In elementary school I was terrified of Styrofoam: those experiments where hunks of it were buried in the soil, then dug up a year later looking none the worse for wear. I imagined mountains of it toppling, covering every inch of the planet. Activists called for a revolution: those eating at McDonalds should demand their hamburgers be served on napkins, rather than in the standard yellow foam boxes.
We ate at McDonalds about once a year—on annual up-Island road trips. We ordered pancakes in long white Styrofoam trays, trays we then threw into the garbage, contributing to the Styrofoam peaks. I wanted to ask for my pancakes on a napkin, but it seemed silly. Instead, I just felt guilty.
I assuaged my guilt by being a passionate recycler. In the 80s, recycling boxes were two carboard boxes in our classrooms—one for coloured paper, the other for white. Juice boxes and plastic were still thrown in the garbage, but every time I cleaned out my desk and put crumpled pieces of loose-leaf in the recycling box, I took solace in the fact that I was doing my part for the earth. I was naïve, and I was lucky for it.
Before Angus was born, Mike and I went to a photography exhibition in London. The images were from the Gaza Strip, and we watched a man tour the show with his preschooler on his shoulders. He explained each photograph and the politics behind it; he answered every question with complete honesty. I was in awe, and also decided: that was the type of parent I would be. Today, in many ways, that is the type of parent I am. Mike and I discuss politics with Angus. We answer honestly the questions he asks—about things he hears on the radio news, things he reads in magazines. But now I’m conflicted. Is it better to be honest, or to let Angus enjoy the naïvety of childhood, just as I did? To turn off the radio and pretend the world is a safe and secure place, and that it will always be so. That doing just a little bit—a recycled paper here and there—is doing enough.
For today’s children, anxiety disorders are commonplace, with numbers ranging from one out of every 20 kids, to one out of 10. It’s not surprising. They have so many more ways of accessing information, and so much more to be worried about.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared that we have 12 years to stall global warming at a rise of 1.5C. Failing to do so will lead to increased droughts, floods and forest fires; the eradication of corals and the thawing of the arctic; food scarcity; mass extinctions; sea level rise; hundreds of millions of climate-driven refugees.
The small actions of my childhood, recycling paper, need to be replaced by larger actions, by lessening: less driving, less eating meat, consuming less in general. Still, none of that is enough. We live in a country that produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than the G20 average. We have a government that has approved new fossil fuel projects when those will only take us further away from our emission targets—targets we are nowhere close to meeting as is.
This might not feel like a column about Angus, but it’s entirely about him. It is impossible to think about our changing world without thinking of what we are handing our children, what they will be left with when we are gone. The IPCC says 12 years; in 12 years Angus will be 19, officially an adult. How can I prepare him for the world he’ll be facing, but also protect his childhood?
January is the time for resolutions, for taking on hard challenges. There are so many to choose from. May we all find ways to achieve change that work for us and our families. May we carve paths for our children, so that when it’s their turn to step forward they will find their way. And in the meantime, may we help them celebrate their childhoods, and remind them that the big responsibilities are ours, not theirs. At least not yet.
Laura Trunkey is mother to the amazing Angus and the author of a forthcoming short fiction collection from House of Anansi. Email [email protected]