Last summer, when I was pondering how to address the physical enormity and psychic reality of climate change, which terrifies me as I grow older, I came up with a catchy headline for this blog post: Paris is burning. Again.
It was late July. The Notre Dame Cathedral had been ablaze three months earlier, and another heat wave was scorching Europe, with Paris’ temperature hitting an all-time high. That felt safe to reflect on, because it was all so far away; it neatly sidestepped my sense of powerlessness and fear, my smug hope that my family would be safe from the most catastrophic effects of global warming because we live in the cold, land-locked Upper Midwest.
Now, thanks to the youth of the world — can we elect Greta Thunberg president, even though she’s Swedish and only 16 years old? — the reality of climate change has washed up at my generation’s feet, just as Houston and other cities drown in rain.
For some time now I have been tossing newspaper clippings in a drawer, where I can access the scary warnings (“One-fourth of the world faces looming water crises”) without having them stare me in the face. The tendency of Americans to drive anywhere, everywhere — 88 percent of us own cars, while only 53 percent own bicycles — particularly concerns me in a state where vehicle emissions are a leading source of climate change:
- “Bus, train ridership continues to decline”: That headline hit on June 13 and was especially dispiriting given that I volunteer as a writer and editor for the multimodal blog streets.mn, which I fear convinces no one but the converted.
- A month later, on July 16, was a story — “Buckle up and wait. Congestion’s here to stay” — that failed to cite the causation between declining Metro Transit ridership and ever more crowded Twin Cities freeways. “There’s only so much we can do,” one state official said.
Really, is that enough? To verbally shrug our shoulders and declare record-breaking heat, choked roadways and wetter, warmer winters to be beyond our control? As young activists reportedly chanted at global climate protests on September 20: “You had a future and so should we.” And then this: “We vote next.”
Where do the children play?
What moved me, finally, to coalesce my anxiety into some measure of coherent thought was not the climate protesters — as impressive and inspirational as they are — but the generation of young adults who are afraid to have children. My younger son, age 24, told me over lunch recently that he and his girlfriend would like to have kids — except they’re not sure they can. No, Nate said, reading my facial expression, infertility is not the issue. “The planet’s dying,” my son told me.
In a TED Talk titled “How Climate Change Affects Your Mental Health,” scientist and storyteller Britt Wray, Ph.D. talks about the “fear, fatalism and hopelessness” that comes from immersing oneself in the realities of climate change. Those who have directly experienced a climate catastrophe (the Bahamians with Hurricane Dorian, for example) may deal with “shock, trauma, strained relationships, substance abuse, and the loss of personal identity and control,” Wray said.
For young people in prosperous nations like ours, climate change takes its toll on the surest sign of hope and optimism, the primary human desire to reproduce. “Having one less child in an industrialized nation can save about 59 tons of carbon dioxide per year,” according to Dr. Wray’s research. And so young adults aren’t weighing the decision about whether to have children against the cost to their careers, as I did, or even against whether they can afford it. Instead, they are looking at the cost to the planet; like my son, they are calculating whether the world is worth sharing with a vulnerable child.
Some young adults have declared a “birth strike,” said Wray, because “government won’t address this existential threat.”
I still grumble about the Thanksgiving a decade ago when Nate made me see The Road, a bleak and frightening film based on a Cormac McCarthy novel. Now, I recognize that he may seek out post-apocalyptic movies and books for reasons other than entertainment. Maybe this is the world he envisions for himself come middle age. Maybe this is the future that we self-centered, luxury-loving Baby Boomers refuse to see.
What is my responsibility?
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” climate activist Thunberg told world leaders at the United Nations on Monday (an essential story that the middle-aged editors who run the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune placed on page A4).
As the youngest candidate in the Democratic presidential field, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is using age to his advantage in his case against climate change: “The younger you are, the more you have on the line.”
How much are we willing to sacrifice to fight climate change? The Canadian commentator who posed that question is asking the wrong one. Few Americans today will willingly give up their creature comforts, or the prosperity that some take as their birthright. “All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg declared in her stern and sage warning. How dare we, indeed.
At 62, I look to the past for my solution. I strive to live as my Depression-era parents raised us. My father grew strawberries, raspberries, green beans and peas in his garden. My mother hung laundry out to dry. My family had one car until I was 9 years old, though we considered ourselves solidly middle-class. We opened windows and turned on fans to stay cool during the summer.
Their example stays with me:
- After years of commuting, I arranged my life so I can walk to work and ride the bus to many of my appointments.
- My husband and I bought our sons good bicycles as teenagers instead of cars.
- Our house has no air-conditioning, and we don’t always flush the toilet.
- We recycle or compost everything we can.
- I pick up beer cans and plastic bottles on dog-walks in our neighborhood close to a college campus.
These aren’t sacrifices. This is how we live, and it is a calmer, healthier and more satisfying existence than driving in an air-conditioned vehicle from an air-conditioned house or, in the winter, refusing to walk outdoors. Personal behavior change has to power this movement to save our planet.
In order to change the world, you must first change yourself. That saying is painted on a building near my yoga studio in St. Paul. Yes, I still own a car (though it’s a Prius), I still eat some meat, I still accumulate more stuff than I need. But I tread lightly on the Earth, not just for me but for my sons.
“We need to be honest,” says Dr. Wray, “about what we owe one another.”