Kids Deserve Hope

Elin - Pacific Grove, California
Entered on September 9, 2010

“I bet that forest is filled with bears!” Esmé, my seven-year-old exclaims, peeking out the car window at the trees that hug the road on Vancouver Island. My heart sinks with a familiar dilemma. Do I nurture her imaginative mind or tell her the sad truth: the “forest” is a mirage—a corridor of trees shielding our view from the clear-cuts that lie beyond them.

As an environmental consultant and mother, I spend considerable time balanced between these two worlds—like Philippe Petit on his wire between the Twin Towers. When my children were toddlers, I walked this tightrope alone—days spent immersed in the overwhelming problems of climate change and e-waste, followed by bedtime stories about Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte’s magnificent webs. Lying quietly with their soft breath on my cheeks, I would weep at the idea that these people, who I loved more than any others, would never see a wild elephant or bend to drink fresh water from a pond. Despair would wash over me—the same queasy-stomach worry and grief I felt as a teenager, when reading “Limits to Growth” convinced me that the world was running out of food. Only back then, relief came in the form of an older, impatient sister who caught me worrying over the cans in the fruit basement and sniffed, “Don’t be such an idiot! They’ll just grow food in space.” Saved.

These days, with the kids off to school, it’s harder to construct the world as I wish it could be for them. “Gloom and doom” blows in from even the most trusted places. I watch, with sadness, kids rendered mute when a visiting scientist enters the classroom and says: “Every hour, three species disappear. Every second, we lose an area of rainforest more than twice the size of a football field!

Global dread, eco-anxiety, environmental grief – despair about the future of the planet has garnered many labels in recent years. In our noble zeal to educate kids about very real and urgent environmental problems, I’m afraid we have inadvertently created a generation that feels hopeless about the future of the planet. So how do we reach them, without depressing them? How do we get across ideas without giving them nightmares, or sugar-coating it all so that it’s just happy talk with no connection to our true, sorry state of degradation? How do we raise hopeful children when we’re feeling hopeless ourselves?

I believe we need to create space for kids and adults to talk about how all this gloom and doom makes us feel, while realizing that creating hope represents more than just our feelings. It’s an adult responsibility. As parents, we play a pivotal role in raising resilient, hopeful children. As a society, we hold a collective responsibility to imagine a more positive, sustainable future. Nearly 40 years ago, the Dutch futurist Fred Polak wrote about the relationship between cultures and their visions of the future: “As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.”

Most of all, we must spread stories that inspire us. In 2008, I met nine-year-old Felix, who convinced children around Germany to plant one million trees in a single year. “Tell them they should plant trees,” he responds when I ask how to inspire hope in other children. “And, that they should also talk to their governments and demand climate justice.”

Felix keeps me striving toward a Philippe Petit-like poise, balancing my responses to environmental atrocities as a consultant while making author visits to schools and reading from Not Your Typical Book About the Environment—a hopeful book for kids. Tonight, though, when I descend from the high wire and tuck Esmé into bed, I’ll tell her about Gillian, a grad student I know, who recently started a bear-watching ecotourism company on Vancouver Island.