Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times columnist and author (of The World is Flat fame), recently wrote about Generation Q—the quiet generation of college students that is “so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be”. He noted, with some concern, that these quiet Americans may be “too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s good”.
I don’t want to be unduly optimistic, but I’m wondering if the Q in quiet shouldn’t actually be a C for concerned. Yes, this generation is certainly quieter than the generation of breast-beating slogan-shouters (“make love, not war”). And if the recently concluded Hindustan Times Leadership Summit is anything to go by (and I’m not suggesting that a two-day summit is the definitive sign of our times), then perhaps we are seeing the beginning of reordered priorities.
Bear with me for just a minute. In the past five years that the summit (it is hosted by HT Media Ltd which also publishes Mint) has been around, top billing inevitably goes to the big political sessions. This year was no different. The inauguration by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, followed by a conversation with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, as can only be expected, had the party faithful, media, delegates and other speakers pack the hall.
It was equally easy to predict the other crowd-pullers: Shahrukh Khan would get standing room in an audience anywhere in the world. Political leading lights—whether Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi or finance minister P. Chidambaram—are also bound to have sell-out crowds. Heads of state—in this case, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa—inevitably got due deference in terms of numbers. So, it came as a huge surprise that two scientists without the sex appeal of a Bob Geldof or a Shahrukh or an Imran Khan, and saddled with the unfortunate responsibility of closing the summit (concluding sessions traditionally get the thinnest audiences as everyone rushes off home), should not only get a pretty full house but one that was awake, alert and keen to ask questions (both scientists—Prof. Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and V. Ramanathan, a distinguished professor of climate change and atmospheric sciences at the University of California, San Diego—were practically mobbed by people wanting to talk to them after the summit had ended).
Part of the interest was probably due to the announcement the previous day of the Nobel Peace Prize, shared by Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change headed by Rajendra K. Pachauri. The scientists were speaking on climate change and it was gratifying to see at least two Generation C (concerned) politicians—Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi and MP Jyotiraditya Scindia—stay back to listen. Bihar state planning commission chairman N.K. Singh, Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, Rajashree Birla, director of the Aditya Birla Group (both Nilekani and Birla had spoken at an earlier session on corporate philanthropy)—and this is just the front row—also listened carefully.
Time was when environmental issues such as global warming and climate change were fuddy-duddy jholawala concerns. No longer.
By winning the Nobel Prize, Al Gore has the opportunity to emerge as an 11th-hour candidate upsetting fellow Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He is, to quote from the announcement by the Nobel Prize committee, the “single individual who has done most to create a greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted” to combat climate change. Arnold Schwarzenegger won his election as California governor the second time around by promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Given the conditions in India that make education, basic health care and drinking water priority issues, climate change and global warming are still to get the sort of attention they do in the developed world. And yet, as Prof. Schrag pointed out, it is precisely because we don’t have the sort of large-scale infrastructure of the US (the pipelines, the coal-based power plants), that we can afford to invest in more environment-friendly infrastructure.
For India’s new generation of political and business leaders, climate change might not yet be top priority. No politician is going to win the next election by promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the fact that they are listening, and listening carefully, spells hope for the future.
I’m seeing signs of a Generation C that has a new set of priorities and a new set of tools—including the Internet—trying to correct the wrongs committed by the previous generation.
I see a generation that isn’t all obsessed about getting into the first American college, but is willing to chuck up corporate jobs to move to villages or migrate back from the US to India. I see a generation that makes the time from homework assignments to volunteer at Jeev Ashram or the AIDS hospice (Vasant Valley School in New Delhi, where my daughters study, has made participation in a ‘life skills programme’ mandatory for all senior schoolchildren—recycling paper or making bandages for public hospitals). It is a generation that is quiet, but quietness isn’t complacency. Underneath the silence is a steely determination to get things right, finally.
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org