Gray and Green: Good for You, Good for Society

  • Martin Phillips volunteers many hours each month in local environmental organizations, helping to organize trail clean-ups and testing water quality in streams. His goal is to help preserve the earth for future generations, even though he will not personally see the benefits.

  • Janice Phelps has always loved being outside in nature; her political work on environmental issues comes from a deep attachment to the natural world, which she feels is sacred and must be preserved.
  • John Trent is politically conservative and will tell you right away: "I'm no tree-hugger!" But he has spent a lifetime hunting and fishing and is concerned about the destruction of natural areas that used to teem with wildlife, so he volunteers to protect them.
  • These people pursue different activities and have divergent motivations. But they have one thing in common: They are part of a growing movement of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond who are working to create a sustainable society and to conserve our natural resources. I learned in the interviews for my book 30 Lessons for Living how deeply many elders (regardless of their political views) care about preserving the environment for future generations.

    This new movement offers a rare opportunity to solve two problems at the same time. On the one hand, communities have an enormous need for environmental volunteers. Their engagement is needed in everything from keeping natural areas clean, to testing water quality, to promoting recycling, to providing educational programs for children.

    But older people don't just benefit the environment in these activities. In fact volunteering in environmental activities can have huge benefits for the volunteers. Here are some reasons why (story continues below slide show):

    Green Volunteering

    Tim Reynolds, 64, volunteers for several organizations devoted to preservation of nature and personally maintains about 10 miles of hiking trails. Why does he do it? He told me:

    I have no children to leave this beautiful area to. So I want to leave things nice after I die for the next generations, for other people to enjoy in the future, for the earth and its inhabitants. Even though I have no children, I just think it's very important to leave a legacy and to leave behind a place that's better than when you came here, and that's what I'm trying to do, I guess, for future generations.

    There's one more reason for people to become involved in the "gray and green movement" when they hit their 50s. That's because environmental threats disproportionately affect the health of the older population.

    Take climate change. Older people are much more likely to be harmed by extreme temperatures and severe weather events (for example, a majority of the people who died in Hurricane Katrina was in the oldest age range). As we get older, we also become more vulnerable to environmental threats like toxic chemicals and air pollution.

    So for the baby boomers and beyond, working for a cleaner environment involves not just altruism, but enlightened self-interest. Connecting gray and green issues provides a rare win-win situation: what's good for the environment is also good for us as aging individuals.

    (For more information about aging and the environment, take a look at the Aging Initiative of the Environmental Protection Agency.)