At the end of the introduction to her book, This Changes Everything – a rallying cry for taking climate change as the defining issue of our times, Naomi Klein shares her fear that her son will have been born too late to appreciate many of the natural wonders of the world that are slipping out of existence, one-by-one, and thousands-by-thousands, every year. She recounts how she once denied and suppressed this fear, until she finally accepted that she owed it to her child not to bury her head in the sand any longer. Not thinking about the looming threat would not avert a perilous future for her child. Whether in the face of denial or acceptance, climate change is here.
Naomi Klein went on to research the shocking details of the systems and thinking that created and perpetuate climate disruption and the devastation of the natural world and to outline the solutions that we still have time to enact, thereby ending her book on a compelling note of hope… and urgency. Naomi (and many of the characters mobilizing for change whom we encounter in the book) is driven by a sense of urgent responsibility to others in the world – those already alive and those yet to be born. A sense of responsibility that can only exist in the presence of a clear-sighted acceptance of the facts.
The facts of climate change can be frightening, not to mention confusing. To make things even more complex, there are various depths to which we can assimilate the fact of climate change. It is one thing to accept that it is real and then go about one’s usual routine and habits and quite another to accept the responsibility inherent to the acceptance of truth. As members of a shared biosphere, I would argue that we owe it to each other, as well as ourselves, to face this reality as it is, and act accordingly. That is, to act in the interests of all.
But, even apart from the moral imperative of a global citizen, as parents, it seems we have a special responsibility to our children. We brought them into this world. A world out of kilter, careening toward a chaos that will continue for a long, long time before it settles at any new state of equilibrium. And we are partly responsible. It is impossible for us to change the mistakes of our parents and the generations before them, but we can act differently. We can act now, in our lifetimes, to do all we can to mitigate the disaster our children will face even after we are gone. Can we in good conscience close our eyes to our own children’s future? I argue that a coherent concern for our children necessitates a concern about climate change.
Their Future is Largely Determined by Us
Imagine a family that lives on a diet without any care given to the nutritional content or quality of the food. From meal-to-meal, the parents choose what the family shall eat on a whim. They eat a lot of sugary, salty, fatty foods that appeal to their palates. The kids become addicted to the highly palatable food, so the parents feel assured that that the kids will eat it at each meal without complaint. It is not that the parents cannot afford other foods. These foods are tasty and everyone wants to eat them, so they see no reason to eat otherwise. They all begin to put on weight. Their arteries begin to fill with deposits of fat, and their bodies strain under the burden of trying to metabolize all the sugar they are ingesting. The children, especially, face a future of disease, immobility, and, likely, premature death. The parents are not truly ignorant. They have heard about the sorts of diseases that result from a diet high in sugar, salt, and fat but low in vitamins and minerals. Their problem is not a lack of information so much as an unwillingness to face the difficult reality of the consequence of their choices. Underneath the surface of their denial, they also understand that they are not impotent. But the parents are comfortable staying on the treadmill of the habitual. If they fully accepted that the diet they feed their children is slowly killing them, they would have to make changes to their lives that would mean inconvenience, distress, and looking beyond the next moment and the next meal in order to work towards the preferable prospect of a healthy body and a natural lifespan, and take the right steps to get there – the kind of foresight they have become very unaccustomed to. So, in order to bolster their denial, they tell themselves that they aren’t really harming their children, that their responsibility as parents doesn’t extend to worrying about the effects of diet on lifelong well-being, they have so much else going on that they need to worry about, and, anyway, everybody seems to be feeding their children similar diets. Why should they be the ones that have to sacrifice themselves?
The story isn’t a perfect metaphor. The magnitude of climate change is off the scale in comparison to the problem in the story. The parents in the story need only worry about altering their own choices in order to turn their children’s health around, and, granted, two people cannot put a stop to climate change altogether! But many details of this story are true for people who remain politically passive in the face of climate change. It is a strange quirk of the human mind that, despite the fact that most parents love their children with all their being and only want the best for them, we can make decisions that are not in their best interests, even when we know better. It does not mean that we are awful parents; it does mean that we have highly complex and often self-contradicted minds. We are also not really built for living our day to day lives in ways that are in harmony with futures that are uncertain and not wholly conceivable. Because climate change rarely feels immediate to us, we find it easier to put it to the back of our minds than keep the idea focused throughout the comings and goings of our days and the louder quotidian demands placed on us.
The true force of the metaphor lies in the similarity we can draw between the future-making role of the parents’ in the story and the role our generation plays in shaping the world our children will one day have to inhabit without us. Just as the parents make a choice about the future of their children’s health, we collectively make a decision about the kind of world we will leave behind for our children to inherit. We can choose to do nothing, continue as we always have, and leave them a world that is impoverished at best, chaotic at worst. Or, we can face up to the frightening truth, be brave for our children’s sake, and own the responsibility we have as the guardians of their future to leave behind the best world we can.
They Will Remember the Decisions We Make Now
The teenage force of nature Greta Thunberg began to enter the international spotlight in the Autumn of 2018, yet she hardly needs introduction. Already, her face and name, whether in adoration, dispassion, or notoriety, are tightly linked to the fight against climate change in the minds of people all over the world. Her initial dogged protests outside the Swedish parliament at the age of 15 gained the media’s attention and inspired tens of thousands of students to join Greta in her school strike. Capitalising on the extraordinary opportunity at her feet of a world that was prepared to listen to her, Greta spoke eloquently and forcibly at the European Economic Social Committee, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the COP24 United Nations climate summit, and gave a TED talk in Stockholm, among other actions.
Those school strikes have since become a global phenomenon that continues to grow. Greta has empowered countless other young people to voice their own concerns about climate change and the future. In what has been coined the “Greta Thunberg effect”, hundreds, thousands, and now millions of students have joined Greta in school strikes for climate action around the world.
There is no question that there is a consciousness among these young people that a bleak future looms if the adults in their world don’t care enough to act for them now. It is certain that we will be unable to hide our current apathy and passivity from them in ten to twenty years, when they inherit this world, if they are already brandishing their disapproval and demanding that we salvage what remains of their futures now. When your child wonders why you didn’t stand up for her, you will not be able to plead ignorance, for she will have been fully aware of the warnings from scientists when she was only a young child herself. You will not be able to plead that you hadn’t the time because what will that say about how you valued her life? What will you plead?
A Chance to Set a Good Example
I have one last argument to make for ending our political and social lassitude in the face of the climate crisis. It’s an argument that sounds more at home in a book of parenting wisdom than it does in a call to action. That is: consider the example you are setting your child by sitting back while the greatest peril to life on Earth ever faced by humanity races to the point of no return because we just don’t care enough to stop it.
You are the biggest influence on your child. Although parents don’t always feel like they are role models in their children’s lives, your child has been shaped and will continue to be invisibly directed throughout their lives by the experiences they had under your protection and guidance as babies, children, and young adults. More than intellectual tuition or what they absorb from media, people take on forms in adulthood that can be directly linked to the behaviour and treatment of them and others by their primary guardians. It is so well known that it is almost redundant to mention that children model the adults around them and learn about the world and how to function in it from those adults. Some say that the greatest responsibility most people will ever have is to be a parent. Well, unfortunately, in this era, that responsibility involves more than changing diapers, putting food on the table, checking homework, and showing love and affection. As parents, we are faced with a deep imperative to be the kinds of people we hope our children can one day become, even if it means we feel like we have to mask our true selves in order to become that person (although, once you have adopted a set of actions and goals, can it really be said that they are not attributable to you?). Do we want our children to grow up with an innate sense of helplessness when confronted with an issue like climate change that requires broad political and social action to be averted? Do we want them to learn to ignore unsavoury facts and shy away from hard thoughts? Do we want them to have difficulty recognising and responding to their own moral responsibilities? By doing nothing for our children’s future, we are not only denying them one, we are teaching them a fatal, bovine helplessness. We are not raising survivors in a world that requires us to be survivors more than it has in generations. As parents, we are not doing our jobs.
The UN recently announced that there are 11 years left for us to act to try to stop climate change from entering an irreversibly worsening cycle. Many of the children taking to the streets now to speak for the planet at large will not be finished their education within 11 years. It isn’t fair to leave the saving of the planet up to the youngest among us. We are the adults of this age. As the last generation of adults before the world potentially takes its last step into a chaos from which we cannot return, we are the one’s who bear the responsibility. We are the guardians of their future.
Image: By European Parliament from EU – Greta Thunberg at the Parliament, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78086104