As parents, we know intuitively how important love is to learning. Love fuels persistence. British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead insisted all learning begins with romance. From there, we develop precision and eventually, the ability to generalize. Learning, according to Whitehead, is a continuous cycle of romance, details and the big picture.
Environmental educators are great at love. We take children into glorious forests and on adventures in boats. We help them build gardens and feed them plump carrots. We invite them to give pinkie hugs to sea urchins or to feel the smooth scales of a snake. We weave stories about the wisdom of elephants, the cleverness of bubble netting humpback whales, the playfulness of gorillas.
Yet whatever our skills in the art of romancing the Earth when it comes to addressing other emotions such as anger, grief, despair or fear, we’re often as thick as planks. We blurt out horrifying statistics and examples of species extinctions and toxic spills rarely leaving space or time to acknowledge how all that loving and losing feels.
Twenty years after David Sobel at Antioch University coined the term “ecophobia” to describe what happens to kids confronted with scary ideas about the state of planet, environmental narratives are becoming increasingly apocalyptic. A prime time television campaign created by the British ministry for climate change portrays climate change as a giant sky-monster that makes bunnies weep and drowns puppies in the sea. The Discovery Channel’s website, TreeHugger, gave a “coolest environmental ad” award to a lobbying group that depicted the human impact of climate change with an illustration of a dead schoolgirl hanging from a noose and a melting glacier at her feet.
From a purely practical standpoint, these scare tactics simply don’t work. Research evidence from the field of terror management theory reveals that when faced with problems we believe are too large to surmount, our tendency is to downplay, tune out or shut down. In some cases, continuing to bombard people with problems and not creating solutions to fix them can actually result in hyper consumerism—might as well buy as much as you can get while you can still get it.
Mental heath professionals warn that kids growing up with an uncertain future that is not of their making may experience the threat of climate change very differently from their parents and grandparents. According to the International Journal of Mental Health Systems, a survey of Australian children reveal that “a quarter of children are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.”
Psychologists now speak about “environmental grief,” “eco-fatigue,” “ecosystem distress syndrome” and “eco-despair.” Glenn Albrecht, of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, argues that we simply do not have words to express our feelings. He’s actively creating a new lexicon of environmental dis-eases to help document the emotions people are experiencing. “Solastalgia”—a combination of the Latin solacium (comfort) and the Greek algia (pain)—describes the kind of homesickness one feels when one is still at home but the landscape is irrevocably changed; an all too familiar concept to the communities he works with in Western Australia who are living in the midst of open cast coal mining.
So how can you talk with kids about environmental issues without scaring them silly? Part of the answer lies in creating opportunities for them to speak. When your child sees a photo of a sea lion strangled by a discarded fishing net, or a bird drenched in oil from a spill, take a moment to ask how he or she feels. Be patient. Wait for the feelings to arise. Share the impact of the image on you. How does it make you feel? How do you work through the feelings that come up for you? How do you respect your feelings yet stay informed?
Another part of the answer is to shift the focus beyond individual action towards collective responses. Kids who understand the enormity of environmental issues feel just as hopeless about the power of switching off a single light bulb to solve climate change as you do. It’s a problem of scale. Work done recently by Carly Armstrong at Royal Roads University in Canada suggests that in a world where kids are exposed to information 24/7, its not always possible or desirable to protect them from terrifying environmental issues. What’s more important is enabling them to see how their own families and neighbours address problems and inviting them to try to help solve them as part of a wider community effort. Kids need to see that adults are willing and able to get involved. As Rachel shared with Dorothy, it’s the wonderful feeling that a reliable, trustworthy person is willing to talk through problems and has got your back.
Actively seek out hopeful examples and talk about them with your kids. Applaud the person who donated their property to be the state park in which you are hiking. Admire the neighbour who grows drought-resistant, native plants. Congratulate yourselves for carrying your groceries on your bikes instead of taking the car. Give your kids a sense of the people who cared about this place long before they were born. Often, when I’m walking with kids along the beautiful coast of Monterey Bay where I live we look for sea otters and seals. A quarter of the world’s blue whales come each summer to feast in these incredibly rich waters. I also make a point of telling them about what it was like when the famous sardine canneries were there in the 1920s and 1930s. I talk about the deadly combination of mass overfishing and industrial pollutants that emptied and choked the bay to death.
I give thanks to the efforts of Julia Platt, a marine biologist, who established the first community-based marine reserve on the west coast amid all that industrial activity. She and her friends were determined to protect the marine invertebrates and fish along that small bit of coastline from everything except pollution, hoping they would come back strong when the series of court cases they launched against the canneries’ pollution finally came into effect. By the 1960s, impressive abalone colonies were growing and these shell fish attracted the return of sea otters, and eventually, the emerald green kelp forests sea otters both depend upon and nourish.
I’m a collector of hope. A few years ago, I set myself the challenge of writing a hopeful book about the environment for kids that’s rooted in current science. Not Your Typical Book About the Environment was awarded the Green Earth Book Award and since its publication, I’ve been inundated with amazing examples of species recoveries, green technologies and community initiatives that speak to the incredible resilience of ecosystems and individuals.
If you slipped into the waters off Bikini reef in the tropical Pacific today, you’d find a thriving coral kingdom ablaze with colourful fish. It’s so beautiful, you might not recognize it’s historic identity. It provided the inspiration for the famous bathing suit. And, its where the US Army detonated the first H-bomb.
Twenty three nuclear explosions were carried out at Bikini between 1946 and 1958. The cost to people and the environment is incalculable. Yet, fifty years later, scientists diving in the mile wide Bravo Crater created in 1954 by a nuclear blast 1,000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, confirm that about 70% of the atoll’s previous coral species have resettled the lagoon. “It’s made a brilliant recovery,” says Zoe Richards, a scientist at James Cook University in Australia.
We portray the environment as if it’s on a one-way journey from utopia to ruin. I spend my life advocating for the conservation of rainforests and coral reefs and ecosystems of every kind in as near to pristine conditions as possible, but I also think it’s a mistake to focus only upon fragility. Things get horribly broken. That is true. But the remarkable capacity for renewal is true too.
This fall I will be travelling to Germany to serve as a fellow at the Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society. I’ll be working with colleagues from the Smithsonian Institute and the London Zoological Society to assemble a global inventory of marine conservation success stories. We intend to use these to move the environmental narrative beyond “doom and gloom” towards hope and resilience and to provide conservationists working around the world in field-based settings with replicable, successful marine conservation strategies.
Rachel Carson changed the world by framing pesticide use, not just in economic benefits to agriculture, but in terms of its horrific impact on the interconnected web of life. She dared to change the story. As she wrote to a friend:
The beauty of the world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind—that and anger at the senseless brutish things that were being done. I have felt bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could—if I didn’t at least try I could never again be happy in nature.”
Tonight, when you kiss your children goodnight, ask them what makes them feel hopeful. Commit yourself to helping make more of whatever that is happen. Make hope a verb and live it.