The Over-60 Crowd Steps Up With Bill McKibben's Climate Action Group Third Act | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Over-60 Crowd Steps Up With Bill McKibben's Climate Action Group Third Act

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Published March 29, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 29, 2023 at 10:04 a.m.


Third Act protest on Church Street in Burlington - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Third Act protest on Church Street in Burlington

Michael Weiss stood apart from the group of protesters outside Chase bank in Burlington last week. He was a few feet and four or five decades removed from most of the people demonstrating on Church Street. Weiss, 24, is an environmental justice organizer for Rights & Democracy who attended the protest organized by Third Act, a climate activist group for people 60 and older.

"There are so many adults who have constructed a world that discounts my future," Weiss said. "Seeing people show up like this — if you can — it's a responsibility. This is what it looks like when elders take responsibility for our community and show they care."

On March 21, the look was gray-haired, bundled up and carrying Third Act signs that said "Stop Funding Fossil Fuels." Even the Third Act logo — bold yellow lettering in all capitals with a red exclamation point in place of the letter I — recalled an earlier era: The design is derived from the graphics of the 1963 March on Washington.

The 150 or so Vermonters on Church Street were participating in a nationwide event — held at about 100 sites across the country — designed to urge people to stop banking at financial institutions that fund fossil fuels. In particular, four so-called "dirty banks" were named as those not to do business with: JPMorgan Chase (aka Chase), Citibank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Third Act was founded in 2021 by Bill McKibben, 62, of Ripton. (When asked where he banks, McKibben took a moment to find his checkbook: National Bank of Middlebury, a locally owned, independent bank founded in 1831.) McKibben is a longtime environmental activist and writer who cofounded 350.org, an international climate movement, with seven college students in 2008. Now he's seeking to engage another demographic — older people — in the work to mitigate climate change to achieve a sustainable future for the planet. Nationwide, about 50,000 people are members of Third Act, he said.

Bill McKibben - SALLY POLLAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sally Pollak ©️ Seven Days
  • Bill McKibben

"It's not that we need to be in the lead, but we need to be deep participants," McKibben said. "I've heard one too many people say to me, 'Oh, it's up to the next generation to solve these problems,' which seems ignoble but also impractical. Young people have intelligence and idealism and energy in spades; what they lack is structural power."

Older Americans control most of the nation's wealth; they're a strong voting bloc; and they were witness to or participants in momentous social, cultural and political upheaval, including the apex of the Civil Rights Movement and women being "taken seriously as political actors," McKibben said.

"That's who this generation is," he said. In addition, they're likely to have more free time than younger people do. And they're thinking about how they will be remembered.

"The nearer we get to the exit, the more we understand that legacy is not a completely abstract idea," McKibben said. "Legacy is the world you leave behind for the people you love most."

The Vermont chapter of Third Act has about 350 members, with eight to 10 people joining each week, according to Shaun Deane, the group's communications coordinator.

"I'm looking forward to hitting 500," said Deane, 69, of West Brattleboro. "You hit certain numbers, you have more horsepower; you have more clout."

The day before the bank protest, Third Act members convened in a common room at an apartment building in South Burlington to work on posters. Some taped photos of their grandchildren to the signs. Women in their seventies and older said they'd been engaged in political and social activism for many decades.

"We heard the young people say, 'Look what you've left us,' and we don't want to leave them with that," Judy Wade, 80, of Jericho, said. "So we're rising up."

Catherine Bock, 74, said she became an "annoying environmentalist" in California at age 13 after reading Rachel Carson's environmental bestseller Silent Spring.

"I was into nature and birds," said Bock, a retired naturopathic physician who lives in Burlington. "And I started thinking grown-ups are ruining the world."

After 61 years of environmental activism, Bock said she's encouraged by the number of people getting involved in the movement. But she doesn't think there's much "hope of solving the problem."

At last week's protest, Alan Coulter, 74, of Weybridge, expressed a similar sentiment. An outdoor educator, Coulter said it's important that the choices people make about how they live align with their values. (He also banks at National Bank of Middlebury.) Yet he thinks we're beyond the point where individual actions can make a significant impact on climate change.

"Therefore, being a part of a group like Third Act is important," Coulter said. "Credit card cutting and recycling and solar energy is not going to get us out of this mess. We need systemic change in the way we do our politics and economics."

Michael Weiss - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Michael Weiss

Measuring the effectiveness of a green movement is not a simple matter, and it can involve numerous variables, according to Adrian Ivakhiv, a professor of environmental thought and culture at the University of Vermont. Focused environmental campaigns — such as creating more bike lanes — are easier to articulate and attain than "long-range goals" such as "stop[ping] climate change," he wrote in an email to Seven Days from Berlin, Germany.

He noted the different approaches of various activist groups, from 350.org's focus on limiting atmospheric carbon to Extinction Rebellion's goal of creating governmental change. Meanwhile, "Third Act appears to be trying to engage the over-60 crowd in ways that Fridays for Future has targeted teens and school kids," Ivakhiv wrote.

"The shift to disinvest from fossil fuels was an important innovation in the climate change movement," he wrote. "When all of these movements are taken together ... it's clear that we are making progress internationally to turn things around. But because the climate change issue is so large and it takes so much to turn it around — basically, reversing course on a massive economic-industrial-societal project whose trajectory has been building for a couple of hundred years — it can still feel like we are failing."

At the March 21 rally, organizers announced a step in the right direction: More than 17,000 people nationally had pledged to move their money out of the four major oil-funding banks. Deane, the communications coordinator, said Third Act can be a resource to help make sustainable financial considerations "digestible." The group offers webinars about sustainable investing and provides other online information — including a "tool kit" — that gives guidance about switching to a "greener" credit card.

"We're pissed off, and we're not going to just let banks railroad us and roll over without any attention to what's important to all of us on the planet," he said.

The rally was the first major climate-related street action since the pandemic began, McKibben said. He noted the importance of young and old people collaborating in the movement and said youths are grateful that "older people are backing them up."

Young folks are "feeling quite lonely, in a lot of ways," McKibben said, "which is understandable in a world where they're expected to somehow deal with all these crises that they have not created."

McKibben recalled that a couple of months ago at a demonstration in Brooklyn, older people joined "somewhat spryer" high school students. The graying protesters carried signs that said "Fossils Against Fossil Fuels."

"All the kids were laughing when they saw it," McKibben said, "with a sense of relief that we weren't taking ourselves too seriously."

These different age groups are bound by their collective action but might come at it from a slightly different understanding. "Sometimes young people need a sense of what's actually possible to do," McKibben said. "And sometimes older people may need just the opposite: a sense that more is possible than they think."

Weiss, the 24-year-old who attended the Burlington rally, said he appreciates the support from his elders.

"I love that older folks are showing up," he said. "But we need more."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Old Tricks | The over-60 crowd steps up with a climate action group"

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