They didn’t start the fire


Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

You probably recognize the opening lines from Billy Joel’s 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Images of news, sports, and pop culture from Joel’s lifetime flash by in a steady montage. Joel was saying that his generation — my generation — didn’t mess things up because, well, things were already a mess when we got here.

We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning.


Climate protest: London (New York Times)

But in the 30 years since then, our generation has done nothing to put the fire out. If anything, we’ve thrown on more logs than any generation before us.

I thought about that on Friday when young people around the world filled the streets, demanding action on climate change. Your inaction is destroying the planet, they said, and today’s young people will bear the cost.

I’ve thought about it in the wake of the Parkland shootings when many of the same young people marched to protect themselves and their classmates from gun violence.

I’ve thought about it when Malala Yousafzai has spoken out against terrorism and in favor of education.

Today’s young people have a lot to say. Does that sound familiar?

I didn’t take part in the Vietnam War protests. The war ended when I was still in my teens. But I remember those protests, and I remember the pro-environment rallies that led up to the first Earth Day and helped give us cleaner air and water.


Climate protest: Sydney (New York Times)

What happened to the people who marched back then? How did that generation end up being this generation: clinging to wealth and power, not seeming to care what kind of world we’ll leave to our children?

I wish I knew.

And I wish for something different, something better, to come from the young people who are raising their voices today. Can they change the world? Will my generation listen and learn?

If not, then I’m afraid the young people are right. They’ll inherit a world too broken to fix.

Epilog: “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for the late 2010s

Charlottesville, alt right, Wikileaks, Fortnite
Paltry wages, kids in cages, Brexit’s too hard
Shutdown, fake news, MAGA hats, Ted Cruz
Manafort, pack the Court, someone hacked my credit card

Bone saws, Xi Jinping, Amazon knows everything
Kneeling for the anthem, Curry swishes three
Record heat, deadly flu, Parkland, #MeToo
Muslim ban, Burning Man, nukes aimed at Hawaii

We didn’t stop the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
But we didn’t stop the fire
Seems we tried to fight it
But we were caught inside it….

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