Published on April 22nd, 2022 | by Michele Bigley0
Mothering in the Anthropocene
On a bucket list trip to the Great Barrier Reef over a decade ago, I saw firsthand that climate change was no longer theoretical.I was in the beginning of my parenting journey, still firm in my scheme that exploring the planet would help me school my white American sons, Kai and Nikko (both under five at the time). Globetrotting had morphed me from a Jappy Valley Girl to a wandering hippie, who believed my calling was to dazzle readers (and now my own kids) with my travel tales. But, my hopes of teaching little Kai to swim in the infamous Great Barrier Reef were foiled when I went snorkeling in search of peeks of pink in the bleachedcoral. I found no technicolor tunnels to chase Nemo, no butterfly fish schools to swim through with my family. This was 2010. Already the reef felt like a shell of its former self.
Maybe I should have understood by the coral graveyard surrounding Dunk Island, or the hurricane that destroyed our resort after we departed, how quickly Earth’s landscape was changing. But I was a young, ambitious, mom just breaking into a dream career as a travel journalist, still years away from understanding the footprint of my ridiculous privilege, still justifying each plane ticket by saying I was raising kids who avoided individually wrapped in plastic toothpicks. I had plans. Big ones. By 2013, I was accepting every guidebook update and travel writing assignment I could. It seemed like the best option for letting the Earth help me rear my boys was to gobble it all up.
That’s how I started compiling my list of all the places scientists predicted might disappear in my sons’ lifetimes. Hawaii’s beaches, Manhattan’s bagel shops, Canada’s glaciers, Portugal’s islands, Japan’s hot springs, Panama’s perfect-for-coffee-growing soil, Amsterdam’s you-do-you tolerant city center. As my list grew, I finagled magazines, visitors’ bureaus and publishers to help me afford to schlep my sons and partner Eddie along too.
But when, one-by-one, natural disasters ransacked too many of the communities we visited, including my home-state of California, I began to spiral into a grief I didn’t know how to support. I came to realize that our climate crisis wasn’t off in some far-flung future. It was here. Now. I’d birthed two perfectly good humans, boys who wanted to set up lemonade stands and play soccer, but who would be tasked instead to worry about rising seas and firestorms.
The future we’d been warned about was here. Yet I didn’t have time to wish away the terror, the guilt, the grief, the paralysis. I had to pay for Kai’s braces, Nikko’s piano lessons, our rent. Somehow, I was supposed to fabricate reasons why you should fork over your kids’ college funds to sleep on some gazillion-thread count sheets in Kauai while (assuming the science is correct) I had to process that if our fossil fuel infrastructure and greenhouse gas emitting ways don’t change—like yesterday—human civilization will collapse by 2050. Should I tell Kai he might not make it past 43? Should I tell Nikko he’d probably not get to experience the joys of a colonoscopy or eating lemon cake he baked with his grandkid?
With this knowledge, how was anyone supposed to live, parent, avoid having champagne and chocolate cake for breakfast?
Staggering under the weight of the guilt and overwhelm, I booked a non-work-related trip to Panama. I wanted to swim in the warm ocean, surf with Kai (now seven) and process all that had rendered me helpless. But we got to Santa Catalina, a famed surf village that it takes a degree in determination to access, and found one of the most polluted beaches I’d ever seen. Noting my despair, the Alaskan expat owner of our B&B introduced me to the village schoolchildren. She and a local teacher had been helping them take on the responsibility to clean up their beach and educate their parents about how to tend to the natural world. As my family and I joined their march to plant palm seedlings on the beach, I realized that these kids weren’t faltering under the weight of what they couldn’t do. Instead, they were stepping up to save their community. If little kids could meet this moment, why couldn’t I?
Their tangible actions made me realize that just seeing ailing places around the world, or reading about how screwed we are, wasn’t going to help any of us fathom the Anthropocene. But finding people preparing our planet for, and protecting fragile environments from, climate change, might.
This resulted in what would become to be a decade-long quest to locate scientists, mothers, kids, and regular folks stewarding fragile ecosystems, globally and locally, to help me learn how to live with our collective inheritance.
First, I had to accept the reality that the planet of the future of my children was going to be very different from the one I imagined. Even according to more optimistic climate scientists, the future is shaping up to be a straight-up shit show: limited water and food, wars, wildfires, species extinction, bananas grown in Homer, Alaska. I leaned hard upon the wisdom of psychologists, therapists, and indigenous elders to learn how to move through the stages of my grief over all my sons won’t have. Being what my UCSC writing students call an annoyingly optimistic person, I balanced the anguish by meeting people taking action. A kayak guide biking around California to educate about plastic straws. A glaciologist helping a Swiss village buy their melting glacier time by covering it with reflective blankets. A Colombian man showing outsiders his Tikuna (one of the Amazon jungle’s indigenous tribes) community’s innovative sustainability practices we can use at home.
When I voyaged in search of hope for my children’s futures, I never imagined that I’d be adapting myself or my mothering to meet this moment. But as David Katz, creator of the Plastic Bank (an organization that uses plastic bottles as currency in low-income communities) explained when we spoke, parents must first be the adults we hope our kids will become. How can we expect them to face their fears of a warming world when we can’t? How can we expect them to step up to the task of stewarding a planet when we’re captivated by Instagram?
I hope scientists’ most recent predictions are wrong. And they do too. When I spoke with University of New South Wales, Canberra climate scientist Sarah Perkins Kirkpatrick, she acknowledged that we’re on track for a challenging future. But there’s good news too. Even with our emission-spouting ways, we likely won’t see the predicted 5 degrees Celsius average rise in temperatures (it’s looking more like 3). As a mom of three kids, Dr. Kirkpatrick wants you to know that life on Earth likely won’t be the specific hell we’re fearing. But she contends that we can’t just panic or give up—we all can do something.
David Katz might have our answer. Try not reading the next step until you completed the previous one.
- Spend a minute staring at your bookshelf, looking at all the blue spines. Time yourself. When you’re done, close your eyes and try to remember all the blue titles. Then open your eyes and read step 2.
- Now, don’t look, but tell me all the books on the shelf that are red.
Can’t do it right? Why? This is how we’ve been approaching our climate crisis, for ourselves, our kids, in the media. We are deluged with the blue, or problems until all we can see are our fear and terror. But what if we refocused on solutions? What if for every piece of bad climate news we hear, we seek out a solution, or act of stewardship that inspires you, and then share it with your loved ones?
That’s what I’m doing in this series. We know the doom and gloom. And it’s messing with our heads. Instead, let’s start highlighting what the hell we can do about it.
An ongoing series, Mothering in the Anthropocene by Michele Bigley explores how to parent in a warming world by taking her kids to meet people actively stewarding their communities.