Today The Globe published the last of my six essays. It was fun hearing from neighbors and friends that they read me at breakfast.
I called my last essay Warm World, but the newspaper titled it rather dramatically: Dark Dreams of Global Warming. It’s about one of the inspirations for my new book, The Other Side of the Island.
Here it is:
My twelve year old supports Barack Obama, and after the
Democratic National Convention, I expected euphoria, but he surprised me. “Actually,” he said, “Schwarzenegger is the
one I really want for president.”
You want the Terminator in the Oval Office?”
Terminator?” my son asked.
“Schwarzenegger’s good on the environment, and that’s my number one
issue. It doesn’t really matter as much
for you, because you’ll be dead,” he explained, “but I’m going to have to live
through global warming, and I’m afraid by the time I can vote, it will be too
fatalism amazes me, but he’s not alone in worrying that time is running
out. Recently, one of my friends told me
that her son can’t sleep because he is so anxious about global warming. Other friends try to shield their children
from watching storms on the evening news.
Was it so long ago that weather was the safe subject for conversations? For our children the forecast evokes the
horsemen of the apocalypse: Conquest,
War, Famine, and Death.. It’s not clear to me that global warming causes every
natural disaster, but in a child’s mind, climate change and horrific weather go
together. Icebergs are melting. The sea level is rising. Entire island chains are disappearing. Tsunamis wipe out villages.
“I take out
books on global warming from the library,” my friend told me, “and I always
turn to the back and show my son the section where it says how you can help. But he
doesn’t find any of the suggestions comforting.
children are not easily comforted, and our attempts: Reduce,
recycle and reuse! don’t speak to their profound fear. During the Cold War, children worried about
nuclear annihilation. Today they believe
we will destroy the planet before we have a chance to destroy each other. I’m impressed by the time frame of their
nightmares. My son is convinced that in
his lifetime he’ll see the world thawed, warmed, and thoroughly cooked.
environmental awareness come from? The
internet, Al Gore’s, An Inconvenient
Truth, lessons about ecology at school.
Yes, all of these play their part, and I’m proud of my children for
knowing and caring about the planet. But
where does environmental anxiety come from?
That’s a more complicated question.
Storms and sudden earthquakes are terrifying in themselves, but I think
it’s the aftermath that really frightens children. Tsunamis drown families in Indonesia. Classrooms bury students in China. Levies fail.
The evacuation plan doesn’t work. Billions in federal funds cannot fix
New Orleans, where the Mayor admitted to citizens that there were no safeguards
in place against Hurricane Gustav.
Apparently the best recourse for natural disaster is to run for our
lives. Our government proves ill prepared. The junta in Myanmar looks downright
evil–refusing international aid, and starving its own citizens. Watching the resulting chaos erodes our
children’s belief that adults will protect them.
parent to do? Ironically, even as we
become fastidious on the micro-level with seat belts, and supervised play, we
can’t secure the climate or supervise the planet. Some parents become politically active. Some join their children in consciousness
raising bike rides. As for me, I began
writing a dystopian novel imagining the world after global warming, and how
children might survive. I told my son
the book was just an experiment, and he couldn’t tell anyone that I was writing
it. He said, “We need a code. I’ll call the book laundry.” Occasionally, over the next year, he’d ask
me, “How’s the laundry coming?”
forgot the code. “We’re behind again Why
do you ask? Are you out of clean
“No, the laundry,” he repeated, and I realized he
meant my book–his book.
Now, if I
were also logging miles on a major bicycle trek, and composting, and advocating
for reduced emissions, I’d do more good.
But my son knows that I’m a lousy biker.
Anxious about his anxiety, I
reacted like Astrophil in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet. “Biting my truant pen,
beating myself for spite / Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and