Our kids. Their future.
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.
Being a parent today is 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, probably throughout the rest of your (and their) life. Most of us also are 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 and humbling conversation.
But those of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century in comfortable western Europe or North America, weaned on the honeyed milk of democracy, consumerism and globalism, Father Knows Best and Friends, often 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. He talks of 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.
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, of increasing societal collapse - 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.
Collapse - if and when it happens - doesn't happen at the flick of a switch. We know from history that it's more like a drunk at a party - staggering, lurching, getting more and more impossible and with lots of domino effects, until he passes 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. This will happen 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 by-now well-known, but thoroughly unnerving reality of American individualism, guns, complacency, entitlement, 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 (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 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 days for everyone involved. Some of them, 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, some wrought by devastating volcanic eruptions.
What can we learn from these episodes in history? Plenty, it turns out. And there is much to take comfort from. But we need to breathe deeply and get cracking. We have so much to learn. And so little time.
A long-time catastrophist and futurist since early childhood, whose favorite 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 founded a national climate change program in Namibia, mainly because none of my colleagues had responded to my years of beseeching (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 'climate change' in about 1995. And none of us working in public policy, even in hot, dry developing countries like Namibia, really had enough 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 other middle-class kids of their age. They read voraciously. But now, they are of childbearing age. And now, they are reckoning with a very different future altogether.
How do we prepare for uncertainty? 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.
The Positive Deep Adaptation group on Facebook has 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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the global economy must have halved its carbon emissions to avoid an unstable, dangerous climate). One even had heard that we may only have 18 months (Britain's Prince Charles urged global leaders in July 2019 that the next 18 months were absolutely critical for making sustained economic shifts). I've tried to caution people to read carefully, have faith in human adaptability, get involved and keep nihilism at a distance. But people are losing their critical thinking abilities, as the world spins increasingly out of the control we once knew. In that group, I was several times mocked for "hopium" - the drug of positivity. But I am not naive, and I am not a pollyanna. There's a difference.
Messaging counts. Messaging counts especially with children, who rely on us to shape their world. They are not served by a nihilism narrative, or by parents who haven't adequately processed their own uncertainties or grief. 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 things will change, sometimes fast. They can handle that their lives will generally be less predictable, tougher and more uncomfortable than their parents'.
But we are not all about to die, people. 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). By 2030 things may look quite different than they do today. By 2050, when I will be 89, they are likely to be getting pretty gnarly. But I'm prepared for the probability.
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.
We owe our kids the responsibility to read before we speak, to read carefully and make informed judgments, not to spread disinformation. We owe it to them to give 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 previously handled a complex, multidimensional climate crisis of our own making on a global scale. But we have handled a lot, we are increasingly innovative and interlinked, our policies and programs are increasingly supportive of transformative change. So to a large extent, yep, we can do this. But nothing will be the same by the time we are old.