On our daily 10-minute walk to my son’s school in Toronto’s west end, we pass a number of familiar sights: a couple of small dogs (a Boston terrier named Happ and a chihuahua named Milo); a grubby parkette littered with ancient, sun-bleached toys; the malodorous dumpster behind the seafood shop; the somewhat less malodorous dumpster behind the bustling microbrewery; and the railroad tracks where we sometimes pause to watch black train cars, each containing crude oil, slowly snake by.
Recently, though, we passed something that my six-year-old son, Jack, had never really noticed before, or at least something he had never remarked on: someone smoking a cigarette. It was outside the fish store. Jack stared for a few moments and then muttered, just loud enough that the guy smoking could hear, “That’s bad for the earth.” We kept walking, but I looked back to see the guy—possibly chastened, possibly just annoyed at this sanctimonious kid—toss his butt into the street.
Over the past few months, “That’s bad for the earth” has become a common refrain for Jack. Plastic: bad for the earth. Littering: bad for the earth. Driving: bad for the earth. Eating meat: bad for the earth and bad for animals. Listening to his teachers or classmates or just picking up on conversations at home had unleashed Jack’s environmental awareness, and it seemed to be boundless. Well, not quite: If you take him to a birthday party, he will still gleefully grab his loot bag, no matter how much disposable plastic crap it contains.
I was, at once, delighted and concerned that he was thinking about this stuff at all. Like many parents, I’ve spent countless sleepless nights worrying about climate change and the future. But, more recently, I’ve also been worrying about the present. Climate change isn’t something that will affect Jack’s generation five, 10 or 20 years from now; it’s affecting them, like it’s affecting all of us, right now. In mid-August, the Canadian Paediatric Society published a report that stated that “climate change is the single largest global health threat of the 21st century” and that children can be disproportionately affected by related issues: increased air pollution, contaminated water and increased UV exposure due to ozone depletion. This past summer and early fall, weather-related catastrophes, undeniably exacerbated by climate change, erupted with routine frequency across Canada, from forest fires in Alberta to hurricanes and post-tropical storms in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. All around the world, the news this year was similarly grim. This past July was the hottest recorded month in human history. That same month, in Greenland, billions of tons of meltwater flowed into the oceans, permanently raising sea levels. Temperatures in the UK, Germany and France broke records, with Paris hitting almost 43 degrees Celsius. As I write this, both the Amazon and the Arctic are on fire.
The age of eco-anxiety
But how do I talk about this with Jack in a useful way that’s instructive without freaking him out? He has only just started grade two—how much does he even understand or need to understand? And how do I emphasize its seriousness while not simultaneously infecting him with my own fear and anxiety?
Irena Buka, the Edmonton-based author of the Canadian Paediatric Society report, tells me that maybe, in one sense, it’s too late. “Children are already getting it and talking about it,” says Buka, a clinical professor of paediatrics at the University of Alberta. “They get that it’s critical—sometimes faster than adults.” Young children pick up more than we realize from our own conversations and the media, she says, but often don’t fully understand what they pick up. “We’re not talking to them about it because we don’t realize that it’s gone into their little minds and created some kind of turmoil that they can’t express,” she says. That turmoil is finding expression in a myriad of symptoms, says Buka, including withdrawal, depression, acting out, eating disorders, sleeplessness, bed-wetting and constipation.
Such symptoms are common to anxiety in general, of course, and linking them specifically requires listening closely to kids when they express concern about the environment. In Buka’s practice, she has seen children as young as seven say things like “The planet is doomed.” Buka has found that the best response is to not focus on the “final verdict” of climate change but rather offer children (and their parents) ideas for change, big and small, that they themselves can make. “Giving a plan of action to people at any age is comforting because it diverts that energy into ‘What can I do?’” she says. For a young child, that might be recycling or reducing food waste. It might be taking their bike rather than driving in a car. It might be refusing to buy a toy because it will soon end up in a landfill.
Turning despair into action
Lindsay Bunce, executive director of EcoSchools Canada, recommends a similar approach. EcoSchools Canada provides independent, third-party environmental certification of schools and outdoor education centres, assessing and recognizing each institution’s commitment to sustainability and ecological action. Jack’s public school is a designated EcoSchool, and it has earned “points” through its promotion of litterless lunches, creation of a pollinator garden and recycling of craft supplies, among other things. (While previously restricted to Ontario schools, the initiative rolls out across the country this fall.) Bunce has found that the most effective way to teach kids, no matter what their age or grade, about environmental issues is to, first of all, “focus on tangible action and hope.” That can be as simple as encouraging students to turn off lights, measuring those actions over time and allowing them to reflect on the benefits of their activity. Once key behaviours are in place and a culture of sustainability is established across a school and school board, this often leads to more ambitious infrastructure projects, such as boosting insulation and installing solar panels.
When it comes to individual students, “Think about what a child has autonomy over and what they can control,” she says. Following Bunce’s advice, we added two new recycling bins to our regular blue and green bins and made these Jack’s responsibility. He is now in charge of designated receptacles for used markers (these go back to school) and toothpaste tubes (our dentist recycles these).
Activists in the making
One of the more inspiring, if simultaneously dispiriting, facts of the current climate movement is how much kids are now engaging with—and leading—it. This past summer, Greta Thunberg, the renowned 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist, arrived in New York via zero-carbon yacht. Her example and impassioned speeches have famously galvanized young people around the world, prompting climate strikes and other protests. In Montreal, the youth activist group Environnement Jeunesse is currently suing the federal government for its lack of action on climate change, and young people around the country are pledging they will not have children until politicians implement solutions. I hope that Jack, once he is a few years older, will feel a similar sense of passionate engagement.
But I also desperately hope that climate change won’t be a problem that his generation will be required to fix. Keith Stewart, an energy strategist and a campaigner at Greenpeace Canada, agrees. “I really dislike the idea that it’s kids who are going to have to save everybody,” he says. “This is really a grown-up problem, and grown-ups have to solve it. Putting that on the head of a five-year-old is not a great idea. They have limited agency. There’s not that much that they can really do.” Stewart and his wife, who have two kids, aged 10 and 14, try to model good habits and behaviours instead. They don’t own a car, make a point of not wasting food and spend time pickling, canning and knitting to reduce consumption. On rare occasions, Stewart will take his kids to a protest march, but he is careful about pushing that too far. “I don’t want them to rebel and become investment bankers,” he says with a laugh. He argues that, when kids are little, it’s best to just encourage them to have empathy for other people and love nature. “The rest will kind of fall into place,” he says.
Jack is already a pretty kind and empathetic boy, but for most of this past summer, my wife and I tried to cultivate that love of nature. Jack is a city kid, though, through and through. His experience of the natural world—so far, anyway—begins with our house cat and ends with High Park. We’ve talked frequently about going further afield, on hikes, canoeing excursions, animal sanctuaries and camping trips. But my wife and I are also city kids, and the three of us have made it out on exactly one hike. The highlight for Jack was bumping into a dude dressed as Captain America (one of those rent-a-superheroes you hire for kids’ birthday parties, out getting some promo photos done). Not exactly Thoreauvian. But maybe we were trying too hard, or at least ignoring the natural beauty that was right under our noses. “It’s a bit of a myth that we have to go away, to be outside of a city to experience what a connection to nature feels like,” Bunce told me. “Even a backyard can be a wild safari for the right kid.” Jack may or may not be that right kid, but he does like to garden in our backyard. For him, that means digging in the dirt, making mud pies that he sells in his “store” and collecting snail shells, acorn caps and alien-looking stones. It means helping me weed for three minutes. It means using a plastic rake to form a bed in the mulch for the baby raccoon that he’s convinced will arrive later that night. It means sitting with me, counting the different types of bees we can see going crazy in an overgrown, flowering patch of thyme.
Now, as I write these words, I think that maybe there’s another lesson in these particular fleeting moments: While the antidote to despair—our own and our children’s—about the future might be action, a supplementary remedy is to fully cherish the present. Any discussion of the climate crisis usually centres on what we will lose, but it’s just as important to remember—and enjoy—what it is we currently have.