In the run-up to COP26, which starts 31 October, Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been quite active in several countries. Civil disobedience to make clear that climate change takes no notice of the slowness of political decision-making and established interests. The police were usually out in force and made many arrests. Civil disobedience is, of course, not allowed. But if, for example, farmers in the Netherlands are allowed to block roads under police escort and drive circles around distribution centres in order to stand up for their own interests, why should these protesters not be allowed to sit in the streets in order to defend public interests?

Perhaps part of the explanation lies in who they represent. Extinction Rebellion is not an interest group. It is mainly made up of young people who are concerned about the future. They are supposed to be our hope for the future, because they are less attached to possessions and find sustainability more important. The idea is that this basic attitude will persist even when they grow older. An XR cohort effect, so to speak. But is this assumption that sustainability is cohort-related justified and does this justify optimism about the future?

Data from the past make us quite pessimistic. In the 1960s, baby boomers tried to change the world by smoking pot and having free sex. Until they had children. And responsible jobs. And, as time went by, more and more possessions: houses, cars, investments, and capital. Slowly but surely, they got absorbed by the system that they had despised in their younger days and started doing almost everything even more wrong than the generation that they had protested against.

If the conclusion is that behaviour changes as you become stuck in the system (dixit farmers), then the solution must be that we prevent the younger generation from becoming encapsulated. And that is easier if they do not need to worry so much about finding jobs or paying off high (student) debts while building up their lives. To have a good life it should, for instance, not need be necessary to take on huge amounts of study debt, followed by a big mortgage for a house. The uncertainty of flexible contracts makes many young people so eager to secure a permanent employment contract that idealism quickly goes out of the window. See here the system’s iron grip: everyone is focusing on their own issues and is afraid of sensible change.

I wish the XR-youngsters a better future in a different system. A new generation of ‘boomers’; let us please to try to help them avoid ‘growing up’. We must build our future on the young and their untainted ideals. This not helped if the system efficiently eradicates activism.

This is a translation of Hans Stegeman's column in Het Financieel Dagblad, published October 19th, 2021.

Read Hans' previous column 'Superheroes and superplans not needed'.