Poor Mother Earth. Everybody pulls a sad face and counts the ways in which her days are numbered. Enjoy the sunsets while they last. Because everything as we know it is going to overheat and boil over. Oh, and happy birthday.
Every World Environment Day, we celebrate with a blizzard of alarmed obits and a dour-faced reading of grave statistics. This followed by eleven months of guiltless silence, punctuated only by perfunctory observances on World Earth Day, World Oceans Day, World Water Day, and so on. We make a show of switching off lights during the great social media festival we call Earth Hour, only to brighten it up like an Ibiza weekend after the clock has ticked.
The world’s most influential heads of state are climate change deniers, either borderline or full-blown, and most are elected to office on the strength of earth-dooming promises. Our captains of industry are often photographed in the act of planting trees, only to be served chilled water in personal-sized plastic bottles right after. Awards are handed out like fish and loaves to over-decorated politicians for lip-service on banning single-use plastic, conserving water, preserving forests, yada-yada. The carbon credit system, which here in the Third World we care a fig about, has fed a thriving political economy built around compensating for the evil that we inflict ritually upon our planet.
Whom are we fooling?
Certainly not our children. We press them out of the assembly line and bankroll them through school and college in the hope that they might turn out better than us. In the end, they inherit our selfishness and bigotry, our pessimism and apathy. They spend their confused adulthood — and our retirement savings — coming undone and going into lifelong therapy. Besides suing us for damages.
The beleaguered poet Philip Larkin discovered this the hard way and immortalised his warning to parents-to-be in his oft-quoted poem, This Be The Verse:
They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
The conundrum that many well-meaning parents wrestle with is not how to talk to their kids about sex or drugs (those ships having long sailed), but how to talk to them about climate change. Do we lay it bare and paint an apocalyptic picture, or just look away and pretend it’s happening to another planet?
Pessimism isn’t the kindest inheritance to bestow upon our kids, but encouraging them to find optimism by ignoring this chronicle of a death foretold is no solution either. We might stoke this difficult conversation by replacing our Netflix time watching Our Planet with the kids instead of Black Mirror with the spouse. But, during the after-movie chit-chat, it won’t do much good to squander the opportunity by droning on about doom and dystopia.
Kids have minds. They perceive, they comprehend, and they judge. But rather than let them think, we fill up their thought-time with spell-bees and math olympiads. To teach our children well, the best way might be to step back and let the cogs in their heads whir away.
You may use any number of presentation aids, but nothing impacts learning like experience. To step outdoors and experience the changing seasons, for instance, fosters an appreciation of the warmth of spring sunshine, the chill of winter, and the reviving power of rain. But trapped within our temperature-controlled offices and cars, we have forgone this bond with nature.
Led by a desire to control our experience of the world, we no longer feel the world as it is. Instead, we escape into worlds within worlds.
Environmental education has become a casualty of our need for instant gratification because it is excruciatingly slow. To be effective, learning must be lived through experience, not vicariously. This demands an appetite for a slower pace of life and the patience to appreciate the results.
In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living in solitude in a hermitage by Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and engendered a body of work that continues to influence political thought to this day. While his approach to self-education may sound untenable to parents who are teaching their kids to get ahead in a crowded world, think this over: what a crowded world really needs is less of individualism and more of community. From a purely economic standpoint, only this can help manage its increasingly scarce resources sustainably. A sense of stewardship for the earth can come only from a love for it.
I know we’re getting philosophical here but this, really, is all we need to teach our kids. Good luck with that, though.