Our Children's Future May Be Defined By Crisis (Here's What to Do About It)

Family Matters on 09.23.11
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Photo: Population Action International

I've written before about whether parents can still worry about overpopulation, so I was interested to see the launch of Weathering Change, a new film by  Population Action International that explores the all-important interconnect between climate change, women's empowerment, and access to birth control (trailer below).

But this wasn't just an interesting exploration of population issues, or environmental politics. It was a visceral reminder that climate change - not to mention the other major issues facing humankind - is not your average topic of political debate. It is a matter of life and death. And too many of those deaths are happening right now. Currently it's the world's poor that are being hit the hardest, but every parent should be aware that between dangerous climate change, impending resource depletion, and potential economic chaos, the future is not guaranteed to be as rosy as the present for any of our children. And that's the case no matter where they live or what socio-economic class they find themselves in.

When we talk about teaching our children environmental awareness, if can be tempting to dress it up in terms of fun recycling projects, learning not to litter, or other feel-good introductions to living just a little more lightly on the Earth. I'm not necessarily complaining about this approach. It's important to make sustainability fun. 20 projects to get our kids excited about Earth Day, or fun activities for kids at the farmers market, are much more likely to have a positive impact than explaining to little Johnnie that his future is bleak, or that we are all doomed (I really don't think we are, but more on that later). But while I am fully in favor of a positive outlook, we must be careful of turning sustainability into token feel-good actions, and losing sight of the fact that a radical transformation of our cultures and our economies is the only sensible approach to ensuring our children's future well-being.

But how do we find the inspiration to keep fighting, and to resist the temptation to look away, when the future can sometimes look so bleak?

Here are a few ideas:

Stay Positive, But Be Realistic
Positivity does not have to be the same as naivety. While there is ample evidence that we face hugely troubling crises, we also have millenia of human history that tells us we are an innovative, resourceful and ultimately resilient species. From Wal-Mart's major steps in clean energy through entire nations going predominantly solar to fascinating new economic models based on sharing and social relationships, many of the steps that could secure a better future for our kids are already being taken right now. We just need more of them. And we will only see that if we remain ambitious, and resist the temptation to believe that making art from recycled coke cans will be enough to stave off disaster.

Be Strategic
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the issues we face, or to believe that we have to take everything on ourselves. Climate change, peak oil, and all of these issues are societal issues, so we need societal solutions. Sure, it's great to do what we can. But becoming a raw food vegan when you love the occasional steak will only lead to burn out, and denying yourself the big family you always wanted will not solve overpopulation. So find the issues that you are most passionate about, the solutions that most inspire you, and then focus on those first. Chances are, the issues that arouse your passions will also be the issues that are the easiest to get others on board with too.

Have Fun, Embrace Beauty
While acknowledging the world's problems can be a downer, exploring real, scalable solutions to those problems can be one of the most exciting, rewarding experiences you can have. From embracing the beauty of nature and biodiversity, to recognizing the joy of real community, there is much fun to be had in "saving the world". And we can bring our kids along for the ride too. Yall were bored of watching Harry Potter for the umpteenth time anyway...

The Past Was Not Perfect. The Future is Unknown.
I'm an environmental blogger, so I get to hear my fair share of doom-mongering, often accompanied by wistful reminiscence for simpler times. Yet from slavery to Cold War brinkmanship, a quick look at the history books tells us that rose-tinted spectacles offer a pretty distorted view of the past. Similarly, while denying the existence of man-made climate change looks about as sensible as questioning evolution these days, there is also no reason to believe that any worst-case scenarios are inevitable. Whether we manage to curb the worst impacts of climate change, or simply learn to live with them; whether we find ways to live a simpler life without oil, or we develop viable alternatives to power our economic machine - the future is always unknown.

Our best bet is neither to play prophet, nor to ignore the warning signs, nor declare the world a lost cause - but rather to identify the future we want for our children, and then to work like hell to make it happen. Oh, and to have fun doing it.

Weathering Change Trailer from Population Action International on Vimeo.

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