Climate Change: What do we tell our children?

This has been a big week for change agents in the U.S.

First Annie Leonard came out with her new movie, The Story of Change.

Annie Leonard

Then David Brancaccio released his new movie, “ Fixing the Future,” with a two-day nationwide roll-out starting on July 18.

David Brancaccio

And today Bill McKibben made the cover of Rolling Stone, confirming him, at least in my eyes, as the true rock star of the environmental movement.

In the same week, radical economist Gar Alperovitz gave a historic keynote address to the Green Party National Convention, arguing that you can’t have a democratic society unless you democratize the ownership of wealth as well.

The big question is, will the best efforts of all these good folks make a difference in what is happening to our precious planet?

Or is it just so much more hot air, to add to an already too-hot summer?

This week I am teaching a class in media studies for middle schoolers.  While I’m amazed and delighted at the facility of the students with the technology of digital communications, I am also struck by the narrow focus of their concerns.

Three of the students have started blogs about fashion trends.  Another has started a blog about anime and manga characters.  Of the three others in the class, one is using her blog to do movie reviews, another is talking about hard science issues (the Higgs Boson discovery), and the third is writing about the stock market and the technological age we live in.

Absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

Except that if we don’t solve the climate crisis, it will all be completely moot.

Runway fashions, movie stars, cartoons and stocks will all be swept away before the onslaught of food insecurity, economic instability and violently unpredictable storms.

No, this is not the stuff of Hollywood fantasy.  It is real, and as McKibben points out in the intro to his Rolling Stone article, it’s already happening.

As a teacher, what am I supposed to do?  If I remind my students (and my own children, for that matter) just how grave and portentous a time we are living through, aren’t I placing an enormous burden on them?  And isn’t it true that it is my generation, not theirs, that bears the brunt of the responsibility for where we are now?

And yet, if I say nothing and let them proceed as if fashion and anime were the most compelling topics of the moment, am I not being dishonest?

It really is quite a dilemma, for any parent and every teacher who is aware of what is really at stake in the times we live in.

I imagine it must have been similar for principled people in other times of crisis.  Do we try to shelter the children, keep their lives as normal as possible, for as long as we can?  Or do we let them know what is going on, and enlist them in the urgent struggle for positive change?

I don’t believe in lying to young people, and I have never been very good at lying, anyway.

The truth is that we are living through times unlike any faced by human beings before, in the 10,000 years of our history on the planet.

What we do in the next decade will make the difference between our continued existence on the planet, or the extinction or radical reduction of human civilizations on Earth.

I love Bill McKibben because so far, at least, he never gives up.

He’s got a true fighting spirit that refuses to take no for an answer.

Still, eventually even Bill may have to concede that the fossil fuel industry, with the politicians in their back pockets, is simply not going to give.

When that moment occurs, it will be game over for human beings on the planet, and so many other of our fellow Holocene travelers too—birds, fish, plants, and mammals.

But it’s not over til it’s over.    And I, at least, will never give up hope that people of all ages, from every corner of the world, will see the crucial urgency of this moment; that they will act upon their new awareness;  that the politicians will be compelled to listen; and that we will be able to turn this great climate change juggernaut around.

Leave a comment


  1. savinfluffies

     /  July 20, 2012

    I totally agree with your dilemma. As a parent I feel responsible for trying to make my children more aware of the dangers we face. Yet, children shouldn’t have to worry about those things and should enjoy fashion or anime. I try to involve them in things they enjoy and explain that if they want to continue, they need to work at change and respecting what we have now. They love marine life so I am teaching them scuba diving. With that goes learning how to protect the oceans so that they continue to enjoy diving and marine life.

  2. 1) There is no “climate crisis” that can be “solved.” Climate variation is a natural phenomenon on earth, as old as the atmosphere and ocean. Humans cannot “solve” natural cycles. Yes, human activities contribute to climate variation in ways and degrees we do not yet fully understand. Nevertheless, humans do not cause climate variation and therefore, humans cannot stop climate variation. Climate change is not subject to human manipulation and control.

    2) Homo genera have been on this Earth for at least 1.5 million years, Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans for at least 100,000 years. 10,000 years ago was just 5,000 years after the last ice age, through which modern humans evolved. So humans have faced far worse climate conditions that the tiny perturbation in global average surface temperature we are experiencing most recently.

    Human civilization, if that’s what it is, cannot continue in its present configuration, dominated by global corporate capitalism. Fortunately, we can do something about human culture and society, unlike climate variation. We can change our dominant economic system in keeping with natural cycles of the Earth. We can move forward to societies that acknowledge and incorporate natural systems as contributing members. In other words, we can relearn to live as responsible members of the global community of Life.

    We can do no better than to tell our children this story.


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