If I were younger and had a lot more energy, I would campaign against candidates for public office that deny climate change is more than an inconvenience that disproportionately impacts low-income people. I am, however, older than dirt and neither my brain nor body function as efficiently as they once did and so instead, I send $5 and $10 donations to political candidates that are not obviously brain dead.
And I think about how to prepare our grandchildren to solve the problems we will leave behind – a bittersweet gift that we will pass on to the next few generations.
The gift we give our grandchildren may take a little longer to reach those living in North America than say, children and grandchildren in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Still, it’s unlikely that even affluent North American children will be able to deny the scope of environmental devastation beyond another fifteen years.
Although our ten to fifteen-year-old children and grandchildren on the mid-to-top economic scale will probably be able to focus on simulated video game disasters a few years longer. If protected by gated communities and parents that believe degrees in law, dentistry and other money generating fields will shelter their offspring from rising tides, forest fires, flood and drought for generations to come, they may be able to ignore reality for as much as a couple of decades. It’s unlikely but not impossible.
I am nonetheless stunned by intelligent, caring friends that cling to the notion that Super Storms and devastating disasters are just business as usual so long as the devastation is not in their neighbourhoods. Climate writers Sam Kriss and Ellie Mae O’Hagan suggest “the problem is not an overabundance of humans but a dearth of humanity”. I think they may be onto something. Ignore the suffering of the world at your peril, I say. Eventually it will bite you in the ass.
Last spring I had a long conversation with a former student who has served as a member and/or president of a school board in a Southern California community for over twenty years. I was curious about how the curriculum for elementary school students in her school district was preparing for the kind of devastation that hit the town of Paradise, California, or Houston, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey. Were students even being psychologically prepared for the “thousand year floods” that drowned Ellicott, Maryland, not once but twice between 2016 – 2018?
After every shooting spree in the United States, community and city leaders rush to action with plans to arm teachers, install more sophisticated security systems, and enact more punitive measures to deter the shooters as well as the hapless guards already in place to protect school children from random acts of violence. What kinds of lesson plans are in place to discuss solutions to severe food shortages, the kinds of heat waves that already endanger the lives of populations in Europe, southern Russia, and Tbilisi? Do America’s or Canada’s school children know about fire tsunamis and the kinds of typhoons that recently forced the evacuation of 2.45 million people in China?
As it turns out, not much planning and prep were in place when I talked to my friend on the school board in Southern California. I suppose the thinking of my friend’s school district, shared by most if not all school districts in the United States, had been shaped not only by revenue challenges for important, well-established programs but by the rationale in which so many take comfort: “it’s not happening here”.
And yet it is. It’s happening in Denver, Miami, Los Angeles, New Jersey and New Orleans. Even in northern countries like Canada, a sometimes though not lately, favored US trade partner, populations are not immune to crippling heat. In 2018, fifty-four people in Quebec died from heat stroke. Billions of dollars in damages have also occurred in Alberta, Canada, which pales in comparison with the expense to reconstruct American communities from flooding, mudslides, forest fires, heat waves, hurricanes and tornadoes in 2018. Which is still chump change compared to the $5 trillion the US spends on subsidies for the oil industry each year.
As it turns out, my friend’s school district has access to curriculum for the sixth grade that teaches children to be stewards of the earth. Talking about the Big Picture is a positive start but I wonder if learning to stuff sand bags and the development of an appropriate response in an evacuation could be snuck into a geography or science or Phys Ed class. Learning about what to do if water systems are compromised might be a good thing to know. How to communicate if computer/ phone usage is not feasible during an extended black out might be a useful discussion in a social issues class.
Yesterday, depending on whose calculations we want to accept, between one and nine million people lost power on the East Coast. Simultaneously, massive power outages occurred in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Might be a good idea to have a few candles, lanterns and board games in the closet when this happens. The Mayor of New York predicts all power will be restored in four – seven days but still, think of the First World trauma if computers, video games, hair dryers, and hot water are not available for a week. Sweet Jesus, it’s not to be borne. Unless, of course, you’ve been caught in an arid Hell where even a gallon of cold, clean water is a luxury and food for infants is non-existent. A world without hair dryers and video games might then be viewed by the Less Fortunate (which is most of the world) as no big deal. For the LF’s, this truly is “business as usual”.
Is the danger of alarming children with doom and gloom scenarios greater than the dangers of PTSD after they’ve experienced the actual destruction of a school, their neighbourhoods, even the death of pets?
I realize suggesting the students in my wonderful friend’s school district get a reality check about the world they will shortly inherit is putting a lot of responsibility on one small school district and a beloved former protege. But as parents, grandparents, teachers and planners, are we doing our children and grandchildren a favour by letting them believe their greatest problem ten years down the road will be getting into a “good” university and subsequently scoring a “good” job. Is it inappropriate to suggest the feasibility of a few survival courses?
Even if we introduce them (and their teachers) to some of the less threatening passages of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (a notoriously conservative document, albeit the gold standard assessment of the state of the planet), we’d be taking the focus off a curriculum that might serve them well if we were living in, say, the early 1900s. They’ve already seen movies like “Mad Max” and “Interstellar” and survived the doom and gloom of a dozen dystopian YA novels. Relating those stories and films to their own future might be scarier than losing access to video games when the lights on the East Coast go out (either through storms or sabotage) for months rather than days.
In the meantime, I will enjoy and cling to the beauty of a sunset, continue to do what I can to enjoy friends who also think doing something is better than doing nothing, and try to figure out how to persuade my own children they should do more to prepare their children for the world they will inherit. The problem, of course, is that both my sons are well-informed about environmental issues and if I say, “Yeah, but, it’s worse, much worse than you think it is”, they may be even more alarmed than their children will be. One will sink into a quiet depression and the other will become more enraged than he already is and bay at the moon in the voice of God (or the voice of Alanis Morisette if the film “Dogma” tickles your fancy).
Dealing with the thoughtless destruction of the Earth is a challenge for all of us but for well-informed, caring North American educators, it must be a heartbreaker. They must feel, as poet / musician Kate Tempest says, their students are “staring into a screen so that don’t have to see the planet die”.
The By Stander Effect makes fire tsunamis look like child’s play.