A five-year-old I know told me recently that his plan is to become a cat doctor. A cat doctor but not a fat doctor, he elaborated. “I want to be smooth," he said. He also mentioned that he would wear a cat mask so as to not frighten his patients. I didn’t argue. It’s hard enough to meet young people who are optimistic about the future.

I spent my teens in Bengaluru and didn’t question when my small city became a big city just as I became an adult. I didn’t doubt that I would still find a job somewhere even though the dotcom bubble burst just as I graduated. Or that anyone would hire someone who had a journalism degree. I went about these things with as much deep thinking as the future cat doctor. I am pretty sure I had no ambitions to smoothness but certainly I didn’t feel like the world was rough towards me. I was among the lucky and privileged, I was told, and I believed it.

But for folks who are young now, the world has never been a Cochin oyster broiled with butter. Seafood is a particularly apt metaphor for the depleting largesse of the universe. Everyone ate and ate greedily, so now it is left to the millennials to not just feel the lack of a fish lunch but also feel like it is their thankless and impossible job to repopulate the seas. In late October, a UN special report on global warming thrust the climate change conversation, the end of the world conversation that no one wants to think about, right into our faces. According to the report, we have till 2030 to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, failing which the effects of climate change will become irreversible. If global warming climbs by even 2 degrees Celsius, floods, droughts and other climate events will change the way we live forever. Millions of people will lose their homes and livelihoods. Today’s youngest millennial will be 34 then and the oldest, 49. And 11 years is what the scientists said we have if we are being optimistic.

Wait, what? These are the good times, these 11 years? So what can young people take for granted then? That we should all urgently learn wilderness skills and learn to tell our hearts to settle for less? That seems like a better bet than thinking the custodians of the earth will finally learn to be less greedy. Brazil is thinking of opening the Amazon rainforest to agribusiness and India has just diluted its laws for building along the coast so as to improve tourism, or, as the government release put it, “This will also give boost to people, desirous of seeing and enjoying the beauty of the mighty seas." Reading this sentence made one thing clear to me—among the many things I took for granted as a 20-something was the idea that eventually our laws and policies would be transformed by India’s great environmental movements. How could they not be? Right? Wrong.

My 20s were changed forever by the complicated political learnings from the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a movement that grew out of opposition to the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Even in the gloomiest of those young-person glooms, I never anticipated a day in January 2019 where I would read in the news that hundreds of endangered crocodiles were being moved from ponds in the Sardar Sarovar Dam area so that government could land seaplanes for tourists to admire the beauty of the mighty Statue of Unity. I mean if some friend of mine had written this into a street-play scene back then, I would have been, like, please yaar.

As a child, I knew about family members who had died young and died of illness. One of my mother’s two brothers had polio as a child and reduced mobility and poor health his whole life. He died in his teens but the anecdotes passed on created an ebullient young man, one who said he wanted to grow up to be either Shammi Kapoor or the actor’s driver. He had been named Modi after the famous ophthalmologist (Karnataka’s M.C. Modi) who fought a one-man war against blindness. These thinly imagined lives of my uncle, Kapoor, his driver, Dr Modi, all came built in with optimism. The shared family memory of my grandfather carrying my uncle in the hills where he couldn’t walk was a happy one, because he was sure he wouldn’t always have to carry his son. The future was going to be better.

But the future is here. And now we hear the news that the government isn’t quite sure when the next supply of polio vaccines will be available. And that leprosy is back. And that the unemployment rate is at a four-decade high. And as the seas rise and earth melts, we will lose millions more. I grew up with adults around me assuming that my life would be better than theirs, if I wasn’t a giant jackass. And while I wasn’t sure yet if I was a giant jackass or not, I too assumed that my life was already better than that of many of the older people in my life. Machines that washed clothes, the possibility of avoiding grinding employment, more than one brand of cheese, the possibility of marrying someone I liked, of not dying during childbirth. Who could dislike adulthood? But that was back when the vision of who I would be 11 years in the future was one kind of internal existential crisis, not a crisis of existence to be shared with the whole planet.

If you meet a young person today and they look unhappy, don’t assume it is because they have read the UN climate change report. Even without the report, they know in their blood and bones that the future has a broken switch. Adulting is painful because who knows how long adulthood will be around.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. @chasingiamb

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