In my last post on climate change, I may have declared in a moment of enthusiasm that absolutely everybody must see The Age of Stupid. Allow me to clarify that. I don’t believe it is appropriate viewing for children. It’s really scary! because it’s real! It left me with real fears for my future and especially Wren’s future. If I didn’t already have a deeply held belief and experience in the power of activism, I believe it would have left me feeling like there was no hope. This is why the action campaign linked to the film is essential. There may be some debate about whether scaring adults in to action is the best approach – I think there is definitely some need for it, combined with other approaches, given the urgency climate change – but what I want to explore here is:

how do we create environmental awareness in children without creating fear, despair or hopelessness?

Given the severity of the environmental issues we all must face now and in the coming years, how we share it with out children is something that needs more thought.

I came across an article at Kindred, A Brighter Shade of Green, on rethinking environmental education. I like its starting point: that children need to be given the opportunity to fall in love in their environment first, before any kind of ‘formal’ education or visions of impending doom. Time spent in nature, directly experiencing the connections between ourselves and our environment is really valuable and irreplaceable. Of course even if we live in the middle of a big city, we are still dependent on the environment for our survival, but many people live as if this was not the case.

This is where I’m at with Wren. For now, he is not old enough to understand or cope with any explanation of climate change. But he is old enough to enjoy the natural world. He loves animals and water and rocks and bushwalking. He loves the moon and stars. He likes to talk about the weather. He loves food we’ve collected ourselves – fruit directly from trees, herbs from the garden, eggs from our chooks. We seek out books with stories about the natural environment. I hope this love for nature will lead to a desire to protect it.

He is old enough, also, to participate in small, positive solutions. He loves to help me in our organic vegie garden. He likes to help sort the recycling. The example of us, as his parents, is crucial. I hope that behaving in an environmentally conscious way will become second nature to him, not difficult or ‘a sacrifice’, just the way things are done.

When I think of my own childhood, this all rings true. I lived in the city, but adjacent to a National Park. My brother and I spent our days playing in the bush. I fell in love with it. Weekends we often went to the beach. I have a particular love for the marine world. My parent were not the most environmentally conscious people, but certain things like composting and recycling were given. I remember being at a friend’s house and being shocked to see vegie scraps and glass jars thrown into the garbage. At 8 years of age, I don’t think I had any sophisticated understanding of issues of limited landfill space and embodied energy, but it just seemed so wasteful to me.

But at what point do we introduce discussions about the precarious future of life on earth? These discussions are everywhere today, so it is unlikely that we will be able to shield our children from them for long. I think we need to speak honestly, but always keep in mind our child’s level of understanding and their need to feel safe and secure.

I remember being around 11 years old and reading Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif, an ‘ecological fantasy’ for young adults. It left me in tears; wild, terrified, angry tears. Although the book is a fantasy about mermaid-like people, it was real enough to stir up strong emotions in me, and I don’t think that was a bad thing. I look back on it as a turning point for me, it brought my consciousness and sense of responsibility to a new level, it inspired my future activism. At quite a young age, I joined several environmental organisations and encouraged my parents to make more changes in the way our family lived.

So I guess what saved me from fear, despair or hopelessness (though I have certainly been through periods of it), was the feeling that change was possible, I took action, found activities into which I could channel my intense emotions.

I hope to convey to Wren through my actions that there is hope. Not only through the lifestyle we live at home, but through being actively involved in creating broader social change. I want him to be exposed to adults who are working for a better world. This is where there is hope. Although I want him to understand the situation the world is in, I don’t want him to take it on as his own responsibility too early. I hope that seeing adults working for change will make him feel safe and looked after. As a society, I’m not sure that we do have a right to ‘hope’ if we are not willing to work for change, because dammit, we really are in trouble if we don’t do something. I think that a positive example from me and other adults will convey a message a hope better than any discussion about climate change I could have with Wren.

This is where my feelings diverged from the article I mentioned. They categorise environmentalists as being either ‘light greens’ (believing in lifestyle changes and personal responsibility), ‘dark greens’ (believing in radical ideological change as industrial-capitalism is the problem) and ‘bright greens’ (believing in better designs, technologies and more widely distributed social innovations). They herald the bright greens as the way forward, as the ‘positive’ message to pass on to our children, one that does not involve personal sacrifice or structural change.

Personally, I think we need all three. There is no one solution. Techno-fixes can help, but they are not enough. And while it might be a simpler message to convey to children, ultimately I want my son (and everyone) to have a real, well-rounded understanding of the situation we are in.

I don’t have all the answers. If anyone has any other thoughts or experiences in sharing environmental messages (particularly scary ones) with kids, I’d love to hear them. Wren is still only two years old, so these challenges are still to come for us. These are my ideas so far.

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