Why our elders are becoming environmental activists

Grandparents for a Safe Earth aims to protect the planet for future generations

The slight, white-haired figure of grandfather-of-four Phil Kingston doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of an environmental activist but old age, he has found, does have advantages.

For a start, it’s clear that police don’t want to arrest grandparents, he says with a smile. In fact he regrets that on one occasion when he was arrested, to be removed from a sit-in at a bank in the UK, he was promptly de-arrested on the street outside.

“I was disappointed about that in the sense that you don’t get the chance to speak in court, to say that there are some laws that are more important than state laws: care for our grandchildren, the sheer immorality of what’s happening.”

The issue that consumes Kingston, who is 79, is the alarming rate of climate change and the failure of big business to change the practices that are accelerating it and politicians to address it. He is cofounder of Grandparents for a Safe Earth, a group of older people who are campaigning to raise awareness and to ask the powers-that-be awkward questions.


They not only enjoy the benefit of wisdom garnered through life experience but are also more likely than the egocentric “now” generation to appreciate that we are all just specks in the lifespan of the Earth, yet are inflicting far greater damage than our predecessors. (For 800,000 years, the level of carbon in the atmosphere varied between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm) but now stands at 400ppm.)

Never fear

Pensioners are also not worried, as younger people might be, about risking a career-jeopardising criminal record.

“That’s really important,” Kingston agrees. “We have the freedom most don’t have: and let’s use it, because there is not much they can do to us. We have very little to be afraid of.”

The name for the group arose only as it evolved, after being set up in Bristol three years ago. “There were five of us on the first action and we were all elders or grandparents and then the idea came, this is who we are,” he explains. “This is our identity and it is a really important one to connect with other people.”

With his own grandchildren ranging in age from 16 to four, he reckons future generations are likely to judge us very harshly. It’s not as if we don’t know any more what we’re doing to the planet – the scientific evidence is overwhelming – but we’re very slow to change our behaviour for the sake of those who will come after us.

“We have had the best of this and from now on it is not going to be the same material world that we’ve had. The Earth can’t provide it,” Kingston points out. “There is a big responsibility on us to shift that.”

Originally from south Wales, he was in Ireland to speak at the recent “Meeting the Challenge of Climate Justice: From Evidence to Action” conference in Maynooth University, Co Kildare, which was co-hosted by the university, Trócaire and St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

We sit and talk in an empty lecture hall on the North Campus, before he addresses the gathering as the “voice of future generations” with probing questions about the widescale damage done to satisfy the narrow interests of the greedy few.

Although conversations about climate change tend to be dominated by science, the injustice and immorality aspects can hardly be lost on believers of all religions and none.

Indeed the Maynooth conference, coming just days after Pope Francis released his social encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si: A Manifesto for a New World Order, heard how global warming and rising sea levels are already adding to the burden of those living in geographically challenged areas such as Bangladesh.

In a keynote address to the two-day conference, former president and UN special envoy for climate change Mary Robinson said two-thirds of known fossil-fuel reserves must be left in the ground if global warming is to be kept at less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, widely regarded as the tipping point for irreversible, catastrophic climate change.

Bill McKibben of 350.org pointed out that the only way to do this was to break the power of the fossil-fuel sector, which he described as “the most irresponsible industry we have ever seen on the planet”.

It is because of their enormous investments in the fossil-fuel industry that Grandparents for a Safe Earth chose banks as a target for direct action. “We are asking the bank to stop investing in fossil fuels and to invest heavily in renewable [energy] and energy efficiency,” says Kingston.

The UK's big five banking groups put £66 billion (€93 billion) into fossil-fuel extraction in 2012 alone, a spokesman for the Move Your Money campaign told the Guardian newspaper in February.

“We did a lot of writing to the banks, and the answers we got back didn’t satisfy us,” says Kingston. “We decided we would not accept that any more and [would] make a bit of a fuss in some way.”

That “bit of a fuss” was first to stage a sit-down in a Bristol branch of Barclays bank until they were removed. “We eventually agreed that the police could escort us out – but we wouldn’t leave without that. We wanted to show that the police were involved in taking action against us.”

Mull it over

In a seasonal protest just before Christmas, Grandparents for a Safe Earth distributed mulled wine and mince pies outside a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. They encouraged customers to think about taking their accounts somewhere else.

Climate change wasn’t on the agenda for the UK general election in May and so Kingston and company went around the hustings asking why not.

“Most of the candidates would tell us what their party was doing – the usual stuff. But two of them said that the polls were telling them that there weren’t any votes in climate change. We thought that was a very honest response but also very disappointing.”

Campaigning can be tiring and thankless, so is he not tempted to put his feet up after a lifetime of work and raising children?

“I could not not do it,” he says simply. “I love doing it; it’s my calling.” And he would encourage like-minded peers in Ireland to consider setting up an organisation similar to his.

There is another one in the UK, Oxford Grandparents Climate Action, and there is soon going to be a European network of grandparent and elder groups concerned about climate change organised by the Norwegians.

“None of us knows the outcome of our actions,” Kingston adds, “but if you do what you think is right, that’s the best way of living.”

Younger generation

Eco Unesco in Dublin works primarily with the generation of Kingston’s grandchildren and is seeing a greater understanding and interest among young people about environment, sustainability and climate change.

“Young people are saying: ‘You have made a mess of this’,” says the organisation’s national director, Elaine Nevin. Although young people are often talked about in terms of “the future”, they are saying they want something done here and now, rather than handed “the mantle of a mess that might be created”, she says.

The themes of projects entered for its young environmentalist awards have noticeably switched from being primarily concerned with waste to looking more at the natural environment and biodiversity, including issues such as the disappearance of the bee population.

They have other concerns relevant to them, such as not being able to use the city bike scheme because, being under 18, they don’t have the necessary credit card; or the need to develop green spaces in urban areas.

“We have young people coming in through the peer-education programme, some of whom might be interested in the environmental side of things and some of whom aren’t. What will join them together is that they are there as a group, become friends and then they start influencing each other and learning new things about the environment,” says Nevin.

Consumer power

As a result they begin to look at what they can do. Although they may not be old enough to vote or to hold influential positions, they recognise their power as young consumers, deciding what and where they’re buying.

It can also start to shape their career choices, says Nevin, who has been with the organisation since 2002.

Environmental awareness has increased hugely during that time, she says, and you’re more likely to hear young people voicing concerns. There were always a few on the fringe; now it is becoming more the norm.

“They are kind of annoyed of course that adults are not, as they see, doing enough and saying ‘If you know all this stuff, why aren’t you doing more?’.”

Nevin sees how grandparents can use their experience and time to do things such as sit on boards and influence behaviour that way. Teenagers can also work very well alongside older people – cutting out the middle “authority” generation of their parents and teachers.

She is optimistic that young people coming through Eco Unesco will carry their knowledge and concerns into their adult lives.

“It is all about making choices. What we don’t do is tell them ‘this is right and this is wrong and this is what you should do’. You’re giving them the knowledge and the skills and letting them make decisions for themselves.”

Let’s hope they are better decisions than those made by their parents and grandparents.

For details see 350.org; trocaire.org; ecounesco.ie