There is a theory out there in nature education circles that preparing children for climate change means steering clear of scaring them until they are old enough to handle it. David Sobel, author of Children’s Special Places, is often credited with the mantra, “no disasters before fourth grade,” and he writes eloquently about the notion that you must first ask children to love nature before you ask them to save it.
There are lots of people who champion this view. Recently, Grist published a profile of Liam Hennegan, a professor of environmental science at DePaul University, who has strong opinions about what books should be on a children’s environmental curriculum. He lists classics like The Hobbit, Where the Wild Things Are, and Bridge to Terabithia, not one of them mentioning a word about rising carbon emissions. Instead, the books are gorgeous works that you and I might remember from our own childhoods, full of the pleasures of being in nature, the desire to know and change a special place, and to build story, history, and relationship with it.
I was obsessed with Bridge to Terabithia as a kid. And, I was lucky enough to have access to a stream in my back yard, one that was like the stream in the book. I had hours of time to explore it, with no adults supervising my play. This stream was in the back field that ran behind our house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We lived over a gas station during the gas crisis of the 1970’s. My mother was in training for her eventual career in hydrogeology, meaning that I grew up hearing about the oil crisis, waste water runoff, leach fields, and superfund clean-up sites.
I had access to plenty of information about disasters before fourth grade.
But, what I remember about that time is that in the spring rains, the little trickle of a stream in the big field of grass became a torrent of water in a near marsh. I’d spend hours on the soggy edges of it, stacking and re-stacking stones to make dams and cataracts. I’d make boats from bark, paper, or sticks and experiment with the way these human vessels navigated the natural world as it changed. The changes were the important part: my hand on the rock moving the flow of current, the way the boat shifted and altered, swamped sometimes by the rushing water. Sometimes, I would even let the stream flow naturally, and glory in the triumph of the bark craft when it reached the spot where the river passed under the fence at the bottom of the hill and down to join the storm drain that was its terminus.
All the research on children in nature says that I was doing something essential in my play. I was practicing a relationship with place, and with the natural processes of the environment that helped me understand the consequences of my role in the world: I stack rocks, the course of the river changes, I launch the boat, and the waves can take it under.
A stick let loose at the water’s mouth will, in time, reach the river’s end. So it goes. And here I am, a part of the world and how it moves. That was what went through my mind as I worked, and I didn’t even realize that this was important. It just was.
This is what is being lost in the world of children in the 21st century, especially urban children, especially poor children. No spaces exist for them to have the luxury of that kind of play. No places exist for them to develop wonder and ownership. Even recently a terrific study was done that pointed to the health and psychological benefits of having that kind of access in childhood.
For all children, their connection with the land needs as much nourishment as their capacity for language, abstract thought, and social play. And for most of them, even the wealthy and well-served, this capacity is being underfed.
The green spaces they may encounter in their daily lives provide little opportunity to mess, to own, to change the natural world around them. And without this play, they are forgetting what it is to see how their actions affect the world. They do not know in their hands how it feels to launch a boat and watch it flow downstream.
Because, in the age of climate change, this simple connection, the relationship between one’s own actions and the wider natural world, is key to helping people cope with the crisis that is unfolding on the planet. Losing this connection may mean that the lot of us lose the most essential tool in fighting global climate collapse: love.
The child with the boat is encased in a vast web of love. She loves the stream. She loves the things she can do to the stream. She loves the boat. She loves the way it disappears.
She does not pick out any one of these things as the thing she loves best. She does not prioritize one thing above the other. The stream is not better in its “pristine” state, before she moves the rocks and changes its flow. The rocks are not better where they start than after they are moved. The boat is not better as bark. The water is not worse when it reaches the mysterious disappearing destination known as “downstream.”
She loves them all, all the parts of the web.
And this, this is the thing I am thinking most about on the eve of the People’s Climate March in New York City: how to love them all.
Because I have spent my life thinking about nature (and being a white, educated, privileged American in the 20th and 21st century), I have been asked to decide which part of that web to love the best. Sometimes I have even been told which part to love whether I like it or not. I have been asked to love pristine nature better than altered nature. I have been asked to love the rock where it started, the bark before it was a boat. I have heard the argument that we should leave some parts of the land unused, untouched, because our relationship with the land changes it.
But the flip side to these directives is the message that I should not even try to care any longer. I have heard that in the Anthropocene, the era in which man has set the rules of climate and nature, there is nowhere we can go that is pristine. Every particle of air has changed and there is nothing left to love that is intact – only spoiled earth, water, and sky, wherever you look.
And not knowing how to prioritize my love between the saved and the damned (the bark or the boat?) has lead, at times, to a profound despair.
Couple this with the guilt and culpability that we have been trained to feel for our own role in the destruction, and you have the soup we all swim in here in late capitalist America. I have felt incapable of loving humans because of what we’ve done (the hand on the rock), and I’ve felt afraid of every act of my own life, the gallon of gas spent getting my son to school, the improperly recycled water bottle, and the steps I take on the beach that harms the dune grass.
If I am an actor on this earth, part of the species that is culpable of remaking our biosphere, how can I find forgive myself enough to be engaged? And further, how am I allowed to love the natural world, when even its beauties (and the air travel that took me to them), evoke waves of barely contained guilt over my part in working to destroy them?
I think, though, that two parts of the People’s Climate March are beginning to show me a way forward, out of that despair and towards love.
The first is that the People’s Climate March itself is bent towards the broad kind of love towards both the planet and the people that could, if done right, be transformative. The March has drawn criticism for holding no core policy demand. But, from all I have read, this is completely by design and by mandate even. The March insists that people come together from every kind of perspective.
People working for climate justice, labor, policy, conservation, anti-fracking, water rights, and carbon divestment are coming together. People from faith groups and anarchist groups are meeting together on the streets of Manhattan. You can read Bill McKibben of 350.org‘s fierce and loving manifesto to understand the terrible need for coalition building such as this – drawing everyone under the big tent of the biosphere and giving them work to do to change the path we’re on. Or you can watch the documentary that is trying to get everyone into the tent, Disruption, which has been touring the country in advance of the March. Any of these sources will represent the same basic notion: we need everyone.
Naive? Maybe. Diffuse? Perhaps.
But, maybe also radical. No disasters before fourth grade need not be a mantra only for children’s engagement in the planet. Of course, we have to educate people about the reality of the science of climate collapse. We have to help them see the urgency of the need to change. We have to make sure that it is clear that this is our last shot, and that if we wait, we won’t have any work to do except in getting out of the way of the changes that will bear down on us.
But don’t we also have to keep people remembering what it is that we are fighting for? Don’t we have to let them love the world before we ask them to save it? Does terror serve to keep people activated, working, engaged, or does it only send us into paralysis? And how can we move forward as a species if we are paralyzed with fear? Is it ever possible to love the rock and hate the hand that moved it?
No. We must learn to love the entire web if we are to save it. Because alienating anyone involved in the web means we have one less human being to put to work to solve the mess we’re in. We cannot move back the rocks and turn the stream without every hand, even the hands that moved those rocks in the first place.
The recently published book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, by George Marshall provides a great example of the reasons we need all hands. The current conversation on climate has lost large swaths of the population to denial and rejection. Marshall interviews the very people whose homes were destroyed by climate change-fueled natural disasters. And even they cannot manage to make the connection between their loss and climate collapse. They are so focused on their love for their homes and communities that they cannot think past getting back to normal. Their love has provided them their only way forward, even if that way is misdirected, individual, and short-sighted.
So how do you turn people’s love towards a way forward that really works in creating solutions and not simply rebuilding? How do you turn people’s love of their families and homes towards the biosphere and all its diverse inhabitants?
Perhaps you do it through innovative activism that captures the imagination and reinvigorates love.
And there’s my second reason for finding hope in the People’s Climate March: Sea Change.
Sea Change is an activist art installation that has been happening for the last month. The organization Mare Librum has partnered with 350.org to create a work of art and an activist project to build paper boats, and put them into the Hudson River and paddle them downstream to the mouth of the Hudson where, the day before the People’s Climate March, they will engage with other boats to form a boat blockade in the Harbor.
Their catch phrase is that we all live downstream, which we do. We live downstream of pollution and nitrogen runoff, plastic cleansing beads in our water, and flooding and leaching from garbage dumps. But we live downstream of so much more, of melting glaciers and heavy downpours, of pricey crops and missing creatures. The hands we’ve used to make our boats — to move the rocks and change the world — are all upstream for all of us.
Which is the scary part of the story, and the part at which I begin to fear and worry and want desperately to go for a long walk with a nice dog to forget that I was even thinking about nitrogen runoff and comb jellyfish in the first place.
But then, then the phrase, we all live downstream turns in my mind, and I think of the joy of those artists, making boats from paper, paddling down one of the most perfectly gorgeous waterways in our country, towards the city where I was born. And then I fall in love.
I fall back in love with making boats, and with the stream of my childhood. I fall in love with the rides I took on the Amtrak train from Hudson, New York to Manhattan. Every year, sitting alone on the train, on my way to my aunt in the big city, watching the river unfold out my window, eating potato chips and counting the boats I saw. I fall back in love with New York Harbor, paper mache and birch bark, with the novel I’m writing about climate change, and the journey my characters take up that same river. And I fall in love with the strangers who thought up this combination of poetry and social justice work of sailing paper boats down the river.