words by willow defebaugh
photograph by ryan mcginley
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
Ryan McGinley first garnered the attention of the larger art world with his 1999 self-published book, The Kids Are Alright, which portrayed New York City’s hipsters as the new hippies. Since then, his work has evolved to capture this generation in more natural settings—stripping members of the Instagram generation bare, and showing them in a context that is irreverent and free of inhibition (as in his cover story for Atmos Volume 01). As a whole, his body of work serves as both a unique portrait of today’s youths as well as a representative one, capturing the revolutionary spirit of an era that harkens back to the 1960s.
It’s this same revolutionary generation that we have witnessed stepping up to champion climate change in recent years. In London, the movement has been given a new name: the Extinction Rebellion. While many environmentalists have shied away from the realities of a dystopian future where climate change has “won” out of fear of alienating the public from joining the cause, members of the Extinction Rebellion are doing just the opposite. This is perhaps most evident in one of the slogans read at their protests: “Tell the truth, and act like it’s real.” (The implied threat of the word “extinction” in their name includes us, by the way.)
This question of balance between realism and hope has been a divisive point within the ecological community since Al Gore was accused of fear mongering with 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth. It’s a dichotomy that manifests quite clearly in environmentalist Bill McKibben’s new book, Falter. “This volume is bleak,” he warns at its start. “I think we’re uniquely ill prepared to cope with the emerging challenges. So far, we’re not coping with them. Still, there is one sense in which I am less grim than in my younger days. This book ends with the conviction that resistance to these dangers is at least possible.”
Another new release, journalist Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, looks at how climate change became a political—or more specifically, a partisan—issue in America. On the latest episode of Terry Gross’s podcast Fresh Air, Rich speaks to the progress we could have made in the 1980s before the oil industry started funding climate skeptics, and to the direct approach being taken by young activists today: “They’re saying that failure to act is harming us, is killing us, that you elders who are failing to act are stealing our future away from us.”
Fewer industries are aware of the need for radical reform in the face of climate change quite like the food industry, which is dependent on crops and water supplies that are directly at risk to severe weather events. That’s why the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance—a new coalition of companies including Nestlé USA, Mars, Inc., Unilever, and Danone North America—is calling for climate conscious policy action from the U.S. government. Among their asks is a new carbon pricing system in accordance with the Paris Agreement—a step that the Danish government has just taken as part of its plan to go carbon neutral by 2050.
Speaking of reform, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration is testing what a universal basic income might look like in practice. As part of the experiment, 130 inhabitants of this California city will get $500 per month for the next year and a half with no strings attached—an amount that could make all the difference for a struggling household. This idea of universal income is gaining traction as the next presidential race looms nearer, with candidates like Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg addressing the issue.
The realities of future climate disasters, food shortages, economic collapse, and possible extinction are undeniably bleak—which is exactly why we can no longer afford to turn away from them. That is to say what the youngest members of the emerging climate rebellion are already shouting from the streets: the time for revolution is now.