Introducing Professor Mick Smyer, PhD

I have a real treat for you guys today, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that at the end of this interview, I am going to drop a bomb. But first, let me introduce my next guest, who I discovered while perusing a copy of USA Today while waiting to catch a plane from Brazil to Mexico. I was traveling to record videos for my new Go!Mobile Youtube channel, which is for people who want to travel in an environmentally sensitive way, sometimes referred to as eco-tourism.

What caught my eye in this issue of the newspaper was an op/ed entitled, “Kids, it’s time to give your parents ‘the talk.’ Not that one, the one on climate change.”

“Wow!” I thought. This op/ed contains two issues I am really passionate about: intergenerational communication, and the environment. The author, and my guest today, advocated opening channels of communication between generations on the controversial topic of climate change by keeping the discussion short, social, and positive, and I like that approach. Unfortunately the resulting comments to the op/ed were anything but positive, in fact, they were downright harsh.

Boomers podcast elder aging senior old living assisted living travel technology mobility hospice nursing home independent peak age-in-place die dead film death dying funeral cemetery end-of-life noetic science caregiving caregivers cremation burial care illness disease advanced planning afterlife heaven Buddha Jesus Hell Christianity Christian Belief religion faith God spirit ghost suicide dementia loneliness social security LifePath Campbell bliss hero journeyI wanted to understand the issue better, so I gave the author a call and invited him on the show, so today I am delighted to introduce you to Mick Smyer, PhD, a professor of psychology at Bucknell University, and the founder The Graying Green Project, which brings together climate communicators, scientists, community and business leaders to make older people more visible, valued and effective on climate action.

A national expert, Dr. Smyer has written and lectured extensively on aging. He has also consulted with Fortune 500 companies, state and national legislative leaders and higher education organizations on the impacts of aging. Mick cares deeply about the environment, and you can really feel that in this interview, in which he gives me a polite but appropriate schooling on how to be appreciative of the prior generation. I like that.

Finally, and perhaps most impressive, are Dr. Smyer’s prodigious skills as a washboard player with Pennsylvania’s own Rustical Quality String Band. I’ll give you a taste of that sound at the end of the show, but first, let’s hear from Dr. Mick Smyer, PhD, founder of the Graying Green project.

Subjects Mick Smyer and I talked about

  • The Graying Green Project
  • Go!Mobile Videos
  • “Old People Don’t Care About Climate Change” video
  • Kids It’s Time to Give Your Parents “The Talk” op/ed
  • Avoidance vs. Denial
  • At any level, from the individual to the collective, people act out when in transitions
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Co2 levels have accelerated at never-seen-before levels since 1950
  • Humans are not wired to think strategically at the eon or 10xeon frame
  • Every generation grades itself on the curve
  • What do we collectively do now? It’s not the time to rest on our laurels. What’s the next challenge?
  • Yale program on climate change shows older people care. 70% know it’s happening; 50% believe it’s human caused
  • 50% of the Boomers are in the “worried middle” — they know, but they don’t know where & how to act
  • We need all hands on deck
  • Success has many parents, and failure is an orphan
  • “I am concerned about you and your future, and I want to leave the planet as good as I can find”
  • Depending on how your locale’s electricity is generated, it could be greener to drive a hybrid than a pure electric vehicle
  • Is your assisted living place buying green energy?
  • It’s not about direction…it’s about pace!

Brant’s Op/Ed on The Green New Deal

I really want to thank Mick for helping me move past avoidance, which is really a stuck place, and open up to the opportunities of action. I also really appreciate two other characteristics of a healthy intergenerational dialogue that Mick wove into his narrative, the first of which is that climate change is a highly complex issue, and we need all hands on deck, of every age, color and gender, to wrestle through it. We need every mind actively working, and every voice freely speaking. No one should be silenced. Bravo Mick. You are right on about that one.
 
But his second characteristic brings me to the bomb I’m about to drop, and it has to do with pace. I share the utopian vision of my most progressive friends, one of a clean, green world safe for people of all colors, genders, and beliefs to live how we want to. I share a vision where everyone has enough to live a good life, free from worry, and where our mental, spiritual and physical health, and the health of our beautiful planet, are as cared for as we would care for child or beloved pet. If I could jump in a time machine and go forward one thousand years, I would hope to find this utopia, which might even look communist in nature.
 
But am I a communist? No. In fact, I lean Libertarian, and that choice has a lot to do with pace. I don’t dispute where we want to go, I dispute how fast we can get there. And that brings me to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal
 
Now I’ve heard my conservative friends scoff at her train to Hawaii idea and so forth, but I think they are missing her point. AOC is like a person from the future. She’s like someone who took the time machine back from 3019 to now, to show us what we can be if we work together. Her train to Hawaii is of course absurd in our time, but she’s not thinking tactically. She’s thinking strategically…in a time framework measured in eons, along with other people from the future like entrepreneur Elon Musk and musician David Byrne. 
 
I view AOC’s proposals on travel as a metaphor, a placeholder, for a bigger, bolder vision. She’s a practitioner of “possibility thinking,” and it’s a good thing. We see Musk thinking this all the time, and his accomplishments are nothing short of of breathtaking. “Build a rocket with private funds that can land on a floating dock? I can do that.” And he did. “Dig a tunnel under the city of Chicago for a self-levitating electric train? Let’s give it a try.” And Musk’s The Boring Company was born and the dirt is flying. “Lay train tracks for Hawaii?” Don’t underestimate the power of people from the future.
 
Ocasio-Cortez is challenging us to think beyond the limitations of our present capabilities, and rather to imagine the best ways to get from A to B. What does “best” mean? It means ways that don’t pollute, that don’t disrupt community, that are pleasurable, affordable, and that put living beings and the care of our planet above profits, processes, and the needs of machines. That’s what the future looks like…if we want it to.
 
Look, I am an unapologetic capitalist. I believe in free market solutions. But I also believe left-leaning progressives, even the most radical ones who anger me, are trying to show me something that I need to see, and I don’t want to close my eyes to their message. I believe Capitalism and Democracy are the twin pillars upon which we humans should build our future, but they are not perfect. They need tweaking and adjustment just like all systems do, so that they adapt to our changing world. There are people among us now, people from the future, showing us how to do just that, and we conservatives should pay attention to their message. Likewise, visionaries zealots, many of whom are young, should pay attention to an elder’s sense of pace, and how quickly we think this messy collection of human flotsam with its stone tools can move forward into a bright future. We’ve earned that perspective, and it has value.
 
The Buddha once said, “I am not the moon. I am just a finger pointing to the moon.” There is deep wisdom in that. We ought not to get distracted by the finger, what color it is, if its nails are painted, if it holds a reefer, or if its skin is mottled with age spots. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, and the shared vision of where we want to be in 1000 years. Then let us set an achievable pace for getting there.

For another perspective on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a decidedly less flattering one, read my op/ed on how she completely dissed her senior colleague in the guise of “activism” and “urgency.” Not cool. Where is the sacred tolerance for diversity and people of color? Apparently it does not extend to the color grey.

Questions I prepared for Dr. Mick Smyer

I’ll relay your bio in the opening of the show, so when the interview starts, let’s jump right into what Graying Green is, and how the workshops work.
 
Then I’d like to dig into the struggles you encounter in this cross-section between aging and climate change, specifically the divide between generations, and between political orientation. The two are intertwined, but let’s dive into the former…the dialogue, or lack thereof, between generations on the subject of climate change.
 
I learned about you an op/ed you wrote that was published in USA Today entitled “Kids, it’s time to give your parents ‘the talk.’ Not that one, the one on climate change,” which is a catchy title. In it you advocated keeping the discussion short, social, and positive, which seems to make sense. But the resulting comments to the op/ed, at least the one’s that I read, were anything but positive, in fact, they were downright harsh. It seems the subject evokes quite a bit of anger and energy that most of us would rather avoid, especially if we are not well-versed on the science of climate change. Do you sense that “climate change” is being added to religion and politics as subjects we just don’t talk about in polite company providing we want the discourse to remain polite?
 
I suppose there are some Boomers who outright deny that climate change is happening, even in the face of all the evidence, but I want put them aside for now. Let’s look at the rest of us, those of us who acknowledge it’s happening but who have a host of reasons for not talking about it. So we are not deniers, but rather avoiders, and you draw a distinction between the two. Explain that.
 
The data shows older people are concerned climate change, but what about action? How effectively does Boomers “care” translate into Boomer “action”?
 
Your goal is to get people to move beyond climate avoidance to realize, “There are things I can do.” How much do older adults really care? How do they respond when you suggest they might need to adjust their consumption habits, take shorter showers, or lower their meat consumption?
 
While the title of your op/ed implies the younger generation should initiate the conversation with the older, you provided a link in the op/ed to a resource that facilitate the reverse, that is, the older generation talking to the younger one. But when I examined that resource, one from The Climate Reality Project, I found it was designed for young parents talking to young children, not adult millennials talking to adult Boomers, where I sense there is a real breach. What is your take on the state of the union between Boomers, their aging parents, and the generations that immediately follow them, specifically Generation X and Millennials?
 
One of the myths those generations have about Boomers is that we don’t care about climate change, or that we cared but didn’t act with a sufficient sense of urgency. I’ll confess that this creates some umbrage in me, as I have spent a lifetime caring and acting. It was my generation that put environmental issues on the political map, creating a foundation for the next generations to build upon. I attended the first Earth Day in Washington DC in the early 70’s, and the responsibility to care for the planet was seared then into my young mind. Can you understand why old people like me get cranky with young people who seem so unaware of the work we did? Or am I fostering my own myth about young firebrands? Help me work through this.
 
How important is it to let the younger generations “own” the issue of climate change, allowing them to believe (falsely) that they are the only one’s who truly care, are “accelerating” the pace of progress while we are slowing down, and that the Boomer generation was negligent (too little too late) in dealing with the issue?
 
Elders are a resource, the keepers of a living memory about the environment. I remember a vastly dirtier world, with gas guzzling cars belching pollution, litter strewn highways, no recycling, and rivers catching on fire. What if our memory tells a good story, one of significant progress that needs to be acknowledged and valued?
 
You’ve said we older adults are primed to think about about next generations in our own families, about the legacy we leave, and about the environment of our local or regional communities, that is, our own back yards. Those all seem to be relatively self-centered reasons for acting, when caring for the environment, that is, giving a voice to the voiceless, is a fundamentally self-less act. What are your thoughts on that? Did my generation narrow its care focus as we got older?
 
Changing the direction of human momentum takes a lot of hard work over a long, long time. I think that’s one of the lessons older people learn from their long lives. The sentiment is captured beautifully in Cat Steven’s song “Father and Son,” where the young person is one a tear and the older one is saying, “Slow down. Take your time.” Could that be the Wisdom of the elders at Work here, to borrow a phrase from Chip Conley? In other words, have we older folks learned the wisdom of knowing the boundary between what we can do and what we cannot, which is one reason we get happier as we age?
 
You’ve described yourself as either an aging whisperer to climate groups or a climate whisperer to aging groups because both groups are like ships passing in the night. They’re not talking to each other. Why do think this is?
 
I can understand a communication breakdown between young and old — that’s been going on since the dawn of time, but I cannot understand it among academics. Why has research overlooked older people in the climate discussion?
 
Older people face a growing set of personal challenges, from declining health to declining piggy banks, challenges that tend to distract them from focusing on anything but the immediate and the personal. I have even come to believe the US is facing an impending crisis of unimaginable proportions, which some call the “Silver Tsunami,” when millions of Boomers need more care longer, at a very high cost, when there just aren’t enough caregivers and dollars to do the job. What’s your perspective on this, and how does it affect the work you do?
 
Finally, how do you respond to those of us who rationalize climate change? Is it an extinction event, or just another survivable crisis like so many others humans have survived in their 4 Billion year trek from pond slime to starship designer? How likely is it we will be killed off by the consequences of climate change, specifically:
  • Sea level rise
  • Wildfires
  • Heat waves
  • Extreme storms
  • Drought
How do you address the “so what” response?

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A) Look for the gold “Review Brant’s Show on iTunes” button below. Click there.
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Presto and grazie!

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