I was driving home with my sons one day when we began talking about what place on earth each of us most wanted to visit.
"The top of the world!" said my nearly always exuberant 4-year-old.
Was he thinking of the Himalayas, I wondered, or the Arctic?
"The Arctic!" he said. He wanted to go to the Arctic, where he could see snow and ice and dog races.
"Well," said my 9-year-old, "the ice may not be there much longer."
This wasn't said as an older brother's "I know more than you" dig. He was simply sharing what appeared to be a fact of life: Milk goes bad, the Arctic is melting.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw a depth of confusion in my youngest son's eyes that I've rarely seen in him and sensed that he was waiting for me to relieve it. But what could I say? I was torn between affirming what my oldest knew to be true and what my youngest was far too young to deal with.
I resorted finally to an unabashed lie: "Oh, sure, the ice will be there!" I said, silently hoping that my oldest wouldn't argue (and he didn't – perhaps because, as with his lingering belief in Santa, it feels so much better to hold onto the fantasy).
But what weighs on me now isn't the lie I told my children – it's that the Poles are melting and this will usher in unimaginable destruction in my kids' lifetime.
A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that global warming has been slipping down the ladder of concerns among adults. It now comes in 20th, well after the economy, terrorism, crime, tax cuts, immigration, and influence of corporate lobbyists. With our human propensity to dismiss future threats, especially in the face of immediate ones, I don't find this surprising. But I also don't find that it describes my reality as a parent.
Ever since I became a mother, I have become increasingly worried about the environment. From access to fresh drinking water to the growing contamination of soil, everywhere I turn the environment seems to pose serious and growing threats to my children's future; and these threats far outweigh most of my usual preoccupations with their vegetable intake, sibling squabbles, and ill-brushed teeth.
I have tried to persuade myself that driving less and eating local and organic food will turn things around. I know that every small good thing I can do is worthwhile, and that there are countless small good things I can do. Turning off lights, composting, carpooling – it all counts. But, in the end, it won't add up to enough to protect my kids. And I am certain that I wouldn't take such a low-key approach to any other threat to my children's well-being.
And yet, I keep asking myself, what is the alternative? How do I continue to relish the deep and joyous love I feel for my sons today – while neither putting my head in the sand nor filling them with untold anxiety about their future?
I don't have good answers to these questions yet. But I do know that what is happening to the environment has fundamentally changed my sense of what it means to be a good parent.
No longer can I rely on the assumption that my mother and grandmother did: that so long as I pour all my love and attention into giving my children a good foundation at home, that is the best I can do to prepare them for the future. In today's world, I must recognize that attending to the environment is just as much a part of a parent's job as tending to a child's scraped knee.
In practical terms, this means we need to give our children more time in nature – so they can fall in love with it long before anyone asks them to protect it.
More of us need to speak up as parents and insist that the environment be protected for our children's sake. And we need to change the way we live.
We must make the effort and sacrifices needed to quickly transform from an oil-based economy to one based on renewable energy. We must consider the consequences of buying things we don't need, including fruits and vegetables that are flown in from thousands of miles away. And we need to take into account again what it means to live well, instead of being simply well off.