And how are the children?

Forms of greeting vary around the world. In India, you would say “namaste” and bow. In Ukraine, it’s the triple kiss, left-right-left, etc. Masai warriors in Kenya, even those without children, greet each other with “Kasserian ingera” which translates as “And how are the children?” The usual reply is “All the children are well,” in other words all are safe and peace prevails in my village.

Could we say our children are well? Our initial reaction might be that on the whole, the kids are safe, especially if we compare our situation to countries like Syria, South Sudan, or Yemen where “children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools and playgrounds” (UNICEF press release). But if we reflect on the question more deeply, can we say unequivocally that our kids are doing well?

Studies show that many of our children feel anxious and depressed, although the reasons may not necessarily be related to physical violence. Causes might be parents’ stress and unmet medical needs, but social media and classroom pressures have also been identified as serious sources of anxiety. And unfortunately there are children who live in violent neighborhoods where death is a frequent reality in their daily lives.

Can a larger issue like the worldwide concern about environment degradation be a source of anxiety for children? There’s no lack of opportunity for them to pick up on the tension pervading public conversation about the topic. If they don’t hear about it at home, they will from the media. The news has been filled with headline-making reports like the one published last August by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said crucial policies to reduce global warming must be in place by 2030 to avoid the worst. An intelligent 16 year old can easily understand that at 28, she very well may be facing a global catastrophe.

When I try to imagine what some children might be feeling, I remember having a scary dream as a child about an atomic bomb explosion. It was a time when the possibility of a global catastrophe in the form of a nuclear war hung heavy in the air. At school, teachers periodically would call out “take cover” and we would have to hide under our desks. Novels and films like Fail Safe and On the Beach succeeded in rousing our dread about a worldwide devastation. Might climate change be having a similar effect on children today?

According to one study, based on interviews with fifty children ages 10 to 12:

Findings revealed 82% of children expressed fear, sadness, and anger when discussing their feelings about environmental problems. A majority of children also shared apocalyptic and pessimistic feelings about the future state of the planet. These results suggest that many children are “ecophobic” (i.e., fearful of environmental problems), which scholars argue may have serious implications for children’s participation in environmental stewardship and conservation efforts more broadly. 

Other research studies corroborate these findings, for example this one.

For those of us who might be concerned that the younger generation is disengaged because they feel there’s little they can do, it’s heartening to see that some are taking action. Students around the world have begun skipping school on Fridays as an act of protest. A 16 year old, Greta Thunberg, has become a remarkable spokesperson for her generation, as this TED talk shows. After gaining her nation’s attention by starting the first school strike in Sweden last August, she was invited to address the United Nations Climate Change Conference and later to give a talk to the World Economic Forum at Davos. In Oregon, protest has taken the form of a series of legal suits against the Trump administration. A legal team led by Julia Olson has argued on behalf of 21 young people ages 11 to 22, saying ”We will keep shining light on our fundamental constitutional rights [to life, liberty and property ] until we obtain justice for our children and put an end to U.S.-sanctioned climate change” (source).

If some children are increasingly fearful of the natural world because of global warming’s effects on the environment, we (their elders who have contributed much to the problem) owe it to them and their future to make sure their relationship with the earth is positive and full of love for its wonders. A leader of RiverLink, an organization promoting the environmental vitality of a particular river area in North Carolina “as a place to work, live, and play,” writes:

We are so lucky to live in a place with such beautiful natural resources. It makes sense that we want to do everything we can to protect places like this, and that often includes sharing the environmental burden with our children. However, if we want our kids to thoughtfully and genuinely engage in conservation we absolutely have to give them the space to develop an appreciation for nature first. After that, it’s up to them whether or not they deem it to be something worth fighting for. (Source)

In the same vein, Thomas Berry wrote:

A truly human intimacy with earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live, to the birds and the insects and the various animals that roam over the land, to the entire range of natural phenomena. . . . (TB, 34)

Tomorrow, March 15, 2019, students around the world will engage in a Climate Strike. May we listen closely to their demands, share with them our love of our beloved planet earth, and pledge to work with them to transform the ways in which we live in relation to the natural world.

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