02 Jan 2012

The Longevity Revolution: Time to Get Out and Change Things

photo credit: Cindy Stahler/nukeresister

“When I grow up I am going to be a little old lady in tennis shoes,” Mary Catherine Bateson, the septuagenarian writer and cultural anthropologist, told the audience at the TEDx Women conference held in New York City near the end of 2011. To the room full of 50+ women, the reference to Rachel Carson–and the attempts to dismiss the burgeoning environmental movement she helped found–came through loud and clear. As did Bateson’s call to action: “If there is one thing we should all be working on, it is preserving the environment.”

It’s an urgent message, especially when you consider the 191 anti-environmental votes taken by the House in 2011. Polls consistently show that Americans value strong government protections against pollution. But if our Congressional representatives aren’t listening well enough to their constituents, Americans may not be doing all they can to be heard.

Bateson strongly urged seniors to take up the slack and advocate for a healthy environment. Seniors–women in particular–have a unique role play, Bateson argued. It seemed a fitting lesson for a new year. Let me explain.

Jane Fonda kicked off the TEDx Women conversation with a jaw-dropping statistic: “We are living on average today 34 years longer than our great-grandparents.” Looking at our society as a whole, this is a “longevity revolution.” Fonda challenged the panel to consider how we use this time.

To Bateson, this added longevity may be the major source of hope we have in the world. She recognized that people in their 30s, 40s and 50s–overly busy with work and family–have too much to deal with in the short term. But those in their 60s and later–“Adulthood II” as she called it–have more time and wisdom, and Bateson believes are better at problem-solving for the long term.

Both Fonda and Bateson spoke of Adulthood II as a creative, productive period–a new phase of the life cycle that has been inserted before old age. Besides Carson, who wrote Silent Spring when she was 55, Bateson recalled that Betty Friedan was 58 when she wrote Feminist Mystique and Maggie Kuhn was 66 when she founded the Gray Panthers.

Bateson also pointed out that women entering Adulthood II include large numbers who remember the ’60s, and the ’70s, who were activists at some point in their lives, and “who in the beginning years of feminism had to rethink who am I, what do I want, what am I going to do with my life?” These women are on the frontier once again, “pioneering a part of life that did not ever exist before.”

Where should they direct their energy, skills, wisdom, and time? To Bateson it was clear: “Be impassioned advocates for a positive future,” and for future generations one will never see. Check out these 15 women, including three over 90, who according to Nuke Register, were arrested in June at the Entergy Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The women were charged with trespass after advocating for replacing nuclear power with solar power. I like the Huffington Post story of 69-year-old Sue Kelso in southern Oklahoma who stopped the Calgary-based TransCanada from running the Keystone XL pipeline under her family’s peanut farm. And no one will ever forget the brave and visionary Nobel Laureate, Wangari Maathai, who passed away last fall. Rightfully, much has been written about her life, the Green Belt Movement she launched, and the 40 million trees that have been planted as a result of her work.

There are countless stories of women of all ages taking up the cause of a positive future. Tell us yours. And let’s make 2012 the banner year for women environmental activism.



  1. I agree with all the conclusions here, but the increase in longevity statistic is misleading. Most of that increase is due to efforts by the government to improve public health which, by removing the diseases that take so many children at early ages, increased the life expectancy at birth.

    However, when you look at the conditional life expectancy, given that a person has reached a certain age, the increase is only a few years when the given age is 65 or over.

    This has a big effect on the age of eligibility to the “Entitlements.” Putting such a large increase in the public’s mind when the relevant number is an order of magnitude lower makes it easier for people to “sell” raising entitlement ages. And this is even more detrimental when it is pointed out that the increase in expected life at age 65 is achieved mostly by upper income groups and the poor, who need those entitlement programs the most, have increased conditional life expectancies; less than the proposed entitlement age increases.

    • DonB’s point underscores the necessity for careful content review prior to public presentations. Perhaps TEDX could place more emphasis on the increase in numbers of individuals entering Adulthood II. The proportion of activists in any population might actually be constant, but since the total population over 65 is increasing, the number of activists is as well. Certainly the majority of activists participating in volunteer projects in my neighborhood are over 65. Without them very little would be done.

  2. phyllis myers Says: January 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    As a consultant on environmental issues for leading nonprofits and government agencies, I am so encouraged to hear about this Adulthood II initiative to boost senior involvement in protecting the integrity of our precious land legacy.

    The initiative is doubly welcome because it looks at the growing senior population as a plus, not a drag. I am tired of all the pundits who moan and groan about all the older people, rather than seeing what a contribution they are already making and thinking constructively about how their energies, values, and interests, can be mobilized for good. Thank you, NRDC.


  3. You wouldn’t believe that these old citizens are very spiritually encourage not because of their remaining lifespan but with the overjoy they are garnering together with the other seniors. I remember my grandma’s happiness whenever she is attending an event for the senior citizens. I love you all grannies.

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