A mother-daughter generational divide
RIO DE JANEIRO — “Hey, why don’t you have a car?”
My mom has asked me this question maybe once every two months for the past 15 years.
To her, having a car is about being free, looking into a boundless future from the comfort of the driver’s seat. It’s also about having something of value to hold onto, an asset that’s hers.
To me, a car is a two-ton problem that guzzles money and needs to be fixed regularly. It’s an asset, yes, but one that loses value the minute you drive it off the dealer’s lot.
The lifestyle choices at the heart of this mother-daughter generational divide matter because, as you are probably aware, the fossil fuels that power most cars are frying our planet. High gasoline prices are now punishing drivers around the world, too.
So far, electric cars aren’t available to most people in the world, including here in Brazil. And the extraction of the minerals needed to make them isn’t great for the environment, either, as my colleagues have reported from Chile and Congo.
But, still, there is almost one car per person in the United States. And the numbers are growing around the world, especially in countries with emerging economies.
Many cities are built in a way that makes cars unavoidable, and, in many rural areas, public transport is nonexistent. So is it reasonable to expect that large numbers of people will just abandon cars?
The answer depends on many factors, and how you look at them. For example, my mom, Nidia Aguilar, thinks attitudes toward cars are a generational thing stemming from how we were brought up.
She’s a 67-year-old lawyer who is also proud to be a hiker. She was born in the low-income suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant who dreamed of seeing his children to go to college.
She describes as nightmares her memories of being stuck in sweltering, crowded buses as a college student. Having to hitchhike her way through a beach vacation (including a stretch riding in the bucket of a tractor) is a fun story that she is glad to leave in her past.
“Places were unreachable to me,” she said. “I needed to buy time.”
I’m a product of my mother’s achievements. I was born in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Rio. The buses I take are crowded, too, but my journeys are a lot shorter. I can often take the subway, which she couldn’t when she was young. And better safety regulations mean biking isn’t as dangerous as it was back then.
It’s clear that younger generations are the most concerned about the environment. But my experience has taught me that the decision of buying a car rests heavily on our options. Options I have, and my mother didn’t.
For most of the people in the United States, a country made for cars, walking or taking a bus to work isn’t really feasible.
But the choices we make, about where we live, or for whom we vote, may impact the options available, too.
When we were talking about this essay, my mom remembered a conversation we had when I was a teenager. She was driving me to school and we were sitting in a traffic jam. At the peak of my annoying teenager phase, I argued this was all the fault of people in the elite like her, who drive everywhere.
My reasoning was that if people like her took the bus and then used their social and political leverage to demand better public transport, things would change.
“Do you really think that at this point in my life I’m going to hop on a crowded bus to complain about it? I’m too old for that,” she recalled saying. “I worked really hard to earn the right to have a car.”
But public transportation doesn’t need to be terrible (though the Inflation Reduction Act is remarkably thin on measures to build up and improve public transportation).
Maybe when it’s good, cars won’t be such a potent symbol of freedom and prosperity as they are to my mom.
This gets to another issue hiding in the car debate, one that goes beyond the energy transition that our planet needs.
Cars are about individuals, while public transport is about communities. And, while individuals can make a big difference in the world, learning how to thrive as a community, local or global, is often a lot more powerful.
My mom has felt the power of working collectively. When she was in her 20s, she joined a revolutionary movement to help topple the military dictatorship here that repressed her generation’s freedoms while killing and torturing thousands.
“I’ve done my part,” she told me. “The solution to the climate problem is for your generation to solve.”
Are there generational differences on climate in your family?
It’s not just cars. Climate change can reveal a whole host of other generational differences within families.
Perhaps you’re old enough to have witnessed climate-related changes in your community. Or maybe you’re a young person who’s persuaded your parents or grandparents to take action. Or you might have bumped heads with relatives over climate issues. Whatever your story is, we’d love to hear it.
We’re asking readers: What are the generational differences on climate change in your family? If you’d like to participate, you can fill out this form. We may use your response in a future newsletter.
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