A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, October 12, 2015

Beware of the flower children

“We should build a giant electric fence,” my nine-year-old told me, “and put all the people inside it, and leave the rest of the world for all the other species.”  Then she folded her arms and glared at me.  For a 55-pound person, Lizzy has an intimidating glare.
This wasn’t the first Earth-First-style argument sprung upon me by my kids, and it wouldn’t prove to be the last, either.  Indeed, for a die-hard life-long environmentalist such as myself, it’s kind of ironic how often I’ve found myself trying to carve out a moderate position in my own household.  About a week prior to the above announcement, Lizzy declared that, “No one should be allowed to have any more children.” It was about then that I began to wonder, with some discomfort, what I might be doing wrong.
I do worry about conservation, of course.  A lot.  I mean, what do you expect, from a climate change researcher and former staffer for a greenie non-profit?  Heck, I was once a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course entitled, “Problems of Global Population Growth” But, regardless of what my reputation as a commune-dwelling Peace-Corps-veteran quarter-century-vegetarian may suggest, the annihilation of humanity really isn’t part of my game plan.  So why are my kids such nut-job zealots?
Lizzy’s twin, Molly, is less prone to baleful glares and extreme pronouncements than her sister is.  Nonetheless, her environmental fanaticism seems to be at least as well-developed, albeit with her own special empathetic twist.  She has been a vegetarian since she was six.  As far as I know, she has never strayed from the decision she made in first grade, no matter how many people ply her with crispy bacon or deep-fried bird-nuggets.  At first, I thought she was just doing it to please me; Molly is the kind of kid who likes to make Mommy happy.  But these days, her own notions seem a lot more well-formed and clearly articulated.  She is anxious about cow-farts contributing to the greenhouse effect.  She is horrified about the treatment of animals on factory-farms.  And, like Lizzy, she thinks there are too many people in the world, although she doesn’t seem to agree with the idea of caging or spaying them.  “Maybe it would be better if humans had never even evolved,” she told me sadly, one night at bedtime. 
Cripes.  I have a hard time handling this kind of nihilism from people who still sleep under Thomas the Tank Engine blankets amid a welter of cuddly bears, otters, bunnies, and owls.   What messages have I been offering to my fourth graders that would make them wish to annihilate their own species?  What have I screwed up?
Yes, it's a total parenting stereotype to blame myself, but I feel like I have cause for taking the mom-guilt on this one.  I am a professor of planetary doom.  Moreover, there’s often some kind of save-the-planet mini-lecture lurking behind many of our daily activities.  “Mommy, why do we have a wood pellet stove?”  Oooh, a chance to discuss carbon-neutral fuels from local sources!  I carefully flatten out every cardboard box and shove it away until the mass of recyclables threatens to overwhelm the cupboard door, at which point I finally get around to hauling it all off to the university recycling bins. It’s hard to find an opportunity, because I’m usually traveling by bike rather than car. “Mommy, how come we bike so much?”  Well, sweetie, that’s because your mother is psychotic…
If over-exposure to my sensibilities weren’t enough, the kids are also bombarded by grown-up conversations at the dinner table every night.  While many children dine with two adults, mine eat with nine – plus two older, savvier kids.  Between us, we have a ludicrous number of degrees, and an even more ludicrous number of loudly expressed opinions.  When we aren’t inadvertently over-educating the kids via risqué humor, we’re turning them into freaks in other ways.  Last week, when a local election was hanging in the balance, we ranted endlessly about various appalling candidates for Borough Mayor and Borough Assembly.  If there had been any appalling candidates for the at-large seats on the Interior Gas Utilities Board, we would have ranted about them, too.  We also went to town on the horrifying nature of Proposition 1, which aimed to reduce controls on air quality.  If your use of the word “freedom” includes exacerbating your neighbor’s asthma or endangering kids at a nearby school by burning tires as fuel, I do not think it means what you think it means.
The offshoot of all this was that at 10:20 p.m., when I had been anxiously hitting “refresh” on the election results webpage for an hour or so, I heard a plaintive cry from my insomniac kid.  “Mama?” 
I went in and gave Lizzy a kiss, and asked why she was awake.  She told me she was worried that we’d end up with terrible leaders and unhealthy air.  I assured her that the election outcome was promising to be better than expected. 
“Now I can go to sleep,” she sighed with relief.
I’m pretty sure no one else’s elementary school student lies awake contemplating the potentially dire ramifications of a mayoral candidate funded by the Koch brothers or a poorly worded anti-environmental referendum.
I might be proud of my daughters’ precocity as conservationists, if they weren’t taking everything to such ludicrous extremes.  “We’re ruining everything,” each of them has told me, more than once.  “We’re destroying the habitats of all the other species.”
Ah, habitats.  In addition to all the environmentalism that the twins wallow in at home, I’ve been sending them off to summer activities at Camp Habitat.  And Wild Rose.   And Calypso Farm and Ecology Center.  At these delightful camps, they get to be “earth children”, become friends with tadpoles, make mysterious objects our of mud, sing songs about habitats, and pretend that hiding in the tall grass will prevent me from insisting that they have to go home at the end of the day.  It all seems carefree, educational, and innocent.  I’m pretty sure that none of the sweetly smiling and infinitely energetic young counselors and teachers has been whispering to my pigtailed darlings, “Kill the humans!  KILL THE HUMANS!” 
And yet… there I was, having yet another preposterous bedtime conversation.  Why the passionate extremism from the freckle-nosed loose-toothed crowd?
“Humans use up everything, and they are just one species!” Lizzy declared, eyes blazing.  “It’s not FAIR!”
It’s not fair.  Lizzy says that a lot.  She says it about her half of the slice of pound cake, and her teacher’s propensity to not let anyone out for recess until the whole class has settled down, even though Lizzy is not one of the loud kids.  “It’s not fair!” reminded me of a larger truth that had been eluding me, within the radical environmental debate at hand: little people – and even not-so-little but still oh-so-young people – don’t merely feel passionate about habitats and ballot propositions.  They feel passionate about everything. 
Children are fervent about sock choices.  They seriously give a damn about who has the better flashlight, and who threw the first snowball at whom.  They have no filters and no sense of prioritization.  And, perhaps most importantly, they struggle with nuances, gray areas, and objective viewpoints.  If you tell a little kid that smoking is bad, she will stare in abject horror at the next person she sees lighting up outside a convenience store.  Mommy!  That man is BAD!
When I was between four and eight years old.  Jimmy Carter was in office.  In response to the energy crisis, he urged all Americans to conserve.  I can recall telling my parents, with great earnestness, that they needed to turn off the lights, because the President said so. I’m sure I was annoying as hell -- because, like all kids, I was kind of a nut-job zealot.
I like to imagine that by the time I reached my college years, my viewpoints had become more nuanced.  But I recall thinking that middle-aged people were boringly complacent.  I also recall doing a lot more marching and chanting than I’ve found myself doing in recent years.  Sign the petition!  Wear the T-shirt!  I have a couple of nostalgically confrontational twenty-plus-year-old T-shirts on my shelves that I don’t wear any more.  My current boring 43-year-old shifts in her seat uncomfortably. 
Okay, so my fourth graders want to eradicate humanity – or, at the very least, un-wish our differentiation from our great ape brethren -- so that the Lorax can flourish.  But maybe that’s normal.  Maybe it’s even positive.  They may be a little wacked, but only because their ideas are still so rough-hewn.  When the granite of their ideology weathers, the artistry of their environmental leanings will be, perhaps, more well-rounded, but still sturdy and stalwart: a worthy foundation.  And that might not be a bad outcome at all – if I do say so myself.
“I’m glad to be human,” I tell my kids as I tuck them in, and it’s the truth.  “I’m glad human beings evolved.  And I’m especially glad you two particular humans evolved.  I think you will do a pretty good job taking care of the planet.  I trust you with that.  I love you.  Good night.”  And I turn off the super-low-energy LED –cluster light.

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