energy future. Right now. And we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Right now. And that means turning your entire life upside down. Right now. And that’s scary.

But the choice now couldn’t be more clear. And it’s a damn crime nobody’s telling you this -- because you’re probably the only ones who could pull off the change that’s required. That’s partly why I’m telling you this. We old people are too set in our ways. We’ve got too much sunk into the system. We have too much crap we think we need to protect. It’s pathetic.

But you guys have nothing to lose. -- And you guys have everything to lose.

So do you have it in you? Or are you too far gone too? I honestly don’t know.

An Apology (but not for what you think)

OK, that wasn’t too fun, was it? But maybe take some comfort in this: nobody’s lying to you this time. Nobody’s trying to trick you. Nobody’s trying to sell you something. I’m just trying to tell you the truth. It probably feels a little weird.

I know there’s a lot for you to be mad at. And I understand if you are. My generation and the handful of generations before me really screwed things up. …And I know that’s the biggest understatement ever.

Maybe you’re mad that we burned through the fossil fuels without ever figuring out what we’d do when they were gone; that we never set up energy systems that would outlive us when we had the chance; that we destroyed all the easy irreplaceable resources of everything else – metals, fertilizer, old-growth forest, fertile top soil, etc.; that we’ve been so horribly wasteful.

Maybe you’re mad that we destroyed the rivers and estuaries; that we cut down the rainforests; that we exterminated so many species of everything; that we piled garbage all over the place and spilled poisons into the soil and the water and the air; that there’s hardly any fish left in the oceans.

Maybe you’re mad that we messed up the climate; that it’ll be hard to know what weather to expect when you’re older; that storms and droughts are gonna be so deadly awful; that’s it’s gonna be so hard to grow enough food; that we probably won’t be able to grow enough food.

Well you should be mad. I don’t think we could have treated the Earth and ourselves and future generations much worse. We’ve done horrible things.

So I’d like to apologize -- but not for what you think. I’m not gonna apologize for wrecking the Earth.

Frankly, I don’t think you would’ve behaved much different than us. In fact I know it. I see every day how you buy into the same destructive system that’s caused all these problems. It’s tricky; it’s seductive – it sucks you in. You buy into it more and more until one day you wake up and realize there’s no way out – you’re a flat out ‘consumer’ and you need the system. No matter how much it’s killing the Earth, you need it. It becomes part of you.

So I feel horrible about what’s happened, but I’m not gonna apologize for getting sucked into the system – we all did. But the system is dying now, so we’ll be free from it anyway.

I’d like to apologize for a myth that we’ve been passing on to you; a myth that we’ve been passing on for generations. It’s a myth that’s destroying the biosphere; a myth that’s destroying us.

Here’s the myth: that we belong on this Earth more than salmon, spiders, tuna, oaks, or sparrows; more than whales, beetles, redwoods, or bees; that we can destroy other species and not destroy ourselves; that we don’t need them; that we don’t have to love them; that we don’t have to love the Earth.

This horrible myth is the thing to be mad at; to be furious at. You should hate this myth. You should scream at it and curse at it. You should write it down on a piece of paper and then burn it. And then you should let it go. Forever.

This myth is an abomination, and it needs to stop with you guys. Right now. I apologize for our stupidity in holding onto such nonsense; for passing it on. You can do better that that. You need to.

You Are ‘Generation Limits’ (Is that a good name?)

Now forgive me if I digress for a moment. This next part is gonna sound a little silly.

But I’ve always wanted to coin a catch-phrase – some clever turn-of-words that sticks in the collective mind of our pop-culture. Look, I know it’s petty and shallow, but hey…I’m human. And we’re petty and shallow sometimes.

…So do you mind if I give your generation a name? A catchy name that maybe they’ll put on the cover of Newsweek or something? …OK, I know you mind. But I’m gonna do it anyway.

OK, how about this: ’Generation Limits’? Is that catchy? ...Not really?

Now…I’m sorry. That’s a dirty trick, huh? – Us wrecking the world and then naming your generation after what it can’t do. I understand if you don’t like the name. You don’t have to use it.

But there is a lot of truth to it, huh? My generation and the handful of generations before me all acted like we had no limits on anything. It was like a religion with us. We could do whatever we wanted; use as much as we pleased; waste as much as we felt like; destroy whatever was in our way. We felt super-human. Like gods.

We were delusional. Dangerous.

...We were monsters, really. …Think about it. We really were.

But you guys have limits. I mean, we had limits too – we just ignored them. But you can’t. I mean you physically can’t. The Earth won’t let you. We just about ran it dry.

So even though it’s silly to name generations, I think you should hold onto this ‘limits’ idea. Make it the cornerstone of whatever civilization comes next. Celebrate it. Be proud of it. You should probably even put it into your religions. It’s that important.


How to See the Future

Now, I’ve already done a lot of ‘predicting the future’ here so far. And I admit that’s a dicey thing to try. …But I’d say it’s a heck of a lot better than ignoring the future.

That’s what we’ve been doing, by the way -- ignoring the future. We pretend to be interested in it, but we’re really not. Pretending that “the future will be a continuation of the past – only better” is a way of ignoring the future. It’s the mantra of the reckless, homicidal civilization we’ve become. And I bet we’ll be chantin’ that mantra as we slam into the wall at full speed.

You should probably try something else.

But how does someone look into the future?

Well -- first, you need to have some idea about what’s happened in the past. You can get that from good books.

And then you need to open your eyes and be honest about what you see right now. You can get that from good books too – from people who learned to do it; or who never forgot. Or you might even know some of these people. Talk to them.

And finally, you need to know that the future probably won’t be a straight-line continuation from the recent past. It almost never is. Again -- good books.

That’s a lot of book reading, huh? …But people used to be able to see the future. Even before books. They got it from listening to stories their grandparents told. Again and again. Stories about what worked and what didn’t work. Stories about the mystery of it all. The same stories. Over and over. Until they could see the future.

-- Now, it didn’t always work out. They messed up sometimes. …But it was a lot better than what we’re doing now – ignoring the future.

So you should probably start thinking about the stories you’ll need to tell. Stories about what worked and what didn’t work. Stories about the mystery of it all. Start practicing them now. Remember them. And then tell them to your grandchildren. Again and again. Until they can see the future.

All Our Possible Futures

So now I’m gonna try to do some more predicting-the-future for you guys. I know you’re thrilled. But I mean well. Really -- I’m trying to help. I’m not just trying to be annoying or preachy. I’m trying to help.

Now, nobody can really see into the future – not in any detailed way. There’s too many variables. But you can make a good guess. You can usually sort of see how things might play out. And sometimes you can be right. Again – it’s better than ignoring it. You’ll always be wrong if you ignore it.

So one good way to think of the future is what they call a ‘probability distribution’ – like rolling a loaded pair of dice. It’s a bunch of possible futures ranging from really good to really bad. Based on our past and present choices, some of these futures are more probable than others. And every new decision we make resets the probabilities of these possible futures. By making good decisions, we can make the good futures more probable and the bad ones less probable. But only up to a point. At some point things get a lot harder to change.

That’s probably the best way to think about the future.

But it turns out that we’re in a bit of a tough spot here. Our past decisions haven’t exactly been the best. (Yea, we’ve burned a lot of bridges.) And the decisions we’re making right now aren’t much better. (Yup – still burnin’ those bridges.) So at this point, the most probable futures are definitely not the brightest ones – not even close. But they’re the ones we’ve been choosing. (It’s like we can’t help it – huh?) And they’re probably the ones we’re gonna get. And you get what you get.

So I’m gonna try to guess what we’ll get – what sorts of lives might be waiting for you as our civilization starts its descent. It’ll be different than what we have now – that’s for sure. But it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. It might even be exhilarating. Maybe not. But parts of it maybe.

It’ll definitely be a lot of work. Definitely a lot of work. But we can do that.

The Part Where I Look Into My Crystal Ball

…So here it is.

In the future…

Some of you will grow food. -- Probably a lot of you, actually. Even those of you who do other things as your main job. So you should probably start to learn how it’s done. Right now. Because it’s not something you can learn in a year – how to add fertility and prepare the soil, when to plant and harvest, how to store the harvest and save seeds, etc. There’s more to it than you think. And it’s gonna get even trickier when the climate starts its carbonic seizures – droughts, floods, heat, cold, and storms. In no particular pattern. So you better be good.

Some of you will re-design and re-build our lives. -- You’ll design renewable-energy systems, rainwater-collection systems, natural building methods, food-production systems, food-storage systems, manufacturing systems, etc. etc. And you’ll need to do it largely without fossil fuels. And mostly with materials you get from Nature. So you’ll probably need a lot of cleverness. But I’ve noticed that a lot of you are pretty clever. So I think you can do it.

Some of you will become skilled craftspeople. -- You’ll make all the things we used to have the robots make for us. But they used mostly oil. And now they won’t have any. They’ll be useless. So you’ll need to use wood and reeds and stone and anything else you can find. Maybe even pieces of the robots. You’ll need to be creative. And you’ll need to be good. But I bet you can do it. I know you can.

All of you will live closer to the Earth. -- You won’t have a choice. You’ll find that you need the Earth again -- that you really always needed it. You’ll drink the rain. And smell the leaves. And follow the stars. And talk to the moon. And sing along with the birds. You’ll sit quietly in the glorious pregnant stillness of dawn. And you’ll know the Earth. Again. As your ancestors did. –Aren’t you thrilled? …No? …But just wait. You’ll see. It’s in your bones. Still. …Really. It’s ancient. And it’s still there. Inside you.

All of you will live closer to your neighbors. -- Again, you won’t have a choice. You’ll need them. Too much can go wrong for you to make it by yourself. They’ll be your safety net. – And sure, you won’t like all of them. But you’ll have to learn to deal with that. To get past that. To live with differences and make it work. You won’t have a choice.

All of you will live closer to the edge. -- You’ll have less room for error. There’ll be no ancient sunlight – no fossil energy -- to bail you out if you mess up. Like if you run out of food or water; if you run out of firewood; if your house gets messed up. So you better be careful. And you better plan ahead. And you better be good. And you better have people you can depend on. Because the edge is gonna get real close sometimes. Guaranteed.

All of you will live with limits. -- Lots of limits. Limits all over the place. Limits from both your communities and the Earth itself. Limits to how much you can take from the Earth. Limits to how much you can keep for yourself. Limits to how far and fast you can travel. Limits to where you can live. Limits to how much you can eat. Limits to what you’ll be able to eat. Limits to everything. – You’ll be swimming in limits. And they won’t be optional. And there’ll be a price for breaking them – a big price. Maybe your lives. And the lives of your children. So you better pay attention to the limits. You better find out what they are. And you better obey them. Because they mean business this time. For real.

All of you will need to be strong. – Because this ain’t gonna be a walk in the park, kids. There’s gonna be pain and suffering. There’s gonna be some bad things that happen. So you need to be strong. And you can’t give up. Even when it’s really hard. Even when you want to give up. You can lean on other people sometimes. But you need to be strong for them too.

And all of you will be important. – Every single one of you. You won’t be consumers. You won’t be statistics. And you won’t be replaceable. You’ll be members of your communities. You’ll be people that other people depend on. You’ll have important skills. And important knowledge. And you’ll do important work. And you’ll have family around you. And people who care about you. And people who need you. And people who won’t let you fall. And you’ll all be important.

Every single one of you will be so damn important.

Good Luck

So, sorry I went on for so long here. I had a lot on my mind.

But thanks for reading. And again, sorry for sounding preachy. I really do mean well.

Good luck with everything. We have a lot of work to do.

And remember to start practicing your stories. You’ll need them. Your children’s children will need them.

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