What a tenuous time to be a parent. Is anyone else knocked off-course in this way?
To be a parent on the planet today, in the 21st century, sometimes feels like dancing in a careening circus of horrors - the age of climate crisis, the rise of far-right nationalism, increasing crime and neurosis, corrupt leadership, and vanishing resources.
Being a parent today means facing the darkness of uncertainty, the anger and frustration at seeing one's whole life of good works unraveled by petulant leaders, and the grim foreboding that comes with certain kinds of knowledge. It's one of the most wrenching things on the planet that one can actually be, almost in any part of the world. Is it worse for a climate or biodiversity scientist? I don't think so. But it's undeniably a time to think about how best we should do this thing called parenting.
Of course, parenting has always been challenging and heart-wrenching at the best of times - from early-stage pregnancy, through labor, childbirth, school separation anxiety, teenage angst, and on and on, throughout the rest of your (and their) life. Most of us are also lucky to have moments of incredible, unspeakable loveliness too - the first cry, the "love you mommy" cards, the heart-bursting moments of pride and happiness, and the satisfaction of seeing new adults emerge, with whom you can hold a stimulating conversation.
But those of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century in comfortable regions like western Europe or North America, weaned on the honeyed milk of democracy, consumerism and globalism, Father Knows Best and Friends, usually feel ill-prepared for parenting in the age of climate change and the almost certain widespread collapse of economies and civilizations. How on Earth do we "message" that? How do we, as parents, help our little beauties - or our young adults - cope with an incredibly uncertain future, in a way that levels with them (in 'age-appropriate ways'), but also equips them with the skills to navigate it?
Positive Deep Adaptation and Climate Prepping
Those readers on Facebook interested in this subject have probably bumped into the Positive Deep Adaptation movement, arising from the conclusions of British sustainability academic Jem Bendell that collapse is both inevitable, and probably on the horizon in our lifetimes - the collapse not only of local or national economies, but of human civilization in general. And this dark tsunami, Bendell has concluded, is racing up underneath our seething mass of humanity in a way that hardly anyone detects.
Not only are most people not prepared for it, but many still deny both the inevitability of collapse and even the patently obvious failures of our system. On the other hand, a Facebook group called Climate Preppers just gets on with the practical stuff of laying in food, learning to grow vegetables, practicing medical skills, and deciding whether they should stay or move. In both groups, people are wondering about the "when."
Is the collapse of civilization inevitable? And will it happen in our lifetimes? Well, and sorry for being a scientist here, "it depends." I agree with Jem Bendell that we need to prepare for the pretty strong likelihood, if not the certainty - not only that yes, it probably is inevitable, but also that yes, it may happen in our lifetimes. But civilization isn't a smooth, uniform global thing. We are a planet of multiple countries, thousands of cultures and languages, hundreds and hundreds of political parties - all with different degrees of "quantum intertwinement" with the voracious and now highly unstable machine of global capitalism.
My filmmaker husband John, who has an uncannily succinct way of expressing ideas and the grand sweep of history in a few words, relates this to a raft of rowboats - all tethered at the bow - some of which will be better able than others to cut the rope to avoid being pulled down when the first one sinks.
Collapse - if and when it happens - doesn't happen across the globe at the flick of a switch. We know from history that it's more like some drunks at a party - staggering, lurching, getting more and more impossible and with lots of domino effects, until they pass out. We know that we need to prepare for a long time of things probably being a lot less predictable, and a lot more uncomfortable.
In the wealthy countries, many of us have the perverse luxury of still being relatively ignorant of these things. Millions of people are already on the move to find better conditions - like those attempting to move north into the USA to escape the toxic fabric of extreme drought, storms, poverty, crime, and cartels. Like the other species that I study, they are tending to move away from the hot, increasingly stormy tropics, polewards and upwards. Some pretty big parts of the world will become untenable for productive economic activity, food production, or human (and much other) life over the next 30-100 years, not least by the sea level rise which has already been set in irreversible (on a human timescale) motion.
Parenting isn't for sissies
Moving back to the land of my birth, the USA after 38 years of working and living in southern Africa, Sweden and Canada, I've come crashing back to that well-known, but thoroughly unnerving reality of American individualism, guns, complacency, divisiveness, and climate denialism. Can this American rowboat, as big and sluggish as the Titanic, avoid catastrophe as the global economy starts lurching again? The size of the US economy is a significant internal buffer to trouble, but also a significant external threat to everyone else around the world. Those US traits may not combine well in a climate that's upended people's assumptions of the endless land of milk and honey.
My beautiful daughters are now 23 and 30 - both changemakers in their own right, albeit in vastly different ways and with very different personalities. Born in southern Africa, transplanted to the USA, they're studying - one integrated medicine and nutrition, the other wildlife ecology and filmmaking. Both their parents have PhDs, which itself creates what seems (for me) an uncomfortable and unrealistic expectation in these times. Does a PhD matter anymore? It certainly helped my career and confidence - but wouldn't it be better for my daughters to know how to farm, to filter water, to give grief counseling, to repair generators, to know wild medicinal and food plants? And (harrowing to me) to be able to shoot a gun or throw a knife if they need to?
I have never touched a gun, much less owned or shot one. I don't wish to now. But should I learn? The chill energy reverberates around that question in my heart like an earthquake. But I know better than to rush my decisions on stuff like this.
Human history, my well-read filmmaker husband often reminds me, is littered with such times. Civilizations, from Greenland to Rome, from Zimbabwe to Cambodia, have risen and fallen, often with wars, betrayals, hardships and genocides that must have seemed like the end of time for everyone involved. Many of these, according to the historian David Keys (author of 'Catastrophe') and the evolutionary anthropologist Jared Diamond (author of 'Collapse' and 'Guns, Germs and Steel') were accompanied by miserable climate changes, and at least some have been shown to be wrought by climate-altering volcanic eruptions.
What can we learn from these episodes in history? Plenty, it turns out. And there is quite a bit to take comfort from. But we need to breathe deeply and get cracking. We have so much to learn, so little time.
I was a long-time catastrophist and futurist since early childhood, when my favorite early books were about volcanoes and earthquakes. I became fascinated by different futures and how our actions today could affect what we then can no longer reverse tomorrow. My family, or at least my older brothers and sister, spoke sometimes about ZPG, the acronym in the early 70s for Zero Population Growth. So you'd think that I would have been very aware of the implications of each child on this planet.
But the truth was that in 1988 and 1996, when my two daughters were born, climate change was only starting to be a phrase I used. I was much less sure of the future of my marriage than the future of civilization. By 1999, I had started a national climate change program in Namibia, mainly because none of my colleagues had responded to my years of beseeching (since I was already running a national biodiversity program and didn't think I could take on another full time job). But I only really started using the phrase in about 1995. And none of us working in public policy, even in hot, dry developing countries like Namibia, had much of an idea of how fast the whirlwind would build momentum and hit our consciousnesses, economies, and lives.
I decided to teach my daughters this: to be adaptable, to be kind and thoughtful, to build confidence, to encourage multiple interests and skills, to be able to talk with people and resolve conflicts, and to do whatever they felt most passionate about - especially if it could also put food on the table. To be confident, to speak their mind, to question authority while doing so in a way that brought people together rather than apart. That seemed to be enough. Mindful of their academically privileged parentage, I kept reassuring them that I'd love them equally if they were hairdressers or astronomers. They played soccer and did school plays like all other kids of their age, and read voraciously. But now, they are of childbearing age and reckoning with a very different future altogether.
My father (and both fathers-in-law) all fought and served in WWII. Their fathers fought in WWI. My two grandfathers' stories - a roofer and a portrait photographer - were sometimes told to me in childhood, as a kind of cautionary tale. My father's father, the roofer, rode out the Depression of the 1930s as people always needed roofs, even if they couldn't usually pay up-front (or even within years). My mother's father, the portrait photographer, had a harder time and had to moonlight to feed his family during rough years. Both survived fine - partly because the tough years were followed, eventually, by good ones.
The Positive Deep Adaptation and Climate Preppers groups on Facebook have often distressed me because so many members have heard "messaging" about the future which is just plain wrong, bad, and leading to horror, untenable grief and disengagement. Some earnest and well-meaning people in the group genuinely believe that humans will be extinct by 2030 (the year in which the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said only that the global economy must have halved its carbon emissions to avoid an unstable, dangerous future climate). One group member had even expressed her belief that we may only have 18 months to live as a species. (Britain's Prince Charles urged global leaders in July 2019 only that the next 18 months were absolutely critical for making sustained economic shifts.)
But we are not all about to die. Most people over 40 or 50 may live a pretty typical lifespan, unless we are hit by a meteorite or, perhaps, unless the (increasing) risk of large-scale methane releases from the thawing of permafrost and ocean warming hits us suddenly and without adequate preparation. Many people born today may well too. We need to acknowledge the hard reality that even if it's not already stunningly apparent to everyone, by 2030 things will look quite different everywhere than they do today. By 2050, when I will be 89, things are likely to be pretty gnarly across many parts of the world.
We can choose what kind of people we wish to be in this challenging time, and what kinds of kids we will raise to handle it.
Messaging counts. Messaging counts especially with children and teens, who rely on us to shape their world. They are absolutely not served by a nihilism narrative, or parents who haven't adequately processed their own uncertainties or grief. These aren't trivial issues. Almost everyone I know with kids who is even remotely environmentally aware is processing deep emotions. They take time, and they deserve respect and recognition.
What does serve kids well is the knowledge that they are loved, that they can handle change, that their relationships with people will determine the quality of their lives and work, and that the world is indeed changing pretty fast. And that they will be able to cope. Kids can probably handle, with good parenting, that their lives will generally be less predictable, tougher and more uncomfortable than their parents' were.
Personally, I'm just grateful for the like-minded and wonderful women like Rhiannon Jones Gallagher and Linnea Passaler, who respectively started the positive, warm, unflinching but inspiring Facebook groups "Parents for the Planet" and "Mothers of the Anthropocene." These are groups to which you can go for help if you're feeling apprehensive or scared, depressed or troubled, or even trying to take a decision about becoming a parent. We are there together and can help.
We owe our kids the responsibility to read, think, and discuss with friends before we speak. We owe them every possible tool - including confidence and love, play and discussions, kindness and firmness, camping and adventure - in order to navigate the changes ahead. As a species, we may not have handled a climate crisis before on a global scale. But we've handled an awful lot, and we can do this.