You Are the First Generation To Face the Possibility of Being the Last Generation

Thomas Clement Douglas? Beto O’Rourke? Jay Inslee? Mike McGinn? W. R. Barnhart? Lee Loevinger? Billy Graham? Jay D. Hair? Brian Fisher?

Dear Quote Investigator: Humanity faces a severe danger according to similar statements from two presidential candidates:

(1) We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last generation who can do something about it.

(2) We are the first generation to feel the climate crisis, and the last generation with the ability to avert its worst impacts.

In the past, I have heard comparably eloquent formulations that call upon humankind to overcome enormous perils. The archetypal warning asserts that the first generation to encounter a problem might be the last to exist unless significant changes occur. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The people of the world became aware of an unprecedented existential risk after the first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945. In 1948 a commencement speaker at a high school in Maryland issued a warning to students. W. R. Barnhart, head of the Department of Religion at Hood College, stated the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“The all important question in this atomic age is the question of Hamlet, ‘To be or not to be?’ That has become the most important question for the whole of mankind.

We are the first generation that can completely destroy ourselves. At the close of the First World War the younger generation was called the lost generation. If our present younger generation should be another lost generation it may be the last generation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1970 the degradation of the environment via pollution was a major concern of Lee Loevinger who had been a member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. The Associated Press news service quoted Loevinger delivering the following lament: 2

“The present generation of youth is the first generation that has grown up with the knowledge that it may be the last generation of man,” Lee Loevinger, now a Washington lawyer, said at the final business session of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s three-day convention.

In September 1970 senatorial candidates visited a high school in Hawaii. Tom Hodges who had initiated a large number of legal actions against alleged polluters spoke at the school: 3

Hodges told the students the law is a two-edged weapon that can be used by ordinary citizens to stop the large island corporations which he said are polluting the environment.

“You are the first generation in the world that is staring in the face of utter extinction,” said Hodges. “You are the first generation in the world that has a chance to be the last generation.”

In 1971 the U.S. was planning to perform an underground nuclear test detonation on the Aleutian Island of Amchitka. “The Ottawa Journal” of Canada reported that a group of 700 people had gathered on Parliament Hill in November to express opposition. The politician Thomas Clement Douglas addressed the group and stated that protests should occur against all nuclear tests: 4

“You are the first generation to face the possibility of being the last generation,” he continued.

In 1982 the prominent religious figure Billy Graham employed the resonant rhetoric: 5

Billy Graham has now diverted a significant segment of his ministry to urging “destruction of all nuclear arms.” He says, “We are living on the edge of annihilation of the human race.”

He says, “This is the first generation that faces the prospect of being the last generation.”

In 1989 Jay D. Hair who was the president of the National Wildlife Federation spoke at their annual meeting. He used a partial version of the template that mentioned “last generation” but omitted “first generation”: 6

Hair, president of the NWF, addressed the issue squarely: “Ours may well be the last generation that has the opportunity to save our natural world and restore those aspects of our global environment we have already degraded.”

Global warming, an idea considered far-fetched at the beginning of the decade, had reached scientific consensus by the end of the decade.

In 2008 “The Pantagraph” of Bloomington, Illinois published a profile of entomologist Brian Fisher who had travelled extensively around the world while studying ants. He expressed fears about the environmental future: 7

“We are the first generation to realize that our ecosystems are really under threat. That’s good,” Fisher said. “But, the sad part is we are the last generation to be able to do something about it. Are we going to figure that out?”

In October 2017 “HuffPost” published a piece by Michael Patrick who was the Mayor of Seattle, Washington. He applied the rhetorical framework to climate change: 8

The impacts of climate change are real, we are experiencing them today and they will continue to worsen. We’re the first generation to see the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do anything about it. To refuse to use every tool at our disposal in this fight — to embrace inaction — is to endorse a trajectory that will lead to suffering, privation, and calamity.

In October 2013 Jay Inslee who is the Governor of Washington employed a version of the saying. He has acknowledged Michael Patrick: 9

“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last generation who can do something about it,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said.

In 2019 journalist Jim Brunner of the “Seattle Times” examined the recent history of this quotation. Brunner noted by Beto O’Rourke’s campaign had released a climate platform containing a version of the saying: 10

“We are the first generation to feel the climate crisis, and the last generation with the ability to avert its worst impacts,” is how O’Rourke’s campaign put it.

Brunner helpfully pointed to the earlier statements by Jay Inslee and Mike McGinn with Inslee crediting McGinn.

In conclusion, powerful warnings about the future of humanity have repeatedly employed an elegant coupling of the terms “first generation” and “last generation”. This rhetorical device produces memorable expressions. One hopes that nuclear and environmental calamities may be averted by intelligent and constructive action.

Image Notes: Picture of an iceberg from Free-Photos at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Paul Rauber whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1948 June 11, The News, Diplomas for 63 at Thurmont, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Frederick, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1970 February 17, Corsicana Daily Sun, Man’s Survival Linked to Media and Government, Quote Page 5, Column 2 and 3,Corsicana, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1970 September 24, The Honolulu Advertiser, Castle students get candid(ate) view of ecology by Douglas Boswell (Advertiser Government Writer), Quote Page A16, Column 3 and 4, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1971 November 4, The Ottawa Journal, 700 at U.S. embassy protest blast by John Wylie, Quote Page 17, Column 2 and 3, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1982 May 6, Messenger-Press, Opinion & Commentary: Big Bombs or Little Ones by Paul Harvey, Quote Page 5, Column 3,Allentown, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1989 November 26, South Bend Tribune, Hard choices ahead on environment: Some consider 90s last-chance decade by Wayne Falda (Tribune Staff Writer), Quote Page 1, Column 5, South Bend, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 2008 March 16, The Pantagraph, Section: Go! Outdoors, King of the hill by Scott Richardson, Start Page E1, Quote Page E6, Column 1 and 2, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  8. Website: HuffPost, Article title: Let’s Prevent This Crisis: A Letter to Harvard’s President Faust, Article author: Mayor Michael Patrick McGinn (Contributor Mayor of Seattle), Date on website: October 17, 2013 (Updated December 17, 2013), Website description: HuffPost is owned by digital content company Verizon Media, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications. (Accessed huffpost.com on May 3, 2019) link
  9. 2013 October 29, Visalia Times-Delta, West Coast states and BC to link climate policies by Jason Dearen (Associated Press), Quote Page 4A, Column 1, Visalia, California. (Newspapers_com)
  10. Website: Seattle Times, Article title: Jay Inslee’s campaign hits Beto O’Rourke for lifting signature climate-change line. But who said it first?, Article author: Jim Brunner (Seattle Times political reporter), Date on website: April 30, 2019, Website description: Website of The Seattle Times which is a daily newspaper serving Seattle, Washington. (Accessed seattletimes.com on May 3, 2019) link