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The Shadow of an Older Tree: Aging and Environmental Stewardship


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 By Gill Joseph, Social Gerontologist and Owner/Director, Clear Pane Research Services, Ontario Canada, on twitter @Clearpane.

Re-posted from June 26, 2013, EARTH NINJA 


In 2003 France experienced the hottest summer since 1540. All summer temperatures soared. For many days, thermometers registered well over 40 degrees Celsius. There was an excess of 14,802 heat related deaths that summer in France and most of those who died were seniors. Changing weather patterns, pollution, rising water levels, garbage, lack of public transportation, growing cities, food security – all of these things affect our environment, and in turn, our own well-being on the planet. But in particular, our changing environment has significant repercussions for seniors (age 50+), and especially for vulnerable elderly. Although so called developed countries have the highest number of people over the age of 60 currently, the countries that are aging the fastest are those that are newly industrialized or still developing. By 2050 the U.N. projects that China and Brazil will have more than 40% of their populations over the age of 60 – outpacing Japan (currently the oldest population), the United States and Canada. Yet as important as it is to be concerned about the gaps in information concerning the impact that changes in the environment will have on an increasingly aging global population, we should also be concerned about how little we know about what seniors themselves are doing as environmental stewards.

Many assume that environmental stewardship is the purview of younger adults and some make sweeping assumptions that older people are more conservative and less open to new ideas and practices. Current patterns of funding, lack of educational opportunities, environmental research and program designs that focus on young people are certainly a testament to this thinking. A study of curbside recycling in two British Columbia towns found that seniors over 65 were less likely to want to pay more for curbside recycling than their younger counterparts. While at face value this would appear to place seniors in a negative light regarding attitudes to recycling, the study found that the reason behind this attitude was because seniors generally had more time to take their recycling to the depot and thus were less likely to want to pay for curbside service as would the busy younger cohort. Some seniors do face barriers to engaging in environmental stewardship because of mobility, income and health issues. However, insights about the environment and environmental practices/policies from seniors with disabilities and health challenges can highlight needs and solutions that will improve the quality of life for all age groups and abilities.

There are many important reasons for raising awareness about what seniors are doing to make our world a better place, and important reasons to engage them even further in environmental stewardship. Firstly, older people are more likely to vote than are younger people, which means their views can be influential for changing public policy and public attitudes about environmental issues. More than 300,000 Canadians over the age of 65 are still in the workforce, contributing to environmental initiatives through taxes and investments. Seniors have years of personal and work-related experiences – successes, failures, local knowledge and skills that can make an invaluable contribution to environmental and disaster planning. In Canada, retired seniors over 65 spend more hours volunteering than any other age group which provides an untapped, highly motivated and cost effective resource. Many seniors have strong family and community networks that place them in an ideal position to act as environmental advisors. For example, David Suzuki, now aged 77, attributes his passion for the environment to family members, and takes pride in passing on this legacy to his children and grandchildren.

In a recent U.S. study, half of the participants over the age of 60 agreed that most of their friends were trying to do something to reduce global warming, and this percentage was just above the national average for this age group. A quick scan of the internet highlights some interesting initiatives that have engaged seniors in environmental stewardship thus far. For example, in the UK, seniors’ organizations such as RSVP West (The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program in the West of England) have developed online environmental fact sheets and highlight volunteer opportunities to engage seniors in their local communities.

The Green Alliance, also in the UK, developed a senior task force that created a manifesto with information and recommendations for policy makers to eliminate barriers and encourage seniors to play a more active role. In the United States, Gray is Green is an organization that discusses issues and opportunities for seniors that are associated with environmental stewardship. Greenpeace Berlin has a 50 Plus team that assists seniors concerned about the environment to be politically active both on and off line.

We should always question age-based assumptions about environmental stewardship and work to find ways of including all stakeholders in developing policies and practices that facilitate this goal. As noted in an ancient Greek Proverb:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit”.