My earliest deliberate piece of environmental activism was nagging my parents about recycling. This was before recycling moved into the category of “chores liberal households do by default.” Certainly a different era from my current household, where our biggest recycling problem is that the town won’t give us enough bins.
I was an environmentalist a long time before that, though. I’ve thought about this since, as I try to raise my own kids—and thought of it specifically a couple of days ago, when an old acquaintance from Cape Cod, Harriet Jerusha Korim, asked me on Facebook about raising environmentalists:
Question: how and when do we talk with kids (and parents and regular old Earthlings including ourselves) about climate change and intergenerational (in)justice? Can we grow beyond the era in which our brains evolved and rise to these challenges in time? How do we start (and not lose sleep, courage– or a sense of humor)?
What I said, mostly off-the-cuff, was:
When I think about talking to kids about climate change, I think about how I was raised on Cape–lots of very concrete experience with the natural world, and everyone taking for granted that the way we treat our environment affects not only our well-being but our own identity. What I’ve heard since is that this is ideal–if you tell little kids about big, hard-to-understand-abstract problems, they’ll just get scared. If you give them a connection to the natural world (and tell them things like, “We walk to the store/eat vegetarian on Monday/turn off the lights so we can take care of nature, because it takes care of us”), you eventually get adults who have a familiar way to frame environmental action.
This is based both on experience and research. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods covers some of that research, which has continued in the years since he published. Children (and the adults they turn into) understand what they see, hear, touch, taste. They value and learn from the things around them that are concrete and sensible—and that their parents teach them in a concrete, sensible way to value and learn from.
A kid who learns about rising temperatures in school will feel scared, maybe guilty, probably a little helpless. A kid who goes to the beach and learns the names of barnacles and mussels, and maybe picks up some trash, will know not only that they’re part of the natural world, but that they can choose to make it better.
It didn’t hurt, growing up, that Cape Cod is a place where everyone has a very strong sense of those things. An April Fools article that made me giggle yesterday was about how the North Truro Air Force Station was hiding the existence of aliens:
The secret was almost spilled three years ago when we needed to build a bigger bunker to hide this stuff. But, when the plans went before the Cape Cod Commission, it was rejected as a “non-conforming development of regional impact.”
The Commission is a fact of life on Cape—if you want to build something, you have to explain how it’s going to affect the land. And this doesn’t go on behind closed doors. Everyone argues about it around the dinner table. Kids learn that environmental impacts are a choice, and something you should expect a say in.
Obviously not everyone raises their kids on Cape. But everyone raises their kids somewhere with green space and animals (even if only a park full of squirrels), and can teach them the names of animals and trees (or look them up together in a guide). They can talk about the decisions that affect that little piece of nature. And maybe they can bring along a trash bag—and a recycling bag—and give their kids the opportunity to start making things a little better.